MACAO: This little enclave used to be viewed as Hong Kong's dim and distant cousin, sleepy, slovenly and relaxed, a place for a discreet weekend or a flutter in the serviceable but inelegant casinos.
Hong Kong is little changed, at least on the surface, since the British handed it over to China in 1997. But in the nine years since Macao became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, the former Portuguese colony has been reborn.
Shock and awe, repulsion and delight are all appropriate words to describe Macao today. Indeed, one could begin to wonder whether this little territory of 28 square kilometers and 450,000 people is now a symbol of all China — a high-risk dash for instant riches.
Macao's building boom bears comparison with the oil-rich cities of the Doha and Dubai. It's flashy bad taste, architectural kitsch and over-the-top extravagance are practiced on a grand scale that makes even Hong Kong people wince.
Macao has become the world's gambling den, with turnover that surpasses Las Vegas. And yet here, too, is a United Nations World Heritage site, and many remnants of the olden days, including Chinese temples to Tin Hau, goddess of sailors, and Christian churches built for the early traders who made Macao their first toehold in China.
Portuguese is still an official language, if seldom heard, and the Portuguese salt cod dish known as bacalhau and vinho verde still abound.
Yet the past is ever more squeezed into little enclaves of Portuguese imperial architecture or the tiny houses of the two remaining Chinese villages.
Visitors arriving at the ferry terminal are greeted by the vast Sands casino and the nearby eclectic recreations of the Coliseum, the Potala palace of Tibet and other world wonders. In the center of town, ever bigger and more bizarre architectural shapes beckon. But all this is just the appetizer — or at least that is the plan.
On a piece of reclaimed land that used to divide Macao's two little offshore islands, a strip to rival Las Vegas is being created. Yet to open, the vast Venetian resort hotel with 3,000 rooms, stuns by its sheer size. Nearby is a recreation of Venice itself, with a Grand Canal shopping complex and a million square feet of convention space. An even-bigger 4,000 room Sheraton is being built.
If all the myriad projects are completed by 2010, hotel rooms will have tripled from 11,000 today to around 35,000.
Perhaps Macao has something to teach Hong Kong. Its boom is partly the result of the post-handover end to the gambling monopoly long controlled by the mogul Stanley Ho. As competition drew the moguls of Las Vegas, who came to Macao with a willingness to invest vast sums, Hong Kong was giving massive public subsidies to a none-too-successful Disneyland.
"Build and they will come" is clearly the motto of Sands' boss, Sheldon Adelson, and the investors who have followed him, banking on the growing wealth of China and the Chinese passions for gambling and designer labels.
But will they? Last year 21 million visitors came to Macao, mostly by bus from across the border. Some fly in from mainland cities, or come by ferry or helicopter from Hong Kong. But at present most just come for the day. Can the rich of China and East Asia be persuaded that they need a local Las Vegas with huge luxury resorts as well as gambling?
It is a political gamble to bet so heavily on the future of gambling, even in China. Macao may be a safety valve for pleasures illicit on the mainland. But the bigger gambling gets here, the more it becomes a symbol of the extent of corruption and ill-gotten wealth on the mainland.
The massive money laundering that goes on in Macao may not matter while China has such excesses of foreign currency. But Beijing could pull the plug any time on big money bets or scare Chinese to less-conspicuous locations. Then, no amount of promotion elsewhere in Asia will fill all those malls and rooms with high rollers.
Macao has traded much of its charm — including its once-serene waterfront promenade — to plunge headlong into a potentially lucrative aspect of China's modernization. Will this bring a new life, or a desperate last throw of the dice?