‘Las Vegas Doesn’t Come Close’ to Macau

A renowned writer takes us into Macau’s streets and gambling pits


UNLV English professor Douglas Unger is an award-winning novelist whose family ties have also made him a frequent visitor to China’s special administrative region of Macau. Although he enjoys time in the resplendent casinos that have cropped up in recent years, Unger says the real Macau is off the beaten path. He shares his street-level view of the place that’s still unknown to many Las Vegans.

Describe getting off the ferry and stepping into Macau.

You see an incredibly newly built-up place that has at its center a very old, historical Portuguese-Chinese colonial city. Some of that city’s heart is still preserved. It smells vaguely of a seaport, and there’s a kind of excitement in the air—and a license, too, because of its long reputation as a smuggler’s den and pirate’s cove.

What image encapsulates the city for you?

Inside the Sands, at 11 o’clock at night, every single seat at every baccarat table filled, to the point where people are standing over the players and placing bets over their shoulders. I’ve never in my life felt such a charged atmosphere, ever. Looking at the sums of money on those tables, I understood there were individuals there gambling their entire life savings on a single hand. I understood the absolute tension of those players. Even the most desperate high-stakes game in Las Vegas doesn’t come close, and it’s there every single minute in Macau.

What would American visitors be taken aback by?

It’s definitely a man’s world. Prostitution is everywhere.

Why is Macau such an economic success story?

It’s become the biggest destination resort in Asia—largely because of the gambling. Chinese love to gamble, and that is the place to do it. And Wynn and the Venetian have done well marketing their high-end luxury resorts on Cotai as a destination for international tourists. They’ve got Bob Arum with Top Rank promoting huge fights. Thousands of Filipinos will flock there to see Manny Pacquiao fight.

What’s key for Las Vegans to know about Macau?

Vegas has to be grateful to Macau, because the income from their casinos has kept three of four major casino corporations in town barely solvent during the economic crisis. To some extent, the way Macau develops is going to determine what happens to Las Vegas in the future. We’re in partnership with a part of China, like it or not, in a way no other city or state is with a foreign country. We have a direct business and cultural relationship now with a place that has a very unusual history.

Casinos tend to blind us to a city’s other charms. What else should a visitor see in Macau?

It’s one of the best places in the world to find antique Chinese furniture and blue porcelain. When I was there, I liked to wander through these out-of-the-way stores, some closet-sized, in the central part of town and look at beautiful pieces they’ve collected since the 1500s and 1600s. They’re like museums.

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Back in the early days—2006 or so—American executives signing on for tours of duty in Macau felt like they were stepping into the Wild West. Street violence had subsided since the island’s 1999 reversion to mainland control, but there was still a sense that this was a frontier, a place where anything could happen. And when strangers rode into town—often from the former frontier town of Las Vegas—they went where strangers always go first: the saloon. In this case, that meant the Embassy Bar at what was then the Mandarin Oriental hotel.