Macau and its contrasts: Visualized by an inhabitant standpoint
How did gambling re-create Macau's change?
All the photos were taken and courteously provided by António Monteiro.
Macau has long been known as Asia’s Las Vegas, a nickname that doesn’t do justice to the peninsula and its islands. A city, native place of Chinese communities, with a several-century-long history as a Portuguese colony, should not be minimized as a pale replica of Las Vegas. In fact, Macau's gross gaming revenue in 2013 amounted to 7 times that of its U.S. equivalent.1 Shouldn’t Las Vegas then be labeled America's Macau instead?
There is, nonetheless, no big mystery surrounding why Macau, which returned to China in 1999 as a Special Administrative Region, earned that designation. It is the only place in China where casino gambling is legal. On that account, the city’s landscape has changed with a different objective. International casinos (with their rather unimaginative names, such as Grand Lisboa, Venetian, or Parisian) have been the main actors of this change of direction following the 2001 and 2002's liberalization, i.e., since the local jurisdiction opened to foreign investors, whereas previously only exclusive regional monopolies existed.2
Fast-paced change, what is happening with the landscapes?
Considering these fast-paced changes of the last decades, the propensity for locals to side with the 'Macau changed a lot since my early years' rhetoric is not surprising. Antonio Monteiro is one of those inhabitants, and he uses photography to convey these transformations from an inhabitant perspective.
According to his Facebook info, António's main objective is to promote Macau’s street photography, emphasizing contrasts as the central recurring theme. Whether between the flashy casinos, the typical Cantonese street local shops, or the Portuguese colonial past, materialized in a distinguishable yellow and pink-like architecture.
Recently built casinos, such as the Grand Lisboa (opened in 2008), differ aesthetically from older ones, such as the Casino Lisboa. They are bigger, simpler in color but highlighted by gold, silver, and metallic pallets. They are of a luxurious attitude.
With the appearance of these new casinos, Macau formally assumed its role as a hub of legal gambling leisure. Accordingly, Macau came to have an enormous dependency on the gambling industry.
Due to that situation, more recently, an official discursive shift occurred away from the gambling economy and toward a more stable and diversified service economy, seemingly with the central government's support in Beijing.3 Yet, how far can diversification go, considering local inhabitants' chronic shortage of workers?4 This shortage of inhabitant workers leads to a massive migration (from Mainland China or the Philippines). However, these migrants are primarily confined to precarious jobs created by that same gambling economy.
Despite visual diversity being a clear distinctive feature of Macau and the official discourse pushing for variety in the types of capital flow, there has been a tendency to homogenize the streets’ economy and aesthetics.
Changes in street aesthetics, why?
The prolonged presence of a Portuguese colonial administration, with the native presence of Chinese communities, made the city's landscape diversity a characteristic feature.
Nonetheless, the previous massive investments that enabled the casinos’ development affected the whole street economy and triggered a demographic change, as millions of tourists visit Macau every year. Even in 2020, amidst a global pandemic, Macau still received more than 5 million visitors. Consequently, Chinese street shops selling daily products have turned into tax-free stores selling foreign products, much like in Hong Kong.6
Traditional restaurants, preserved due to their touristic appeal, increased their prices immensely. This is not a problem per se for those whose disposable income has grown with the city’s economic development. Still, one wonders about the accessibility of these establishments to those in a more precarious situation. The colonialist architecture was also safeguarded – after all, aside from the casinos, these buildings are the island’s main touristic asset. But the local out-of-touristic-aesthetics stores saw and are seeing their end.
From Antonio’s photography, one perceives what he calls “the contrast.” Which indeed has been, for a long time, a trademark of Macau’s landscape. However, considering Macau’s economic evolution over the last decades, one questions where and if that contrast will be kept and which dynamics it will reflect.
About the photographer, António R. J. Monteiro
António R. J. Monteiro is an amateur photographer from Macau. He practices photography as a hobby, focusing on the many beautiful landscapes of Macau, mainly the rich heritage, traditions, and the new sites and architectures. He is currently the coordinator in a local NGO promoting the local history and identity focusing on publications about Macau.
You may find his Facebook page and Instagram with 'armonteiro photography'.
References / To go further
Matthew T. Liu et al., “Macau Gambling Industry: Current challenges and opportunities next decade,” Asia Pacific Journal of Marketing and Logistics 27, no. 3. (June 2015).
Sheyla Zandonai, “Casino development and urban transformation in Macau,” The Newsletter 72 (Autumn 2015), https://www.iias.asia/the-newsletter/article/casino-development-urban-transformation-macau#.
Liu et al., “Macau Gambling Industry.”
Zandonai, “Casino development and urban transformation in Macau.” Liu et al., “Macau Gambling Industry.”
“Global Indicators 2020-2021,” Macao Tourism Data Plus, accessed October 3, 2021, https://dataplus.macaotourism.gov.mo/Publication/Report?lang=E.
Zandonai, “Casino development and urban transformation in Macau.”