Made in Macau China's Peasants Gamble on the Future

Each day, tens of thousands of communist Chinese peasants stream into Macau, the Las Vegas of Asia, to bet their entire lifesavings in the hope of a better future. But the monetary blessings of capitalism they dream of are at best elusive.

By Ullrich Fichtner


The skyline of Macau, the former Portuguese colony that is now part of China.
DPA

The skyline of Macau, the former Portuguese colony that is now part of China.

After spending five days in Macau and with only 230 yuan (€23) left in her purse, Chen Xi Mei decides she's had enough of the former Portuguese colony and Asian gambling Mecca. So she sets out for her dusty rural Chinese village, which is a 16-hour bus ride and one-hour walk away. The cloth-covered, wheeled suitcase she's pulling along as she makes her way to the border terminal for buses heading to Zhuhai contains a few articles of clothing, a mobile phone, paper tissues -- in short, everything she owns. Nothing remains of all the hard-earned money she had saved, and yet nothing has become of her dream of a better life.

Chen walks through Macau like someone crossing a fairground in broad daylight, past the Tsai Shen Casino, where peasants play baccarat 24-7 and past the dark temple of the Lisboa Casino, its portals crowned with light bulbs like some jester's cap. She sees the brand-new, shimmering, copper-clad Wynn Casino building, and she sees the mirrored, gold-colored walls of the Sands out by the docks for ferries to Hong Kong. The colorful imitation ruins on the beach, images of antiquity and the wealth of pharaohs -- all things anyone can have -- with a little luck, that is.

Her route takes her through streets lined with jewelers and pawn shops, where winners show off and losers go begging, where bleach-blonde Ukrainian women saunter from one pimp to the next and young girls from all over China take their new breasts, recently enlarged for 4,500 yuan (€450) a piece, for a walk.

Chen passes the apartment building where she stayed, paying 100 yuan (€10) a night for a windowless room in downtown Macau, where the remnants of 442 years of Portuguese colonial rule seem as out of place as if they were standing in some amusement park and the true meaning of the phrase gambling den is constantly on full display. But it isn't some hell, says Chen. Despite her devastating losses, she still believes Macau is the better China and that it offers a better life. She's certain she'll return to Macau as soon as possible. And that the next time she'll make her fortune.

She eats a small bowl of noodles in a Taiwanese soup restaurant underneath the girders of the city's elevated highway, where waitresses standing at the tables yell out their orders to the kitchen, as loudly as if they were calling the police. She is here to say goodbye to Wei Quihua, a short, good-humored woman who became her friend within a few days. Wei bet and lost 100,000 yuan (almost €10,000) -- the entire capital and earnings of her lamp shop back home in Jiangxi Province.

She fidgets with a 50 yuan chip from the Lisboa, her last casino chip, and she draws characters onto the paper tablecloth, eventually forming a rhyme in Chinese: "The longer you play, the more you lose." The two women laugh. Chen Xi Mei, 30-years-old, and Wei Quihua, nine years her senior, drink hot water because the tea, at €0.35, is too expensive for their budgets.

Chen laughs in spite of her situation. When she smiles, it's easy to understand why the two words in her first name mean "fine" and "pretty." She is a slender woman with a mouth that seems a touch harsh, the expressions on her small face quickly shifting with her moods. On the day of her departure from Macau, she's wearing a light-colored quilted jacket, too thin for January, and as she tightens her collar under her chin to ward off the chill, she says: "I'm sad, of course -- what else would I be? But I'll be back."

The wheeled suitcase holding her small collection of belongings stands next to her, and in her black imitation leather shoulder bag she carries the yuan she has left, her identification card, a passport and small plastic bags -- just in case she feels carsick on her long journey across the country.

Hating home

The trip will take her 1,000 kilometers (622 miles), from the glittering lights of the new to the ancient darkness of the old China, where plows are still pulled by oxen and where villagers have been drawing their water from wells for centuries. A thousand kilometers from Macau to Zhuhai, over Guangzhou, onward to to Nanchang and Xishan and, finally, from there to Zeran, the village where Chen Xi Mei grew up and the place she hates.

People stream into China across the border from Macau's Barrier Gate into the Chinese border city of Zhuhai.
DPA

People stream into China across the border from Macau's Barrier Gate into the Chinese border city of Zhuhai.

She reaches the massive customs checkpoint in the border area separating China's communist mainland from Macau's capitalist special administration zone, where travelers' papers are processed 24 hours a day at 35 or 40 counters, where their bodies are examined with heat imaging cameras that measure body temperature to filter out the sick that could be infected with bird flu.

Chen disappears into the crowd, joining the ranks of Macau pilgrims from across China -- police officers from Beijing, municipal officials from Hunan, gangsters from Shanghai, Guangdon and Hong Kong, village elders, judges, doctors and factory owners from all over. Today, Macau sees 19 million visitors a year, or over 50,000 a day -- easily outstripping Las Vegas. Macau has become the pan-Chinese dream factory ever since the Portuguese pulled out six years ago. It's China's only place with legal citywide gambling, with close to two dozen mega-casinos. It's a greedy machine fed by multitudes of simple folk like Chen Xi Mei, who sheds a few tears as she leaves Macau behind.

She wants to talk about her life. Hers is the kind of story that speaks volumes about today's China. Chen started dreaming about a better future as a child, when one of her chores was to fetch water from the village well and the wooden yoke she used to carry the heavy buckets would cut into her shoulders. At 17, she left her village for the first time and walked to Xishan, passing huts where women roasted peanuts in giant woks and whose walls were covered with slogans proclaiming the victory of communism. But roasting peanuts in a provincial town was never Xi Mei's goal in life. Her dreams were reserved for the cities, the bright lights, love and money.

It was 13 years ago when she took the bus to Nanchang for the first time, uncertain of what she would find there. The big city was jarring and the noise was deafening for a country kid who had spent her childhood hearing nothing louder than the wind howling in rice fields. Her only qualifications were her youth and the three years she had spent attending the village school. She found work in a carpet factory, where she worked 14-hour shifts, seven days a week, and she spent her nights sharing crowded bunk beds with other village girls in a building owned by the factory.

She earned 300 yuan a month (about €30), which seemed like a lot of money back then. But after six months, she became anxious working with spinning machines that sometimes became caught in the girls' hair, and she quit her job. She could have become yet another ant in the hordes of millions of Chinese migrant workers, a dagongmei, or job sister, a prospect that at first didn't seem half bad to her.

A new era

When she was born, in November 1975, Mao was still alive, and the legendary Zhou Enlai was still the first president of the People's Republic of China. But by the time she began attending school in a brick barracks-like structure on the edge of the village, a building shared with the local doctor, the old brand of communism was already on its way out. Premier Deng Xiaoping proclaimed the unleashing of market forces and encouraged the Chinese to begin enriching themselves. The birth of a new era -- and a new China -- coincided with the beginning of her own life.

The Las Vegas Sands casino in shown in Macau.
AP

The Las Vegas Sands casino in shown in Macau.

She saw new slogans appearing on the walls of her village, next to the old propaganda proclaiming the victory of communism. The village chairman had the new propaganda painted in white, and unlike the language of the Mao era, the new slogans revolved around change, a new era of wealth and taking initiative and Chen sensed that it was her own life they were addressing. The old days, the days of a planned economy were over.

A monument commemorating the grand old days of the red revolution still stands in Nanchang -- the first big city Chen got to know -- a bustling metropolis of 4.5 million. An enormous concrete rifle juts from the ground in the city's downtown, China's red flag flying from the tip of its bayonet. It's a monument to the August 1927 uprising, which led to the formation of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. Nanchang is a city of heroes for Chinese communists -- or at least it once was, in some gray prehistoric period. Standing at the base of the monument (which Chen never visited during all her years in Nanchang), one looks across at the mirrored twin towers of the Bank of Commerce and the Wanda Shopping Mall, with its four-storey Wal-Mart superstore and its walls plastered with advertisements.

The surrounding streets are lined with trendy shops selling global fashions and athletic shoes, alternating with Chinese pharmacies where powdered, dried silk worms are still sold. Hong Kong pop blares from open doorways as girls with hip hairstyles and wearing pink fur coats congregate around a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Nearby there are half-naked beggars dragging their broken bodies, face-down, across the sidewalks.

Like Chen, Nanchang's beautiful people have no idea who Zhou Enlai was. They too have only heard about Mao in passing. To them, "communism" and "party" are nothing but words, and phrases like "socialist market economy" are concepts they find difficult to comprehend as they sit in the C Straits Café, drinking latte macchiatos and gazing down at the city's lake, where the elderly still perform their Qi Gong gymnastics in formation every morning, just as they've always done.

In search of a better life

Chen was 18 the second time she set out for Nanchang. Within less than six months of quitting her job in the carpet factory, she decided to flee from her village once again, to search for a new life. This time she found work as a kitchen helper in the Xia Mi Fu Restaurant, earning 40 yuan (€4) a month, with free meals and a place to sleep near the kitchen -- although the mattresses stank of frying grease while she slept.

After eight weeks she was promoted to waitress, at a monthly salary of 280 yuan (€28), but it was easy work and her boss was friendly. Chen worked in the restaurant for the next three years, carrying plates, pouring green tea and serving dim sum from rolling carts, but her dreams were relentless. She wanted more. She wanted a better life. Xi Mei, fine and pretty, she thought to herself, deserved more than the life of a slave. To achieve her goals, 13 years ago, she was willing to embark on a long and arduous journey.

It's taken her two days to reach Nanchang from Macau, a trip through flat countryside, around the entire Pearl River delta and through the world's factory, an endless, smoke-belching industrial zone, a place that's the antithesis of ageing Europe with its flagging economy. Here, the discussion is whether growth -- of both the economy and the population -- can somehow be constrained. It was a journey through a landscape that rarely sees the sun or a blue sky, because the damp air and smog combine to form a shroud as thick as cigar smoke.

Chen isn't concerned about her family asking questions. "They won't ask questions," she says, "no one asks questions in China." But won't they want to know what it was like in Macau? "They think I was there to look for work. It's nobody's business that I went there to gamble."

The trip from Nanchang to Xishan, in an eight-seat minibus carrying eleven passengers, takes about an hour. It passes through a landscape reminiscent of cliché images of wide-open America, with the vast expanses of eastern Chinese farmland stretching along both sides of the road, endlessly subdivided into individual plots of land patterned in the colors of rice fields.

Chen Xi Mei at home with her family.
Ulrich Fichtner / DER SPIEGEL

Chen Xi Mei at home with her family.

Chen tried starting a new life in this region three times, first in the carpet factory, then as a waitress and, finally, with a man. He was 17 years her senior, had money from questionable sources and lived in a nice courtyard apartment on Zhong Shan Street in downtown Xishan. She and the man had a child, Tsen Xin (Two Hearts), but when Chen was in her fifth month of pregnancy the father, a notorious pickpocket, was arrested and sent to prison. She was only 24 at the time, and yet her third attempt to find a new life away from her village had already failed. She wasn't ready for the child, who was illegal because he was neither registered nor approved by any government agency. Indeed, Chen and the pickpocket weren't even registered as a couple, a requirement for engaged adults in China. She found herself staring into a void, cursing the child and cursing a man she didn't love.

But there was one thing about the father of her child that had fascinated Chen. He had struck it rich playing banned poker and dice games, essentially without lifting a finger. At the time -- five or six years ago -- Chen hit upon the idea that perhaps there was an easier way to make a living in China than through hard work. Shortly thereafter she decided to try and take a shortcut to happiness.

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