In 2007, Sheldon Adelson opened the Venetian Macao, with the world’s largest casino. U.S. authorities are investigating his company’s compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Photograph by Matthew Niederhauser.
In the late summer of 2007, a fifty-year-old former barber named Siu Yun Ping began making regular visits from his village, in Hong Kong, to the city of Macau, the only Chinese territory where it is legal to gamble in a casino. Macau sits on a horn of rocky coastline, where the Pearl River washes into the South China Sea. It’s about a third the size of Manhattan, covering a tropical peninsula and a pair of islands that look, on a map, like crumbs flaking off the mainland. Chairman Mao banned gambling in China long ago, but it endures in Macau because of a wrinkle of history: the city was a Portuguese colony for nearly five hundred years, and when it returned to Chinese control, in 1999, it was entitled to retain some of the flamboyantly libertine traditions that led W. H. Auden to christen it “a weed from Catholic Europe.” The infusion of China’s new riches triggered an unprecedented surge of construction, and by 2006 Macau’s casino revenues had surpassed those of Las Vegas, until then the world’s largest gambling town. Today, the quantity of money passing through Macau exceeds that of Las Vegas five times over.
Siu Yun Ping—or Brother Ping, as friends called him—had known little good fortune. He grew up in the tin-roofed hut of a squatters’ settlement on the mudflats of rural Hong Kong. The year he was born, a fatal flood swept through the neighborhood; subsequent years brought drought, then typhoons. “It was as though the gods wished to destroy us by driving us mad,” a local official recalled in his memoirs. Siu had five siblings, and his education ended in primary school. When he wasn’t cutting hair, he found employment as a tailor and a construction worker. Gambling was technically illegal in Hong Kong, but, as in many Chinese communities, it was a low-key fixture of life, and, by the age of nine, he was pushing his way into the crowd to watch local card games. At thirteen, he was playing for small stakes, and an underground gambling den hired him to hang around and keep an eye on the players’ hands. “I’m good at observing people’s movements,” he told me recently. “Whenever I saw someone cheating, I told the boss.”
As an adult, he continued to play cards, though with little success. He was an unglamorous presence—trim and wiry, with plump cheeks, bushy hair, and the fast, watchful eyes of a man accustomed to looking out for himself. He married at nineteen, had three children, divorced, and married again. Around his home village, Fuk Hing, which means Celebrating Fortune, he was also known by a nickname that he did not much care for: Lang Tou Ping, or Inveterate Gambler Ping.
While working as a barber, he befriended a skinny local teen-ager named Wong Kam-ming. Wong had grown up in the same district, one of the poorest in Hong Kong, and had also dropped out of school to find work. They occasionally met for supper at a café where Wong worked for his mother. Siu was trying to become a small-town developer, building and selling houses among the paddy fields near his village, and Wong opened his own restaurant. They didn’t see each other often, but Siu said that they were “like brothers.” They became especially close in recent years, when Wong began working on the side in Macau, as a “junket agent,” recruiting gamblers, giving them lines of credit, and earning commissions on how much they bet. One of the people he recruited was Siu.
Once or twice a week, Siu boarded the public ferry for an hour-long trip across the rolling gray waters of the Pearl River estuary. Seventy thousand people turned up each day to try their luck, more than half of them from mainland China. He had no illusions about whether his habit was in his favor. “Out of every ten people who gamble, maybe three will win,” Siu said. “And when those three keep on gambling only one will win.” He played baccarat, the Chinese gamblers’ favorite. (It offers slightly better odds than the alternatives, and is easy to master.) The punto bancostyle, favored in Macau, involves no skill; the result is determined as soon as the cards are dealt.
In August of 2007, within weeks of beginning his regular trips, Siu hit a hot streak. Some days, he won thousands of dollars. Others, he took home hundreds of thousands. With Wong’s recommendation, he was invited into opulent V.I.P. rooms, which are open only to the biggest bettors, and he became a regular on the high rollers’ helicopter trips across the water. The more he played, the more Wong earned in commissions and tips. As winter approached, Siu’s success set in motion a chain of events that eventually reached Las Vegas and showed why Macau is a place where it’s easy to get in over your head, whether you’re a former barber in Hong Kong or one of the richest men in America.
Gambling towns are shrines to self-invention. In the eighteen-sixties, Monaco was a tiny backwater in financial distress after losing most of its land to France; then it built a casino, and became one of the world’s wealthiest places. Las Vegas was a desert outpost battered by sandstorms and flash floods—a land that the “Lord had forgotten,” in the view of nineteenth-century Mormon missionaries, who abandoned it—before it grew into the city that now attracts more people each year than Mecca. Hal Rothman, the late historian of the American West, wrote that Las Vegas posed the same question to every visitor: “What do you want to be, and what will you pay to be it?
The ferry to Macau is greeted by a crowd of touts. When I arrived not long ago, I encountered a figure in a rotund cartoon-dog suit, waving strenuously in the heat. He was a mascot from Macau’s Venetian resort—a cousin of the Las Vegas resort of the same name—and the dog suit was adorned with the striped shirt and straw hat of a gondolier. Beyond, the city rose in layers of steep hillsides jammed with high-rise apartment blocks, the remnants of a Portuguese fort, and lush groves of Chinese banyan trees. In the crowd, a young woman handed out a Chinese advertisement for “USA Direct,” which offers a toll-free number for Mandarin speakers to buy American real estate at cut-rate prices.
Macau, whose population is half a million, feels like China amplified and miniaturized. It is animated by the same formula of ambition and speed and risk, but the sheer volume of money and people passing through has distilled the mixture into an extract so potent that it can seem to be either the city’s greatest strength or its greatest liability. A generation ago, Macau made fireworks, toys, and plastic flowers. Today, the factories are gone, the average citizen earns more than the average European, and the gap between the rich and the poor is vast and widening. Construction is ceaseless, and at night welders’ torches flare from scaffolding overhead. Underfoot, the sidewalks are littered with faces on discarded handbills that promise the companionship of “girls from every continent.”
American casino companies have raced to move in. In 2006, Steve Wynn, who led a revival of Las Vegas in the nineteen-nineties, opened a casino in Macau; he makes more than two-thirds of his global profits there. He is learning to speak Chinese, and he talks about moving his corporate headquarters to Macau. “We’re really a Chinese company now, not an American company,” he has said. Macau has become especially attractive to American corporations in the last few years. In Nevada, after tourism sank in 2008, gaming revenue plunged by nearly twenty per cent in two years, the largest decline in the state’s history. It later improved, but Nevada still has the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the country. Gary Loveman, the chairman of Caesars Entertainment, was one of the few casino bosses who passed up a chance to build in Macau. “Big mistake,” he said later. “I was wrong, I was really wrong.” Even by China’s standards, the speed of Macau’s growth is breathtaking; for a decade, the economy has ballooned, on average, nineteen per cent a year—nearly twice as fast as mainland China’s. In 2010, high rollers in Macau wagered about six hundred billion dollars, roughly the amount of cash withdrawn from all the A.T.M.s in America in a year.
The United States government has come to believe that the cash changing hands on the tables in Macau is only a small part of the picture. “The growth of gambling in Macau, fuelled by money from mainland Chinese gamblers and the growth of U.S.-owned casinos, has been accompanied by widespread corruption, organized crime, and money laundering,” according to the 2011 annual report by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. The place has emerged as the “Macau Laundry Service,” as U.S. diplomats put it in an internal cable in 2009. Juan Zarate was a senior counterterrorism official in the Bush Administration who worked on sanctioning a private bank in Macau that allegedly facilitated, among other things, the financing of nuclear proliferation by North Korea. “Anyone who knows anything about anti-money laundering understands both the inherent and the real risks in Macau,” Zarate said. “You have an admixture of commercial-financial activity, a way station for people and goods, a casino sector, all in a potentially volatile regional environment.” David Asher, who was a State Department senior adviser for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Bush Administration, calls Macau “a cesspool” of financial crimes. “It’s gone from being out of a James Bond movie to being out of ‘The Bourne Identity,’ ” he said.
Intrigue, of one kind or another, has clung to Macau’s history since the city’s founding myths, which described an act of elegant deception: In 1564, local Chinese fishermen sought the help of a visiting Portuguese fleet for a battle against pirates; the Portuguese disguised their cannon inside Chinese boats and waylaid the bandits at sea. In gratitude, the Chinese granted permission to the Portuguese to stay on the peninsula. Macau became a vital stop between India and Japan, but, eventually, nearby Hong Kong built a better port and Macau found alternative specialties: opium, prostitution, and gambling. When the Dutch-born writer Hendrik de Leeuw visited, in the nineteen-thirties, for his book “Cities of Sin,” he included it as home to “all the riffraff of the world, the drunken shipmasters; the flotsam of the sea, the derelicts, and more shameless, beautiful, savage women than any port in the world. It is a hell.”
Until recently, Macau looked as much Mediterranean as Chinese, with baroque Catholic churches and rows of cafés shaded by drooping palms, where old émigrés sipped café da manhã over the Jornal Tribuna. These days, the city also evokes a touch of the Persian Gulf. Government tax revenue is often more than double the budget, and, like Kuwait, Macau distributes occasional checks to its residents under a program named the Wealth Partaking Scheme. (Last year: eight hundred and seventy-five dollars per person.) Unemployment is below three per cent. “What Las Vegas did in seventy-five years, we are doing in fifteen,” Paulo Azevedo, the publisher of Macau Business and other local magazines, told me. The rush has left the city short of many things—taxis, roads, housing, medical services. “For dental, I have to go to Thailand,” Azevedo said. One month, Macau came close to running out of coins. The casinos have reordered the rhythms of life and work, in ways that are not universally celebrated. Au Kam San, a member of Macau’s Legislative Assembly, who works as a high-school teacher, told me, “My students have said, ‘I can go get a job in a casino right now and earn more than my teacher.’”
A short drive from the ferry, Steve Wynn has a complex with two hotels, where the Louis Vuitton outlet is said to generate more sales per square foot than any other Louis Vuitton outlet worldwide. Walking past a tank of luminescent jellyfish, which require a specially designed curtain to sleep at night, the casino official who was showing me the place told me that Chinese clientele demand a heightened level of luxury, because “everyone is a president or a chairman.” We stopped into the complex’s newest Michelin-starred restaurant, which has an in-house poet who writes a personal verse for every V.I.P. I asked about a tiny white leather stool beside each table, and a staff member explained, “That’s for your handbag.”
In catering to his clients, Wynn has embraced Chinese notions of luck and fortune with the passion of a convert. When the hotel discovered that the number of private rooms in its spa was four—an unfortunate number, because it sounds, in Chinese, like “death”—designers added a line of fake doors across the hall, to suggest a total of eight, which is closer to “get rich.” In Las Vegas, Wynn made his name pushing luxury over camp—Picasso, say, over Wayne Newton—but his hotel in Macau still has a place for what casino designers call the “wow feature.” Once an hour, tourists gather in the lobby to watch a hole open in the floor. A giant animatronic dragon climbs out, coiling into the air, red eyes blazing, smoke pouring from its nostrils.
Games of chance have been a part of Chinese history since the Xia dynasty (2000-1500 B.C.). “The government often imposed rules against them, and yet officials themselves were the ones who gambled the most,” Desmond Lam, a marketing professor at the University of Macau, told me. “They would get stripped of their titles, caned, jailed, exiled, but we still see the trend across the dynasties.” Parsing Chinese appetites for risk is a modest academic niche, with applications beyond the world of casinos. “When I was growing up,” Lam said, “my family always gambled—at holidays, funerals, that’s just what we did—so I wanted to know: Why do Chinese communities gamble?” Lam and I were taking a walking tour of the City of Dreams, a casino complex that uses the promotional tagline “Sign Up, Play, Change Your Life.” After six years of studies and surveys, Lam views each gambling table as a “microscopic battle,” a standoff between science and faith. On one side is the casino, which can reliably calculate its advantage to two decimal points. On the other is a collection of Chinese beliefs about fate and superstition, which, Lam says, “people know are irrational but are part of the culture.” He ticked off some received wisdom: To improve the odds, wear red underwear and switch on all the lights before leaving home. To prevent a losing streak, avoid the sight of nuns and monks when travelling to the casino. Never use the main entrance. Always find a side door.
The City of Dreams smells of perfume, cigarettes, and rug shampoo. Chinese gamblers rarely drink when money is on the line, and the low, festive hum is broken now and then by the sound of someone pounding the table in delight or anguish, or exhorting the cards to obey. One night, I settled into the scrum around a baccarat game in which a slim man with heavy eyebrows and a red face shining with sweat was performing “the squeeze”—slowly peeling up the edge of his card, while the man beside him shouted “Blow! Blow!” to wish away a high number. When the slim man had peeled enough to see the digit, his face twisted in disgust and he tossed the card across the table.
“Americans tend to see themselves in control of their fate, while Chinese see fate as something external,” Lam said. “To alter fate, the Chinese feel they need to do things to acquire more luck.” In surveys, Chinese casino gamblers tend to view bets as investments and investments as bets. The stock market and real estate, in the Chinese view, are scarcely different from a casino. The behavioral scientists Elke Weber and Christopher Hsee have compared Chinese and American approaches to financial risk. In a series of experiments, they found that Chinese investors overwhelmingly described themselves as more cautious than Americans. But when they were tested the stereotype proved to be a fallacy, and the Chinese took consistently larger risks than Westerners of comparable wealth. (The gap applies only to investing; asked about decisions in health care and education, the groups were indistinguishable.)
Living in China, I’ve come to expect that Chinese friends make financial decisions that I find uncomfortably risky: launching businesses with their savings, moving across the country without the assurance of a job. One explanation, which Weber and Hsee call “the cushion hypothesis,” is that traditionally large Chinese family networks afford people confidence that they can turn to others for help if a risk does not succeed. Another theory is more specific to the boom years. “The economic reforms undertaken by Deng Xiaoping were a gamble in themselves,” Ricardo Siu, a business professor at the University of Macau, told me. “So people got the idea that taking a risk is not just O.K., it has utility.” For those who have come from poverty to the middle class, he added, “the thinking may be, If I lose half my money, well, I’ve lived through that. I won’t be poor again. And in several years I can earn it back. But if I win? I’m a millionaire!”
In the case of Inveterate Gambler Ping, success drew attention. About four months into Siu’s streak, a gossip column in the Apple Daily, a popular Hong Kong paper, took note of a “mysterious” figure making the rounds in Macau, said to be amassing a fortune as large as a hundred and fifty million dollars. “Is he extremely lucky or does he have the real magic touch?” the paper asked in January, 2008. The next day, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature, Chim Pui Chung—a devoted gambler himself—told the paper that he had heard people hailing the new high roller as the “God of Gamblers,” borrowed from the title of a Hong Kong movie starring Chow Yun-fat.
A streak of that scale was also likely to attract suspicion. Macau garners its share of creative casino cheats; last summer, local police arrested members of a gang accused of embedding miniature cameras into card-shuffling machines. Too much success can be cause for distrust. A casino’s advantage in baccarat—about 1.15 per cent—ordains that the chances of winning all but evaporate for a gambler after thirty thousand hands. A dedicated player can draw a thousand hands in a weekend and come out ahead, but after seven months almost nobody should go home a winner.
Not long after the article appeared dubbing Siu the God of Gamblers, his twenty-year-old son received a series of anonymous threatening phone calls. Then one night someone slipped into Celebrating Fortune village and tried to set the family house on fire. Finally, Siu’s friend Wong Kam-ming, who had introduced him to several V.I.P. rooms, received an angry call. The man on the other end demanded a meeting to discuss the question of Inveterate Gambler Ping’s having cheated.
Nobody embodies Macau’s reputation for self-invention more thoroughly than Stanley Ho, a tall, elegant ninety-year-old tycoon who once dated starlets and dancers, excelled at the tango, and was chauffeured around Hong Kong in a Rolls-Royce with the license plate “HK-1.” After his father lost the family fortune in the stock market, Ho got his start during the Second World War with a trading company in Macau. “By the end of the war, I’d earned over a million dollars—having started with just ten,” he said later. He expanded into airlines, real estate, and shipping, and in 1962 he and associates took over Macau’s casinos, gaining a monopoly that lasted forty years and made him one of Asia’s richest men. In his choice of business partners, he was non-judgmental; he ran horse racing under the Shah of Iran, a gaming boat under Ferdinand Marcos, and an island casino under Kim Jong Il. Intelligence agents were desperate to cultivate Ho for his connections, but the late Dan Grove, a retired F.B.I. agent who served in Hong Kong, told me, “Nobody ever got past first base.”
For years, foreign governments have suspected Ho of being too cozy with Chinese organized crime. Regulators have thwarted his family’s efforts to run casinos in the U.S. and Australia. In 2009, New Jersey regulators decided that a joint venture between MGM Resorts International and Ho’s daughter Pansy failed the state’s requirement that casinos avoid business with “notorious or unsavory persons.” Far more surprising is what happened afterward, when New Jersey gave MGM an ultimatum: cut ties with the Ho family or lose a stake in Atlantic City’s highest-grossing casino. MGM chose Macau, and it is now selling its stake in Atlantic City.
Stanley Ho’s monopoly expired in 2002, three years after China took control, and foreign competitors surged in to obtain licenses. The first new casino to open was the Sands Macao, backed by Sheldon Adelson, of Las Vegas, whom Forbes ranks as the seventh-richest person in the United States. Adelson is Stanley Ho’s physical opposite—small and heavy, with pale-red hair. Where Ho avoided overt declarations of power, Adelson has described himself as the “largest investor of any kind in the history of China.” The son of a cabdriver from Lithuania, Adelson grew up in the Boston suburb of Dorchester, and ran a spate of businesses with erratic success—packaging toiletries for hotels, selling a chemical spray to clear ice from windshields—before his break, in 1979, when he launched Comdex, a computer trade show. He later bought the old Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, created America’s largest privately owned convention center, and enriched himself with a signature strategy of pairing casinos with exhibition centers.
More than a decade ago, he coveted Macau as a gateway to 1.3 billion Chinese nationals, and he successfully courted Chinese leaders in Beijing by emphasizing his influence in Republican politics. (He is a frequent donor to right-wing causes in the United States and Israel. He and his relatives drew attention in the Republican Presidential contest this year by giving $16.5 million to a Super PAC that supported Newt Gingrich, representing all but five per cent of the money that the group raised.) He told people that Macau would someday help him overtake Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in wealth. A crowd of thousands turned up on the Sands opening day, in May, 2004, lured in part by false newspaper reports of free gambling chips for the first bettors. Tom Smock, the casino’s general counsel at the time, watched as the building’s tall metal front doors began to give way from the pressure of the crowd. “Every time a hinge broke, the crowd roared with approval,” Smock said. “They ripped every door off the hinges at that front entrance. That’s how the casino opened, and they poured in.”
Within a year, the Sands Macao had recouped its construction costs, of two hundred and sixty-five million dollars, and Adelson embarked on an idea that he described as coming to him in a dream: to replicate the Las Vegas Strip on a stretch of open sea between two islands in Macau. His company constructed a landfill out of three million cubic metres of sand—he named it the Cotai Strip, for Coloane and Taipa, the islands that it fused together—and he opened the $2.4-billion Venetian Macao, a supersized replica of the Las Vegas Venetian, with the largest casino floor in the world.
Unlike Las Vegas, where most of the profits come from coins fed into slot machines, three-quarters of the revenue in Macau is derived from the enormous bets made in the V.I.P. rooms, where high rollers play around the clock. Casinos rely on outside companies, known as “junkets,” to solve some of the practical problems inherent in running a casino in Macau. It is illegal to advertise gambling in mainland China, and Chinese citizens are barred from carrying more than the equivalent of about three thousand dollars on any single trip to Macau. Most troubling, from the casinos’ perspective, is that it’s illegal to try to collect a gambling debt in the People’s Republic. Working through junket operators is a legal bypass around those problems, because the operators will recruit rich customers from across China, issue them credit, and then handle the complicated business of collection. The system is an attractive arrangement for customers who need to secrete large quantities of cash out of China. If a corrupt official or executive wants to hide the proceeds, a junket is a way to hand over cash on one side of the border and recover it on the other, in chips that can then be played and cashed out in clean foreign currency. (Another option is to smuggle it by hand across Macau’s relaxed borders, a practice known in laundering circles as “smurfing,” for the army of small-time couriers involved.)
While the junket industry has many law-abiding members, it has, for decades, been susceptible to the involvement of organized crime. Triads, which grew out of nineteenth-century Chinese political societies, had always been involved in loan-sharking and prostitution, and had made their presence felt on the edges of Macau’s casinos, but in recent years triads had become more business-oriented. Triad violence in Macau and Hong Kong has declined over the past decade, because triads have increasingly set aside squabbles over drugs and petty crime in order to pursue the range of new criminal opportunities associated with a more prosperous China, including money laundering, financial fraud, and gambling. Gangsters are becoming “gray entrepreneurs,” as criminologists put it, and it was more difficult to distinguish between triads that had gone into business and businesses that were acting like triads. Some mob bosses still adhere to the old ranks of gangsterdom—“dragon heads,” at the top; “red poles,” overseeing operations—but many follow the ancient rituals only perfunctorily: the thirty-six oaths, the cocktail of blood and rice liquor. Some younger gang members resort to cribbing from the rituals in gangster movies.
Steve Vickers is a former commander of the Royal Hong Kong police’s Criminal Intelligence Bureau. “I know of no Chinese junket operator that doesn’t have some association with triads,” he told me. A thirty-nine-year-old junket agent said that when he entered the business, in his mid-twenties, triad membership was effectively a job requirement, but in the past decade it has broadened to include anyone who “can bring in money and customers.” To find clients in a country that is minting more millionaires each year than any other, some of his peers scour the business press looking for new tycoons. “Nowadays, in Macau, if a person doesn’t gamble at least a few hundred thousand dollars, then he isn’t even a real customer,” he said. What happens if a customer doesn’t pay up? “We go to the city where he is and call him up. Then, if necessary, we wait there for a couple of days. Just to put some pressure on him.”
In recent years, U.S. federal agencies, including the F.B.I., the Secret Service, and the Internal Revenue Service, have become increasingly familiar with Macau. In an elaborate smuggling investigation that ended in 2005, undercover F.B.I. agents infiltrated a ring that included a Macau citizen named Jyimin Horng, who was accused of importing into the U.S. millions of dollars’ worth of counterfeit cigarettes, methamphetamines, and high-quality fake currency known as “supernotes,” believed to originate in North Korea. Undercover agents wired Horng payments in Macau in exchange for fake bills at a rate of thirty cents for each phony dollar, smuggled in large bolts of fabric and boxes of toys.
When an F.B.I. agent named Jack Garcia posed as a representative of Colombian FARC guerrillas and asked for weapons, Horng sent him a catalogue, and Garcia ordered anti-tank missiles, grenade launchers, submachine guns, and AK-47s. To lure Horng and others to the United States for arrest, the agency staged a mock wedding for a male and a female agent involved in the sting. Horng and other guests received elegant invitations to a celebration aboard a yacht moored off Cape May, New Jersey.
“I was the best man,” Garcia, who is now retired, told me. “We picked them up for the bachelor party and drove them straight to the F.B.I. office.” Fifty-nine people were arrested. (Horng pleaded guilty and is serving three and a half to four years.) Based on that case and on other information, the Treasury Department blacklisted Banco Delta Asia, in Macau, for participating in money laundering. The bank denied the claim, but it has been barred from access to the U.S. financial system.
Eight years ago, when American-run casinos arrived in Macau, observers predicted that the scrutiny of Wall Street and state regulators would drive organized crime out of Macau’s gambling industry. But the junket industry has not shed its links to triads, and junkets operate in every U.S.-owned casino in Macau, largely because they are able to collect debts in China. American casinos insist that they strictly adhere to laws in Macau and the United States to prevent money laundering and the involvement of organized crime. But even those standards have left the casinos at risk. Macau law, for instance, requires identification for any casino transaction above the equivalent of sixty-one thousand dollars—a threshold that is six times higher than that for casinos in the United States.
Grove, the former F.B.I. agent, headed security for the Sands Macao in its early years. He said that American casinos instituted background checks, international accounting standards, and other good-faith efforts to prevent the encroachment of organized crime, but triads found inventive solutions. “They’d even try and get in through the meat contracts at the steak house,” he said. With Las Vegas ailing, casinos can’t afford to sever contracts with the most profitable junkets and lose access to the clients they deliver. As a result, Steve Vickers told me, unless a company has the will and the strategy to get rid of the triads, “you’re constantly on the back foot, constantly worried what these guys are going to do next.”
A few weeks after Siu Yun Ping’s house was set on fire, a group of men were summoned to a meeting in a parking lot on the outskirts of Hong Kong. The meeting had been called by See Wah-lun, a thickset, thirty-year-old mid-level member of one of China’s most famous triads, the Wo Hop To.
See Wah-lun told his men about a plan to extort Siu. As one of them later described it in court, “A boss wanted a man to return some money.” The boss was Cheung Chi-tai, a gang leader who was well known to Hong Kong police and U.S. authorities. In the words of a Hong Kong judge, Verina Bokhary, Cheung could “have a say in things” in a V.I.P. room at the Sands Macao, one of the places where Siu had made his baccarat fortune.
See Wah-lun unveiled a straightforward plot: they would send Siu a message by ambushing his friend Wong, pinning his car between two others and then hustling him over to a nearby village, where a secluded, run-down building would be prepared with gloves, hoods, knives, and extendable police batons. The plan was to break Wong’s legs and hands, but then See called his guys back and told them that it was being upgraded to murder, so Siu would know they were serious and hand over his winnings.
The gang balked. One of the recruits asked, “Do we have to be that serious?”
See was taken aback. “The boss tells you to do it, are you not going to do it?” he said.
Another of the chosen assassins complained that he was supposed to be a guest at a wedding that evening. A third, Lau Ming-yee, had a pregnant girlfriend and financial troubles, and yet he was being asked to do the job gratis. “If you are not going to pay someone, then how would that someone help you?” he said later.
It didn’t help that Lau happened to know the intended victim from years before, when he worked as a delivery boy and dropped off food at Wong’s village. “Everyone was shocked by the idea of killing anybody, never mind somebody some of us knew,” Lau said.
When See asked him to take part in the murder, Lau hesitated. The boss was incensed. “What the fuck you have to think about?” he said.
Lau seemed to relent, and agreed to help with the murder. In reality, he had become an informer for the police. In the predawn hours before the attack, he called his police handler, met him near the Temple Under a Big Tree, and told him about the murder plot and about Siu. In his statement to the police, Lau said, “I am the father of a child and I want to be a responsible man.”
The police arrested five gangsters, and in a trial that fall Lau, who had been placed in protective custody, testified against them. They maintained their innocence, but all were convicted of conspiracy to commit grievous bodily harm and acting as members of a triad. See, the ringleader, was sentenced on additional charges of conspiring to commit murder and recruiting others to carry it out. The five men are now serving between eight and a half and fourteen years. At one point, Siu himself was arrested, on suspicion of involvement in the plot to kill his friend Wong. But he was “released unconditionally,” the judge said, after police concluded that “he was not involved in any such plot.” During the investigation, police also detained Cheung Chi-tai, the triad leader, but he did not spend long in custody. According to John Haynes, See’s defense attorney, Cheung “called his lawyer and refused to answer any questions, and as a result he escaped being charged with anything.” At sentencing, Haynes lamented that the “small potatoes” were going to jail while the “big boss . . . now sits comfortably, free from any charges, in Macau.”
Siu and Wong testified at the trial, and they were asked to estimate how much Siu had amassed during his five-month winning streak. It was a complicated question, because high rollers in Macau often make side bets that are many times larger than the chips on the table. (In a side bet, a player and a junket agent secretly agree that every hundred-dollar chip, say, is worth a thousand or ten thousand, and then they settle wins and losses in private.) In total, he estimated that he had won the equivalent of thirteen million U.S. dollars. Wong put the figure at seventy-seven million.
The notion that a former barber had won as much as seventy-seven million dollars—and outlasted the mobsters charged with getting it back—attracted the attention of members of the Hong Kong press, and they pursued the God of Gamblers as a minor curiosity, though he declined interviews. A year after the trial, the Hong Kong magazine Next published an article alleging that Siu had cheated, by finding a way to manipulate the side-betting system. The article claimed that he had paid off an underling who recorded players’ ups and downs, in order to boost his wins and minimize his losses. The casino hadn’t detected the fraud, the magazine surmised, because side bets were off the books, and the junkets hadn’t anticipated that a gambler might risk trying to buy off a staff member. Siu never responded to the article. In any case, local reporters discovered, he had disappeared.
The God of Gamblers case had all but vanished from the Hong Kong crime pages when, in March, 2010, a Reuters investigation, published in collaboration with Matt Isaacs, of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley, reëxamined the trial and seized on a crucial detail: If the triad boss Cheung Chi-tai had “a say in things” in a V.I.P. room at the Sands Macao, as Judge Bokhary had put it, and potentially other links to the industry, then the relationship appeared to be “one of the first documented examples” of mob involvement in a U.S.-backed casino in Macau, Reuters wrote. That link could put Sands at risk of violating Nevada laws barring casino companies from associating with figures who “discredit” the industry, not only on Nevada soil but anywhere.
The Las Vegas Sands was quick to issue a statement that Cheung was “not listed as a director or shareholder” in any of its V.I.P. rooms, but, after it conducted an internal investigation, its lawyers stated that Cheung had indeed been found to be operating as a “guarantor” of V.I.P. rooms at one of the company’s casinos. (A guarantor—who puts up money to lend to players—was not routinely subject to the background checks applied to directors and shareholders, according to a former Sands executive.)
Sands’s trouble with Macau got more complicated that fall, when a former executive, Steve Jacobs, filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit that made a range of accusations against Sheldon Adelson. Jacobs said that he and Adelson had discussed the God of Gamblers case, and the allegation that triads were involved with Sands’s casinos; over Jacobs’s objections, he said, Adelson sought to “aggressively grow the junket business” anyway. Jacobs’s suit also accused Sands of hiring a Macau legislator in a way that could put it at risk of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In its responses, Sands denied all the accusations and said that Jacobs was the one who had failed to distance the company from Cheung, the triad boss.
In March, 2011, Sands disclosed that it was being investigated by the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission for potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Adelson vehemently denied any wrongdoing. “When the smoke clears, I am absolutely—not one hundred per cent but one thousand per cent—positive that there won’t be any fire below it,” he said. “They want to get all my e-mails. I don’t have a computer. And I don’t use e-mails. I’m not an e-mail type of person.” (He declined to comment for this account.)
For Adelson and his peers, doing business in Macau is turning out to be opaque and intricate in ways outside their control. They expected to take the strategies that had brought them success in the United States and apply them to Macau. Instead, their corporate fortunes now hinge in part on the decisions of the Communist Party and corrupt officials and Chinese triads. But U.S. casino operators are not about to quit Macau. “The bottom line is this,” Vickers, who is now the head of Steve Vickers & Associates, a risk-consultancy firm, said. “Is the conduct of a United States-listed company compatible with doing business with junket operators in Macau? And the answer might simply be not to list in America.”
Even if Macau can pass muster with Wall Street and U.S. regulators, the bigger question may be what it portends for China—whether its roguish success rides on the kinds of epic corruption that the Party recognizes as one of its most urgent threats.
China could bring Macau’s boom to an end by fiat; citizens need a special permit to go to Macau, and China opens and closes the flow of visitors at will. When, in 2008, it reduced the number of visas, revenue dropped sharply during the financial crisis; Sands stock lost ninety-nine per cent of its value, wiping out more than twenty billion dollars of Adelson’s family fortune. (The value later recovered.)
But cracking down on Macau poses political problems. Some officials in Beijing are keen to maintain the enclave’s economic success, because it shows the breakaway island of Taiwan the potential benefits of a return to the motherland. Moreover, Macau is a place where China’s new millionaires can indulge in the gains of their prosperity, which is one of the rewards guaranteed by the unwritten bargain between Chinese leaders and their people for a generation: Don’t concern yourself with the state’s inner workings, and the state will not overly concern itself with yours. On a return flight from Macau to Beijing, I sat beside a former military officer, who now owns real estate and a string of factories. He visits Macau once a month (“to let off steam”), and he spent much of the flight scrutinizing his latest acquisition: a twelve-thousand-dollar cell phone, encased in alligator skin and equipped with a button that connects him to a full-time concierge, to make dinner and handle travel arrangements.
Macau is poised for another dramatic expansion. A high-speed train line is under construction that will link it with cities as far north as Beijing, and the world’s longest sea bridge, connecting Macau to Hong Kong, is set to open in three or four years, reducing the ferry crossing to a half-hour drive by car. Even as the federal investigations continue, few people in Macau have both the interest and the capacity to impose greater control over the system. Manuel Joaquim das Neves, Macau’s top casino regulator, told me that foreign criticism will not alter the way of doing things in Macau. “Macau is not Las Vegas, Singapore, or, indeed, any other jurisdiction,” he said, adding, “Macau has attracted more than twenty billion dollars in foreign investment in the casino industry alone. In short, the public interest has been well served.” José Maria Pereira Coutinho, a liberal member of the Legislative Assembly, is less impressed with the industry. “The government is incompetent,” he said. More than eight out of every ten dollars of government revenue comes from casinos, and Coutinho says that the annual payments to citizens are a “drug,” to “keep their mouths shut.” I asked whether lawmakers will push for more urgent changes. He laughed, and said, “In the Legislative Assembly, a nuclear bomb could pass through and everything would go slowly and calmly.”
The files of the God of Gamblers case can be read as a string of accidents, good and bad: Siu’s run at the baccarat table; Wong’s luck to be assigned an assassin with a conscience; Adelson’s misfortune that reporters noticed an obscure murder plot involving his casino. But the tale, viewed another way, depends as little on luck as a casino does. It is, rather, about the fierce collision of self-interests. If Las Vegas is a burlesque of America—the “ethos of our time run amok,” as Hal Rothman, the historian, put it—then Macau is a caricature of China’s boom, its opportunities and rackets, its erratic sorting of winners and losers.
Four years after Siu hit his hot streak, I got word through a friend in Hong Kong that he might be back in his old neighborhood, not far from the dismantled squatters’ camps where he grew up. He was said to have worked out a deal for protection from another triad, the Wo Shing Wo. I took the train to see him. His neighborhood lies in a lush river delta framed by green hills on the horizon. The summer heat had broken and construction seemed to be under way everywhere, as old villages were being converted into enclaves of villas and cul-de-sacs with names like the Prestige and Sky Blue and Full Silver Garden.
I met Siu at a construction site near a scrap-metal yard, surrounded by marshy fields of water chestnuts and lilies, crosshatched by footpaths. He was building fourteen houses whose modern design, heavy on stainless steel and black granite, would have looked at home in Sacramento or Atlanta. The complex will be called the Pinnacle. Siu was wearing a droopy yellow golf shirt, jeans, and muddy sneakers. He seemed subdued, and his voice was raspy. He was barely distinguishable from his crew—tanned, bony, middle-aged men from across the Chinese countryside. When I arrived, it was quitting time, and one of them was naked, giving himself a bird bath from a bucket of soapy water. Siu and I sat on folding chairs beside a line of drying laundry and gazed out over the unfinished houses.
I asked where he had gone into hiding, and he smiled. “All over China,” he said. “I drove everywhere by myself. Sometimes I stayed in five-star hotels, sometimes in tiny places. I liked Inner Mongolia the best. Eventually, I went up to the mountains of Jiangxi for eight months. When it began to snow, I nearly froze. I went down from the mountains and came home.”
I asked if he had cheated at baccarat. “The reporters just listened to rumors from people who wanted their money back,” he said. “Everybody says I was playing tricks at the table. It’s not true. I wasn’t. When I gambled, there must have been ten people with their eyes on me at any time. How am I supposed to play tricks?”
His denial left open a range of possibilities for manipulating the game, and theories abound. A lawyer for one of the defendants surmises that Siu may have been a minor player in a larger con, pitting one triad against another. But he said that, ultimately, “there is so much cheating going on. How can you know the truth?”
Siu seemed unconcerned about his safety. “I’m in my mid-fifties, and I’ll live to be, what, seventy?” he said. “So I’ve got only another decade or so. What do I have to lose? I’m not afraid.” He fell silent for a moment. “If they come for me, I can go for them, too,” he added.
He’d stopped going to Macau. The decision was for his kids, he said. “I don’t want them to gamble. Two of them have bachelor’s degrees, one has a master’s. They don’t swear. They’re good kids.” He went on, “You have to be highly sensitive to be a good gambler. I don’t recommend it to everybody. Everyone called me Inveterate Gambler Ping. But I never liked that, because I was never addicted. I gambled because I knew I could win.”
Night was falling, and Siu offered me a lift back to the station in his black Lexus S.U.V., parked in the dirt beside us. “There used to be a helicopter taking me to the Venetian anytime I wanted to go,” he said. “Now I’m getting my feet dirty. Real estate is even more lucrative. It’s better than gambling or drugs or anything.” He pointed out the new houses in progress. “It costs a few million to build one of these, and then I can sell it for ten million.”