On the sweltering afternoon of May Day, 2007, a rare mass protest of construction workers, local civil servants and others took place in the streets of Macau.footnote* Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets with banners bearing a range of slogans—against corruption, for housing rights and better livelihoods, against the influx of illegal labour—and chanting calls for the resignation of Macau’s chief executive, Edmund Ho Hau-Wah. The march was organized by a coalition of six small labour unions but was joined along the way by many sympathetic bystanders. At the junction of Avenida do Coronel Mesquita and Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, in the heart of the old Portuguese colonial city, an altercation with the police over the protest’s route turned into a series of scuffles, and one citizen was seriously wounded as a policeman fired five gunshots.footnote1

The protests were evidence of the social tensions caused by the dramatic economic growth in Macau, which—paradoxically—has been increasingly integrated into the circuits of global capital since its sovereignty was returned to mainland China in 1999. Foreign investment has poured in, the vast majority from overseas casino operators who have driven a phenomenal expansion of the territory’s gambling sector. Macau is the only part of the prc where gambling is legal and, in a stark demonstration of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, the Chinese authorities have since 2001 enthusiastically opened the region up to casino entrepreneurs from the us. Macau now has almost as many casinos as Las Vegas, and recently overtook it in terms of revenue.footnote2 The casino boom has had a far-reaching impact on the territory’s landscape, social fabric, economic life and everyday culture—transforming it from colonial outpost to what Las Vegas casino entrepreneur Steve Wynn breathlessly called ‘the most dramatically changing place on the planet’.footnote3

Located at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, 20 miles west of Hong Kong, and bordered to the north by Guangdong province, the territory comprises the Macau peninsula and the islands of Taipa and Coloane—linked to the mainland by three road bridges, each over a mile in length. The historic Portuguese centre of the enclave retains a Lusitanian flavour—cobblestone streets, colonnaded squares, pastel yellow and green churches and houses—combined with Chinese monuments: the A-Ma temple, carved stone gateways. But much of its picturesque colonial architecture has now been submerged beneath a wave of high-rise construction, as luxury hotels, apartment buildings, entertainment complexes and mega-malls have mushroomed across the landscape, blocking out such landmarks as the 19th-century lighthouse on Guia Hill. Relentless reclamation projects have expanded the quantity of land ripe for development: the sea inlet that formerly separated Taipa and Coloane is now a stretch of dry land called the Cotai Strip, expressly modelled on Las Vegas’s main thoroughfare, where 20,000 hotel rooms are currently at some stage of construction.

As the May Day protests indicate, however, the benefits of growth have been shared far from equally among Macau’s 540,000 residents.footnote4 A new wave of radicalization appears to be taking place among local workers who feel betrayed by the economic liberalization process, a spontaneous movement for the protection of social rights that reveals some of the structural tensions of China’s re-orientation to the world capitalist market. Decolonization has taken place alongside capitalist expansion, propelled by domestic elites and sanctioned by Beijing’s pro-market turn. In this respect, Fanon and Memmi’s diagnosis of African neocolonization following independence remains remarkably relevant for an understanding of Macau’s post-colonial formation: old and new, internal and external forces are in play.footnote5 Uniquely, however, in the transformation of Macau since its handover to China, three overlapping historical processes have been at work: the tangled legacy of Cold War and colonialism in East Asia; the explosive growth of a global leisure sector, fuelled by deregulated capital flows, bringing radical new social inequalities in its wake; and the deep-seated contradictions of China’s modernization project. The result has been a post-colonial arrangement marked by many of the problems besetting the prc’s dynamic development, but also by specifically Macanese constraints and conditions.

Gambling has, of course, been Macau’s most important source of income for the past two centuries. After Portuguese traders were granted the right to permanent settlement in the peninsula in 1557, paying ground rent to local representatives of the Chinese Emperor, it had initially operated as a more general trading centre—a hub for European activities in Asia, and intermediary for Chinese trade with Japan. The forcible opening of China’s ports to British mercantile interests after the Opium War, and the 1842 cession of Hong Kong by the Qing, meant that Macau was no longer the exclusive entrepôt in the region. With Portugal’s imperial power declining under the new world-market conditions, Macau’s traders turned to gambling, slavery and opium to generate profits.footnote6 The ‘coolie trade’ of the late 19th century exported thousands of slaves annually to the New World, and lucrative opium processing was farmed out to Chinese syndicates; prostitution was run by Macau’s triads, within a colonial regulatory code. The Portuguese governor issued the first gambling licence in 1847. Portugal’s grip was strengthened with the signing of the 1887 Treaty of Friendship and Commerce, which recognized its sovereignty over the enclave.footnote7 Under colonial rule, Macau’s political system was tightly controlled by Lisbon, which determined all major decisions and policies; all high-ranking government posts were occupied by Portuguese, and the participation of Chinese citizens was extremely limited. The character of rule continued unchanged during World War Two, when Portugal’s neutral status allowed for a ‘friendly’ Japanese presence, and after the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, when the territory became the locus of intense rivalry between Communists and Guomindang.