Identity

Living paycheck to paycheck in Asia's Vegas

Oct 12, 2018

Hoi Sao-sou works as a cleaner at one of the biggest casinos in Macau, a former Portuguese colony on the southern tip of China. At the end of each day, she takes off her black uniform, grabs her shopping bag and rushes to catch a bus that will take her to the border with mainland China.

From there, she crosses over to Zhuhai, the nearest city, picks up a few vegetables, and crosses back into Macau. The whole journey takes about an hour on a good day with little traffic and short lines at immigration, but it’s worth it for Hoi. If she shopped in Macau, her expenses would double.

“The prices here are very high, so I rarely buy food or other necessities here,” she says. “Half a chicken in Macau costs about 50 patacas [$6.18], but in Zhuhai, it would be 25 patacas. For fresh seafood here, I may have to pay more than 40 patacas, but there, I’ll probably spend less than 15. It’s much cheaper in mainland China.”

The queue at immigration in Zhuhai's Gongbei Port. Many Macau residents cross the border just to buy cheaper groceries in mainland China.
The queue at immigration in Zhuhai's Gongbei Port. Many Macau residents cross the border just to buy cheaper groceries in mainland China. / Photo: Fox Hu Yi/SCMP

Hoi, whose husband is unemployed, says it’s hard to make ends meet in a city that is heavily reliant on revenue from its 40 casinos. She receives a little over 7,000 patacas ($870) a month for a tiring job that only allows a 45-minute lunch break.

“We can’t really say that we hate the casinos because they’ve brought many jobs,” Hoi says, “but it’s also made everything much more expensive. Life has become tougher.”

The richest place on earth?

Macau was returned to China in 1999 but still enjoys a high degree of autonomy and free speech not allowed on the mainland. It is the only place in China where casinos are allowed to operate.

In 2002, the government ended a four-decade casino monopoly held by Hong Kong tycoon Stanley Ho and invited Vegas-based giants like Wynn and Sands to build in the city.

Business boomed, and by 2006, Macau eclipsed Las Vegas as the biggest gambling hub in the world in terms of revenue.

A night view of Macau. The city has eclipsed Las Vegas as the biggest gambling hub in the world.
A night view of Macau. The city has eclipsed Las Vegas as the biggest gambling hub in the world. / Photo: Ricky Chung/SCMP

The city is now on track to becoming the richest place in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund. By 2020, per-capita gross domestic product is expected to reach $143,116, the highest of any country or jurisdiction on earth.

But many of its residents say they’re not seeing any of that rising wealth.

Leong Kim-kuan lives in a 150-square-foot one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a walk-up with her husband and daughter, who uses a wheelchair and rarely leaves the house.

They pay 5,500 patacas ($680) a month for rent. Leong’s husband works as a security guard in a casino, and his monthly salary may float between 10,000 and 13,000 patacas, depending on his health.

“My life is very sad, but I still think I need to face it with a smile,” she says.

Leong Kim-kuan lives in a small one-bedroom apartment with her husband and their wheelchair-bound daughter.
Leong Kim-kuan lives in a small one-bedroom apartment with her husband and their wheelchair-bound daughter. / Photo: Raquel Carvalho/SCMP

“My life is very sad, but I still think I need to face it with a smile.”

Leong left mainland China for Macau when she was 22 but didn’t stay for long. In 1981, she moved to Peru and remained there for about three decades.

Fed up with corruption and worried about their safety, she and her family returned to Macau in 2014. By then, the glitzy casinos were raking in unimaginable profits from Chinese high-rollers.

“The architecture, the way people dress…everything is very different,” Leong says.

But her family’s quality of life has remained stagnant. Her husband, who is originally from Macau, applied for government-subsidized housing last year, hoping that they could move to a building with an elevator so that their daughter can go outside more.

“But I know this can take many years,” Leong says.

Migrant workers, who make up about a third of the city’s population, are even more vulnerable because as non-residents, their salaries are lower and they receive little support from the government.

“Most of us rent a bed and share a room with friends,” says Yosa Wariyanti, president of the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union. “It costs about 800 [patacas]. We cannot afford a flat or even a room by ourselves.”

Migrant workers make up about a third of the city's population.
Migrant workers make up about a third of the city's population. / Photo: Raquel Carvalho/SCMP

The median monthly income of Macau residents is about 20,000 patacas ($2,500), according to government statistics. But a study released last year showed that the median salaries of Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers in Macau were only 3,700 and 4,000 patacas, with some workers receiving as little as 1,500 a month.

In tycoons’ hands

Although “some key economic indicators may suggest that Macau is among the league of wealthiest cities in the world, in reality, the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few”, says Paul Pun, secretary general of Caritas Macau, the local branch of the international Catholic charity, which provides poverty relief.

Many government policies, such as land regulations, benefit the casinos in Macau. Most lawmakers are appointed by the city’s chief executive and professional sectors, so many of them have business connections. Tax revenue from gambling typically makes up more than 70 percent of the government’s total revenue.

The local administration has poured millions into subsidies and social welfare programs, but critics have accused the government of investing too much in short-term policies—such as yearly cash handouts for residents—and too little on long-term policies for fundamental areas—housing, senior citizen care, health, and education.

Leong Ka-wai, a former driver, has relied on government support since a serious leg injury put him out of work two years ago. He lives in government-subsidized housing and receives a stipend of 3,000 patacas ($370) a month. He often walks across the border to mainland China to buy groceries.

“I seldom buy things here because they are too expensive,” he says.

The border crossing on the Macau side at Portas do Cerco.
The border crossing on the Macau side at Portas do Cerco. / Photo: Raquel Carvalho/SCMP

Leong is confident that he will be able to find a job as soon as he recovers, but he doesn’t want to put his life in the hands of the casinos.

“Many people who work there also gamble,” he says. “I don’t want to become someone like that.”

Han Weiyu, a Zhuhai resident, has been commuting across the border to Macau for the past eight years. She is able to make 10,000 patacas a month as a cleaner in a bakery.

“The salary in Macau is higher, but I know I could never afford staying here,” she says.

Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.