'Macwow' in the South China Sea: Gambling on Macau

Macau has a rich history and established gambling culture

St. Dominic's is Macau's oldest church.

Macau glitters as a great duality, fusing a gateway to Chinese culture with an accent of Portuguese spice. The tiny enclave on the Pearl River Delta of the South China Sea is twinned with Hong Kong 45 miles away and features the world’s most successful legal gambling dens by revenue. Along with the exuberance of that extravaganza, there is an underlying heart of an entertainment, culinary, and cultural tourist destination that is much more than just a "Vegas of the East."

Macau, first settled by the Portuguese in 1557, was the original portal to China for European expansionists. After 400 years as an entryway, entrepôt and colony, the Portuguese were the last Westerners to leave in 1999, transferring Macau back to China, under a "one country, two systems" government. Macau has more than half a million people, with about 94 percent of them being "Chinese." But over time a distinctly "Macanese" culture has emerged. These Macanese traditions, along with a small Portuguese community, have imbued Macau with a unique fragrant piquancy to its Asian heart. This can be seen not only in the street names, churches, and architecture but also in the wide variety of homegrown Macanese, Portuguese, and a wide range of international cuisines that are available.

As Portuguese explorers sailed the world to Brazil, Macau, and elsewhere, they merged their own cultural heritage with local elements. For example, feijoada, a signature stew of Portugal, typically, a mélange of meats like beef or pork with a regional mixture of local beans and spices has appeared in Macau. Symbolically, in Macau the meat in the feijoada represents the Macanese culture's gambling and the beans and spices represent colonial culture. 

Gambling in Macau dates back to the 16th century and was legitimized by the colonial government in 1847. In 2006, Macau passed Las Vegas in revenue, and today is the world’s largest gaming center with revenues of $38 billion in 2012, more than five times that of Las Vegas.

In Macau for a weekend, or at least a couple of days? Here’s what you should check out:


Friday Night
Most non-Chinese visitors come by ferry from Hong Kong, and among the ships is a high-speed jet boat that docks at the Hong Kong International Airport for a 45-minute connection to the Macau Peninsula Ferry Terminal.