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From Casino Wars to Casino Capitalism

Macau’s ambiguous sovereignty is a key factor in the remarkable revenues produced by the city’s casinos. Learn more at the Eadington Lecture.

Campus News  |  Jul 5, 2018  |  By UNLV News Center
Macau at night

Macau (Courtesy of Wikicommons)

Editor's Note: 

Tim Simpson, an associate dean at the University of Macau, is among the 2017-18 class of Eadington Fellows at the UNLV Center for Gaming Research. The residency program enables researchers from around the world to dig into the unique archives in UNLV Libraries Special Collections. Here, Simpson shares some of the work he did examining the relationship among sovereignty and casino gaming in Asian and North American gaming enclaves. He’ll present the lecture “Enclaves, Sovereignty, and Gaming: A Comparative Perspective” at 2 p.m. July 6, Goldfield Room, Lied Library.

I moved to the Chinese city-state of Macau to begin work at the University of Macau in 2001, two years after Portugal returned the territory to the People’s Republic of China following nearly half a millennia of rule. Macau was the last European colony in Asia. When I arrived in Macau I had little understanding of the city’s Iberian history, its 150-year old casino gambling industry, or Macau’s crucial role in the development of global capitalism. Macau struck me at the time as a charming outpost which was seemingly a generation behind the neighboring Tiger Economies of Hong Kong and Taipei, with a central cityscape dominated by 17th and 18th century Portuguese colonial-era architecture, and a laid-back atmosphere that was often described as “sleepy”.

Several years after my arrival, and following the liberalization of the local casino industry, Las Vegas entrepreneur Sheldon Adelson opened the Sands Macau, the first foreign-owned casino in the city, and the Sands quickly became the most profitable casino in the world. The Sands’ success sparked intense development of the city’s gambling industry which had two visible outcomes: the transformation of Macau’s diminutive cityscape into a phantasmagoric environment of iconic glass buildings and massive integrated casino resorts, including two of the largest buildings on the planet; and the sudden arrival of millions of nascent tourists from the Chinese mainland, who traveled to Macau on a new Central Government enabled exit-visa scheme.

I became fascinated by the relationship among this new built environment and these new Chinese tourists who traveled to Macau to gamble and shop in the new casino resorts, and I have been engaged in a long-term research project focused on understanding Macau’s role in China’s economic reforms. I am currently completing a book on the subject.

Key to that role is Macau’s ambiguous sovereignty, which emerged from its Sino-Luso history, and which has long been one of the city’s most advantageous assets. I have spent the past four weeks as a resident Eadington Fellow in the UNLV Libraries Special Collections, with the goal of developing a better understanding of the complex relationships among sovereignty and gambling.

Although my original intention was to access the Katherine A. Spilde Papers on Native American Gaming, a collection of materials amassed the Harvard University anthropologist who worked with the National Indian Gaming Association and collected a vast trove of information, one search for materials about Macau led to the serendipitous discovery of another recent library acquisition: the Eugene Martin Christensen Papers.

Gaming consultant Christensen collected these materials during his years working with casinos, horse tracks, and lotteries in a variety of gaming jurisdictions. Interestingly, Christiansen collected some materials about Macau’s gaming industry when the city was still under Portuguese administration. These materials are focused on the final decade of Portuguese rule, and some items cover Macau’s notorious “casino wars”, an outbreak of violence which occurred in the late 1990s just prior to Macau’s retrocession to China. Reading through old newspaper clippings allowed me to experience events of the era as they were happening, and prompted a better understanding of the relationship of this historical moment and the changes to the city’s sovereign status which would soon result from its reunification with China. Overall, the extensive and diverse materials found in the UNLV Special Collections have been of significant use for my book project.


About the Author

Tim Simpson is associate dean of the faculty of social sciences, and associate professor in the department of communication, University of Macau, where he has worked since 2001. He is the co-author (with UK-based photographer Roger Palmer) of the volume Macao Macau (Black Dog Publishing, 2015), and editor of the book Tourist Utopias: Offshore Islands, Enclave Spaces and Mobile Imaginaries (Amsterdam University Press, 2017). He is currently working on a monograph, under contract with University of Minnesota Press, entitled Macau: Casino Capitalism and the Biopolitical Metropolis.