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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gamblers Say Macau's a Safe Bet

MACAU, China -- Chinese businessman Cao Yanglin let his lunch of slow-cooked beef rib with truffle puree and lemon cream sauce go cold as he talked about his gambling spree the night before at the baccarat tables in Macau -- the world's new epicenter for gambling.

The property developer said he won $3,840 at the Las Vegas-style Wynn Macau casino hotel, where he was enjoying his noon meal. But he said he lost $7,680 at the new Grand Lisboa, shaped like a giant Faberge egg covered in flashing lights.

The sting of losing so much money seemed to have faded for the smiling Cao, who resembled a television anchorman with a deep voice, square jaw and dyed black hair. He was busy musing about the amazing changes sweeping China and how Macau would profit from the increasingly wealthy Chinese.

"My father was a railroad worker who never left the country," said Cao, 58, from the northern city of Tianjin, near Beijing. "But I've been to Macau more than 10 times and I've even been to Vegas. They need to have more baccarat tables there."

Gamblers like Cao have helped this city on the southeastern Chinese coast bump off the Las Vegas Strip last year as the world's gambling center. The city raked in $6.95 billion in gambling revenue, while Las Vegas made $6.69 billion, regulators in both cities said.

Macau says it is just getting started. More casinos, malls, convention centers, resorts and thousands of hotel rooms are being built in the city, which has a population of just over a half million.

The casino tycoons say they are certain that booming China will get even richer and that millions of new gamblers will flood into the casinos. They plan to follow the same blueprint that successfully transformed Las Vegas from a seedy casino town into a global hot spot for dining, shows, conventions and shopping.

But some analysts warn of risks. China could suffer political upheaval and economic meltdown. New gambling resorts in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia could lure away visitors. Or the shoppers, conventioneers and families just might not show up as they did in Las Vegas.

Macau -- a peninsula and two islands -- was ruled by Portugal for 442 years before it was returned to China as a semiautonomous territory in 1999.

It has one of Asia's most intriguing and charming blends of East and West. Street signs are in Portuguese and Chinese. The signature snack is the creamy egg tart on puff pastry. There are still plenty of colonial-style buildings painted in pastel yellow, pink and peach. The city center, with streets paved with mosaic tiles, is on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

But Macau's dreary side is easy to find. Beautiful buildings are far outnumbered by drab concrete apartment blocks. In the old casino district, streets are lined with small stores illuminated with headache-inducing fluorescent lights. Shop windows are crammed with Zippo-like lighters and gaudy jewelry.

Buxom, bleach-blonde Russian women in tight pants hang out at outdoor cafes behind the Holiday Inn Macau. Skinny mainland Chinese prostitutes dart from closed storefronts in search of clients, saying, "Massage, massage?" Some hand out flimsy business cards with fake names like "Yang Yang" or "Ling Ling."

Macau was a darker, more dangerous place in the late 1990s when the Portuguese were preparing to leave. Criminal gangs -- or triads --waged turf wars with drive-by shootings, kidnappings and car bombs that scared away tourists.

In a desperate bid to lure back visitors, one security official famously proclaimed there was nothing to fear in Macau because the triad assassins were professionals who did not miss their targets.

The violence mostly ended after 1999 when the Chinese People's Liberation Army marched into Macau.