Those who are familiar with the Las Vegas style of large scale commercialized gambling would agree that it is a business model based on the logic of comfortable entrapment. The casino-resorts of Las Vegas are enormous interiorized environments buffered from the surroundings by vast tracts of car-parking and landscaping. Though the promenade has become more urbanized over the years and improved infrastructure has made it possible for a pedestrian to walk from one building to the next without too much discomfort, the key design objective remains that of entrapment, if not within one resort, then between resorts owned by the same company. In both Las Vegas and Macau today, you can land at the airport or ferry terminal, take the free shuttle to the casino-resort, and remain ensconced in a simulated fantasy world for the entire duration of the stay.
However, in the Macau peninsula where gambling has been flourishing since the 1930s, there exists a different relationship between the casino and the city, one that is slowly being supplanted by the interiorized model of Las Vegas. This model is characterized by a much more intricate network of spaces where various ancillary activities – seen in the profusion of pawnshops, moneychangers, restaurants, medicinal halls, watch/jewelry shops, shopping arcades, brothels, saunas, discotheques – bleed in and out of the casino. Overlaid onto this is the thickness of everyday urban life – small parks, schools, playgrounds, barbers, clinics, grocery stores, markets, residential apartments, public toilets and community clubs constitute an urbanism that is distinct and yet inseparable from the casino ecology. Unlike the contained economy of what we call the Integrated Resort today, the older casino economy of Macau generates, rather than turns away from, its urban context, and the density and multiplicity of small businesses, each with more eye-catching signage than the next, radiating from the casino is its most immediate visceral expression. As scholars like Bill Eadington, Ricardo Siu and Tim Simpson have argued, though Macau’s pre-liberalization casino system was in name a monopoly, it was in practice closer to a system of shared power sustained by ambiguous legalities and customary affiliations. This is in contrast to the current oligopolistic system, where the flow of capital is ironically monopolized by corporations and the government (though vested interests from the previous regime continue to operate in its interstices).*
There are shadows of this fading economy at the ZAPE, the district in the Macau peninsula where many of the older casinos are located. It is a window into another world where capital flows through capillaries and where the moral, legal and economic spheres rub against each other in ambiguous ways. This series of photographs documents this fading world. It is a world that is relatively unloved, lost between the spectacle of ostentatious casinos and the stridency of patrimonial heritage. Yet, it is precisely that aspect of the city that turns time back momentarily and confronts us with our own fetish, this inexorable pursuit of progress, so foolhardy that we do not see the debris it leaves behind.
*Tim Simpson’s piece in Fast Capitalism describes this in great detail. https://www.uta.edu/huma/agger/fastcapitalism/8_1/simpson8_1.html