Sex and the gambling man - Saturday 12th of March 2005

You and your buddies have come to Macau from Guangzhou or Shanghai or Hong Kong and the night has gone well. The dice, cards r roulette wheel left you with a pocketful of change and a certain, um, urge.

Not to worry.

China's favorite little Special Autonomous Region, a cash cow for casinos and a great little getaway for mainland officials, tourists and millionaires with money to burn, offers way more than just baccarat, blackjack and fantan.

There's Cecilia Cheung, for example.


Well, not the Cecilia Cheung - but a reasonable look-alike is on offer at Club Dynasty, one of Macau's many newly spruced-up nightspots that are enjoying their own boom right along with the more well-publicized casino explosion.

The petite "Cecilia,'' who is, by the way, Vietnamese not Chinese, is said to be popular with high rollers who want to celebrate a big night at the tables with someone who at least looks like a Hong Kong movie star.

On a recent evening of wholesome fun at Club Dynasty, "Cecilia'' was presented in a gilt-edged karaoke room, along with dozens of other PROs - public relations officers. She didn't do much except recline sweetly on a sofa, smile and offer to sing a song with the group, but we were hardly big spenders and she on departed for greener pastures.

Other clubs in Macau offer additional ersatz celebrities. The Emperor nightclub has a look-alike for diving sensation Guo Jingjing, who is popular ith sports-minded visitors. Older patrons are said to prefer a young woman at the same club who looks like Tina Leung, the sexy 1960s Hong Kong cinema heartthrob.


Cloned movie stars are just one small example of the range of sex-for-sale in Macau, an industry that is seemingly inseparable from gambling in the vice-driven economy here.

This may not be exactly what President Hu Jintao had in mind when he praised the success of Macau during unification day ceremonies here in December.

"Macau's success in the past five years,'' Hu said, "offers compelling evidence our policy of `one country, two systems' is a fundamental guarantee of Macau's sustained development and its long-term prosperity and stability.''

There is no doubt that Macau has its own system working pretty well - gone are the days when nightclubs in Macau were seedy little triad-run affairs catering mostly to Hong Kong punters off or a furtive weekend. As the territory's casino business has been ransformed by an influx of Las Vegas nd mainland cash, nightlife is following suit. Many hotel-casinos are dramatically upgrading their facilities, renovating existing nightspots and adding new ones.

p>Take the Fortuna Nightclub. Attached to the newly redone Fortuna Grand Hotel and Casino, the nightclub has undergone top-to-bottom overhaul, manager Alvin Pui says.

On a recent visit, some 100 women - lmost all of them from the mainland and dressed in not much more than a colorful arf and a sneeze - were available to entertain guests in one of the 26 renovated karaoke rooms.

Featuring red-velvet couches, nude paintings on the wall, flat-screen displays for the video karaoke and lots of chintz and crystal, the rooms may not be in what one would call good taste, but they certainly look expensive.

"You need a place to play after you play,'' joked Pui. "This year you can see so many new nightclubs.''

According to EastWeek magazine, a sister publication of the Weekend Standard, turnover in the Macau nightclub business was up 30 percent in the last six months of 2004, with almost all of the increase coming from mainland visitors. There are 20 icensed nightclubs in Macau and each makes a net profit of between HK$3 million and HK$6 million a month, the magazine says.

Officials in the Macau government are a little cagey, however, about the growth of the industry. They say there are 34 licensed sauna baths but they deny keeping figures for the number of ightclubs.

Since both saunas and nightclubs are unabashedly places that offer women for "entertainment'' purposes, it is widely assumed that the sex trade in Macau is legal. This is not exactly true, but is subject to interpretation.


According to Macau's criminal statutes, soliciting for the sex trade in a public place is liable to a 5,000 pataca fine. An officer at the Legal Affairs Bureau, who refused to be named, said the law is aimed at targeting prostitutes working in brothels with tourist visas.

In addition, the bureau said it is a criminal offence to administer a brothel or "control prostitution.'' Anyone who acts as an "agent'' encouraging the sex trade is liable to a jail term of one to five years.

p>In practice it is hard to say what these laws mean. Sources in the nightclub industry say there are about 4,000 mainland women working in Macau but nobody wants to say how they got there or whether there is any connivance between Macanese and Chinese immigration officials to turn a blind eye to the traffic in young women into the territory.

One young woman working in a sauna parlour said she was a university student from Chongqing in town on a tourist visa. She was just trying to make a little extra cash to pay her university expenses, she said.

There are many layers to the sex-for-sale scene in Macau. In places like Fortuna, Emperor and Dynasty, a group of men can reasonably claim to just be having a few drinks and bouncing women on their knees in the karaoke rooms. If they want to go any further that can be arranged.

In these upscale places, it works like this: A group will enter a room, order drinks and wait for the women to appear. A mamasan will present a line up of a half-a-dozen or more women. Customers can choose a girl and she will sit for a chat and a squeeze.


After 10 minutes or so, you must decide. If you want the young woman to stay, you will start paying a table charge of about HK$500 an hour, in exchange for which you can hug, tickle, cuddle and join in on Cantopop karaoke favorites.

But you can also trade in your choice and another line-up will appear until the customers have all settled on their "partners.''

Plausible denial is a little harder to maintain if one goes into one of Macau's many sauna palaces. Often attached to the larger hotels, these are decidedly not places to go for foot reflexology or to get the kinks out of a bad back.

There are also package deals available in Hong Kong and Macau for visitors to the saunas and nightclubs. Advertised in storefronts at the Shun Tak Ferry Terminal are "honeymoon'' deals that include a woman, a room and several hours of whatever for about HK$1,500.

p>The one thing you will not find in most nightclubs in Macau is anything ike a stage show or a band, entertainment traditionally associated with nightclubs. The bands and entertainers, one manager said, are just a waste of money and have been let go. quot;The main point of all the nightclubs here are the girls,'' he said.

With the overwhelming number of patrons in Macau being Asian, mostly Chinese, another option not yet available are the kind of bump and grind go-go joints popular with Western tourists in Bangkok and elsewhere.

That, too, may be changing. One ightclub source said a group was planning to open Macau's first go-go bar later this year. Why? Because of the success of the Sands Casino, nightlife mavens expect an increasing number of Westerners to start popping up in Macau and they don't want them to feel left out.

Not that there aren't plenty of other choices.

At the Century Boss Night Club, Japanese adult video stars are imported at considerable expense to entertain clients with scenes from favorite movies. According to Eastweek, the night club even dressed its own staff of 200 Chinese prostitutes in kimonos during a Japanese porno romotional event that increased revenue by 20 per cent.

On the downmarket side, those tourists looking for cheaper thrills than flocked wallpaper and high-end karaoke machines can find live sex shows, many with Eastern European talent. What goes on? "Oh, you know. It's what you might think,'' said a guide on a recent excursion to Macau who steered us away from one such show.

Moving further downmarket, there are still plenty of streetwalkers who ply their trade just adjacent to the massive Casino Lisboa. It is here that one finds Russian and other Eastern European women, who seem to have been confined to these few dingy blocks in recent years. Sources say this is because "managers'' of the Russian women made trouble in the nightclubs. The women are now unwelcome in the tonier establishments, unlike a few years ago when Europeans were employed in many of the nightclubs longside Chinese women.

And the triads? In modern Macau, the criminal gangs that have flourished for longer than anyone can remember and were still gunning each other down in the streets a decade ago, are hardly spoken of in polite company. Ask about triad influence around a table in a nightspot and the conversation is likely to stop mid-sentence as everyone shuffles their feet and stares at the ceiling.

During one such moment, someone leaned over and said, "The triads talk money now, not fists. But this is very sensitive and Macau is a very small place. There are no more trouble makers. It's all about money now.''

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