In 1999, Macau, the first and the last European settlement on the China coast, reverted back to Chinese sovereignty after 450 years of Portuguese rule. Shortly after the handover, this once tranquil fishing enclave became engulfed in a multi- billion-dollar casino boom that has taken the region by storm.

Situated on the western side of the Pearl River Delta, this semi-autonomous region of China is the sole territory within the People’s Republic that permits gambling. Last year alone, gambling revenue from Macau’s 30 casinos reached US $10.4 billion. In 2008, Macau was on track to top $13 billion, doubling that of Las Vegas. An astonishing figure when you consider that Macau is less than one-sixth the size of Washington, D.C.

Macau’s unbelievable growth in recent years would not have been possible without a heavy reliance on imported workers, needed to meet the astounding demand of the casino industry. The majority of the 98,000 foreign workers have come from mainland China, although a growing number of immigrants have been drawn to the city from South Asian countries, including the Philippines and India, to work menial jobs such as security guards and cleaners. They have come in the hope of earning better wages to support their families back home but are often abused and neglected by their casino managers.

In recent months, signs of a significant slowdown have begun to appear, as the boom that turned Macau into the world’s gambling capital is slowing dramatically and the global economic and financial crisis is delaying new projects and damaging tourism. There are now travel restrictions on Mainland Chinese tourists. Guangdong residents are limited to entering Macau only once every three months and as mainland tourists are essential, accounting for more than half of the city’s revenue, this restriction is having a significant impact on economic growth.

Perhaps the clearest sign of this deepening crisis in Macau was the announcement by Las Vegas Sands in November that it had indefinitely halted construction on its Macau projects. This resulted in as many as 11,000 people being out of work. While an average of five casinos were built annually between 2004 and 2008, next year is most likely to see only one opening.

Macau is the most densely populated region in the world, with a population of 18,428 persons per square kilometer. Vastly overcrowded neighbourhoods surround the border gate with the city of Zhuhai, the gateway into main land China. Despite the huge economic growth over recent years, the lives of many of the local population have deteriorated and almost 20 pe rcent live in poverty.

Although close in proximity, there is a striking contrast between the newly acquired wealth surrounding the casinos and the dilapidated northern districts of Macau which house the city’s poorest residents. Regardless of years of spectacular economic growth, locals believe the area is little changed, having been left on the margins of the casino boom.

Macau has experienced an extraordinary level of rapid change over the last 10 years. I have aimed to document the diverse effects of this immense casino boom and hope to reflect how it has transformed this once sleepy and quaint corner of the People’s Republic of China.

Stephen JB Kelly