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Time machine Macau

Written by Andrew W Scott

This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of World Gaming magazine.

Illustrations: Gian Carlo Bernal

It had been a long time since they had all been in the same place at the same time, much less at seven o’clock in the morning!

One by one they entered the disused warehouse hidden down a leafy track amongst the hills of Coloane. The Phoenix and The Eagle both flew in together, gracefully gliding through the narrow gap between the two huge warehouse doors. Next to arrive was The Panda, pushing the doors open a little more and squeezing through, while brushing egg tart crumbs off his fur – the result of his pre-dawn Yum Cha breakfast. The Dragon and The Tiger had been playing all night at Galaxy Macau – the former enjoying a couple of very profitable baccarat shoes in the Galaxy Guangdong Club, while the latter had picked up a more-than-handy jackpot at Galaxy’s VIP slots just off the mass gaming floor. The two of them had the casino chauffeur drop them off a few hundred meters from the start of the secret track, as they were under strict instructions to keep the precise location under wraps. There was a merry mood in the warehouse, partly because of the mystery of the occasion and partly because of the very strange hour. 7am is not a time casino players are known to make their own!

The Butterfly gracefully fluttered her way in through the window, keen to find out what this was all about so she could get an early start on a big day of shopping at Macau’s finest retail outlets. “Where’s The Stallion?” asked the Panda, to no one in particular. “Probably been hard at it all night, if I know him,” replied The Eagle. As if on cue, a hot and bothered Stallion with a messed-up mane came bounding through the roller doors, completing the entire cast of the Pai Yao Gang.

“How was she?” teased the Tiger, to which The Stallion merely smiled.

“A gentleman never tells.”

Quick as a flash, the Tiger shot back, “But we’re talking about you, not some gentleman!” Before the good-natured ribbing could continue, The Dragon interjected.

“Look, does anyone know why we are all here? What is Pai Yao up to?”

Looks of bewilderment crossed everyone’s faces – they had all been told the same story. Be at this location at 7am.

“We’ll know soon enough,” chirped the Phoenix, holding his watch face up towards everyone – a watch face that showed precisely 7am. At that exact moment a door inside the warehouse burst open, casting a bright beam of electric light through the otherwise dull and dusty space. Pai Yao!

“I see you all made it! Good!” laughed Pai Yao to his friends. “Come on, this way! Wait till you see what I’ve got to show you!”

Pai Yao fires up the time machine as the gang looks on

Pai Yao fires up the time machine as the gang looks on

The entire gang dutifully filed into the room, and Pai Yao locked the door behind them. In the centre of the room, on a raised platform, was the strangest looking contraption they had ever seen. It looked like some kind of beautifully crafted 100 year old sled, with room for just one person in the seat – a seat made of beautifully ornate dark wood cushioned with soft red velvet. Behind the seat was a vertically-mounted round dish, like a small satellite dish. A shiny brass footrest surrounded the entire device and a kind of a black cylindrical display or control panel sat in front of the seat, connected to the brass footrest by two vertical brass railings.

Pai Yao leapt into the seat, beaming, and quizzed them all, “Well? Do you like it?”

“What is it, Pai Yao?” blurted The Phoenix. “It’s not like any kind of transport device I’ve ever seen before!”

“That’s because you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing a time machine!” Pai Yao snapped, proud as could be. “I won it last night in a high stakes poker game!”

Incredulous, most of The Gang simply could not believe what Pai Yao was telling them, and they told him so. “Look, I’ll prove it to you,” said Pai Yao, “Wait for me here, I’ll be back in a few minutes!” Just then, Pai Yao pushed a few buttons and twirled a few knobs on the control panel, and the contraption kicked into life. A strange whirring sound emanated from the dish behind the seat and suddenly all Pai Yao could see was everything around him spinning, faster and faster! The last thought that went through Pai Yao’s mind before he blacked out was, how do you set the time you want to go to on this thing?

Unbeknown to Pai Yao, the knobs he had twirled had sent him back in time more than 450 years!


The LED display on the control panel flicked back through the 1900s, the 1800s, the 1700s and the 1600s. Through the 1500s it started to slow down, finally resting on 1557. It took a few minutes for Pai Yao to come out of his daze. The next thing he knew, he was sitting amongst a small crowd, watching some kind of ceremony taking place.

Turning to the person next to him, Pai Yao asked, “Sorry I’m a bit confused, I had too much to drink last night. What’s going on here?”

“Lee Kan Kai,” the man in the crowd introduced himself. “Happy to help. See that Portuguese fellow there, that’s Leonel de Sousa. And the Chinese man, that’s Provincial Admiral Wang Bo. He represents the Chinese government around here. After years of the Portuguese desperately trying to get some land here, we’ve finally agreed to give them some.”

“This is the signing ceremony for the Portuguese to get their first piece of land in Macau?” asked Pai Yao.

“Exactly,” replied Lee. “They’ve been trying since they first arrived in 1517. There was bad blood between us for years. We won those two battles against them in 1521 and 1522 in Tuen Mun (Ed: in present-day Hong Kong), and they occupied Malacca (Ed: in present day Malaysia), which we weren’t happy with – the Malacca Sultanate is an ally of ours. It’s not as if we haven’t been reasonable, ever since the shipwreck in 1535 we’ve allowed them to anchor in the harbor to trade – they just haven’t been able to stay onshore overnight. But over the last 15 years or so I must admit they’ve helped us keep pirates out of this area. And they are just asking for a few drying sheds. This de Sousa guy seems alright. He’s been negotiating with Admiral Wang for a long time and the Portuguese are paying us taxes now for their trading. I suppose Admiral Wang knows what he is doing.”

“Mr Lee,” asked Pai Yao, “I have a question. Is there any gambling here?”

“Of course! Who doesn’t have gambling? I mean it’s technically illegal, but construction workers from Guangdong and the other areas of China have been playing at gambling stalls for years. There are gambling stalls on just about every major street – domestic helpers and labourers often play too. It’s been going on for hundreds of years, it’s perfectly normal. But why do you ask? Macau isn’t known for gambling, this is a trading port connected to long shipping routes from far away lands!”

Mr Lee, if only you knew, Pai Yao mused internally. If only you knew.

After the ceremony, Pai Yao was keen to get back to The Gang and found himself back on his time machine. This time he turned the knobs in the opposite direction, hoping to move into the future. It worked!


When Pai Yao awoke, he glanced down at the LED display on the time machine’s dashboard. It read 1849. Well, I’m heading in the right direction, Pai Yao thought.

Pushing his way to the front of a large gathering, Pai Yao stumbled across a familiar site. Fantan! The players were dressed in 19th century classical long Chinese garb, with shaved heads at the front and long pony tails hanging down at the back. The players looked different, but the game looked remarkably similar to the Fantan Pai Yao was accustomed to. Pai Yao saw a range of bets on 1, 2, 3 and 4, as well as the familiar cup and pile of buttons. He was surprised to see the house dealer peeling off buttons four at a time much quicker than their modern day Macau casino counterparts. (Ed: For more on Fantan, go to and look at the article list for issue #1.)

Suddenly he felt a firm slap on his back, and Pai Yao spun around to see an excited young man with a broad grin staring at him.

“Isn’t it great! Now they’ve legalized the Fantan houses, I’ve been playing and winning every day!” The young man couldn’t have been much more than 20 years old.

“Sorry, I’ve been out of town for a while,” said Pai Yao, “what did they do?”

Pai Yao stumbles upon one of the earliest legal Fantan games after landing in 1849

Pai Yao stumbles upon one of the earliest legal Fantan games after landing in 1849

“Haven’t you heard? That Portuguese Governor João Maria Ferreira do Amaral has decided to completely re-invent Macau from scratch to get the place moving again. And he started by regulating and licensing the Fantan houses. It’s fantastic! What’s your name, uncle?”

“Pai Yao.”

“Weird name. I’m Wong Ka Yip. I don’t know how long you have been away for, but since the British established themselves in Hong Kong over the last five to ten years, things have turned really bad here. We’re not on the main trading route any more – everyone goes to Hong Kong to do their trading now.”

Pai Yao thought the Macau of 1847 wasn’t so different to the Macau of 2013 – Southern China and Southeast Asia seemed to be the world ground zero for gambling in both of those years. The area of Asia centered around Guangdong Province seemed to have the highest proportion of gamblers to general population of anywhere in the world.

Time to get back to the machine, Pai Yao thought.


Pai Yao awoke to the now familiar sensation and quickly glanced at the time machine display. 1937! I need to turn that dial a bit more, he thought.

Pai Yao with Wong Kok Cheng and Wong Ka Yip at the opening of the New Central Hotel in 1937

Pai Yao with Wong Kok Cheng and Wong Ka Yip at the opening of the New Central Hotel in 1937

Pai Yao looked around and actually recognized the street he was in. This is one of the main streets of Macau, Avenida Almeida Ribeiro (more commonly referred to as San Ma Lo), he thought to himself. Pai Yao realised he was once again at a special event. It seemed the time machine had a knack of transporting him to key dates in Macau’s history. What’s this lovely hotel? The sign says “New Central Hotel”. But I know that hotel, and it isn’t exactly the nicest place in town, Pai Yao thought to himself. But this hotel looks great.

What Pai Yao was failing to consider was that this was some 76 years in the past, when the Central Hotel was still brand new.

Suddenly Pai Yao noticed a tiny wizened ancient man, who must have been over 100 years old, sitting on a bench. The ancient man was pointing at Pai Yao, beckoning him to come over. Pai Yao walked over to the man and placed his ear next to the old man’s mouth. “Pai Yao! Good to see you again!” the old man managed to mutter.

It was Wong Ka Yip, some 88 years later!

“Pai Yao, talk to my great grandson,” said Wong Ka Yip, motioning to the much younger man beside him, “I’m so tired.”

The young man thrust his hand out to Pai Yao, “Any friend of my great grandfather’s is a friend of mine,” the young man said, “I’m Wong Kok Cheng”.

“Hi there,” said Pai Yao, “so what’s going on? I haven’t seen your great grandfather in a great many years.”

“Well, if you know my great grandfather, you know he always loved Fantan. He used to tell of the old days when he was a young man – he played heavily back then!”

“He sure did,” said Pai Yao.

Macau was a very different place in the 1930s

Macau was a very different place in the 1930s

“Well, within a few years of Fantan being regulated, there were over 200 Fantan stalls operating throughout Macau. A few decades after that and gaming was booming throughout Macau to the point it had become the city’s biggest industry. Macau dramatically reinvented itself – no longer a trading hub, it was now famous for gambling, ‘ladies of the night’ and some other less than above board industries such as a trade in laborers. The opium trade was legal and also a source of large profits back then. And that administrator who started it all, Governor Ferreira do Amaral, well he was assassinated way back in 1849, the year he regulated Fantan!

“In 1930, just seven years ago, a company called Hou Heng changed everything. The boss of Hou Heng, Mr Fok Chi Ting, was a real pioneer and his company introduced many modern innovations. They renovated their casinos to make them beautiful buildings that people wanted to go to, with their flagship property being right here at the Central Hotel. They started to offer free things to gamblers like fruit, drinks and cigarettes. They even offered free entertainment in the form of Chinese Opera shows and for their bigger players they would happily purchase ferry tickets for them to come to Macau. It really was game-changing stuff for the gaming industry.

“The industry improved so much the Macau government decided to pass a law allowing many modern games to be introduced and creating a new monopoly operator. Tai Heng won the bid and has now taken over the Central Hotel you are looking at now. They have renovated it and it is now known the ‘New Central Hotel,’ Tai Heng’s flagship property. But they have done one very strange thing I am not sure about.”

“What’s that?” asked Pai Yao.

“Well,” continued Wong, “The bosses of Tai Heng, Mr Fu Tak Iong and Mr Kou No Neng, have introduced a mysterious new game from the West. It’s called ‘baccarat’. Ever heard of it? It’s quite a risk, I’m not sure if it’s going to take off or not.”

As Pai Yao was climbing aboard his time machine, he chuckled to himself.

“Mr Wong,” Pai Yao yelled above the din of the machine firing up, “I don’t think the new casino has anything to worry about!”


As Pai Yao woke, he stared at the display, praying that he was back in 2013. No such luck. It was 1962. As soon as he saw the date, he knew. Stanley Ho and the beginning of the famous STDM company in Macau. Once again the time machine had taken him to an auspicious date in Macau history.

A young Stanley Ho would go on to become the most influential person in the Macau gaming landscape

A young Stanley Ho would go on to become the most influential person in the Macau gaming landscape

And so Pai Yao found himself at the opening of Casino Estoril, the forerunner to STDM’s famous Lisboa flagship, which was not to open until 1970. As Pai Yao glanced around, he saw a familiar face. Wong Kok Cheng!

“Hi Pai Yao”, Wong said, “haven’t seen you in 25 years!”

“It’s been a while. What have I missed?” asked Pai Yao.

“Well my great grandfather passed away the year after you left. He told me to send his regards. He said I would probably be seeing you again later in life – and it turns out he was right!

“And the casino industry has changed a lot too. Tai Heng’s monopoly expired at the end of 1961 and two companies were in the bidding for the new monopoly license: Tai Heng, and a young new company called Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macao (STDM).”

“Let me guess”, said Pai Yao, “STDM won?”

“Yes, how did you know?” asked Wong. “The new company bid high and won the license. The Fu family, which owned Tai Heng, must have been so disappointed. But that’s competition and we have a new gaming era in Macau now. There are four partners in STDM: Hong Kong business tycoon Henry Fok, Chinese gambling tycoon Yip Hon, Chinese Indonesian Teddy Yip, and the last guy is Teddy Yip’s brother-in-law, a young up and coming entrepreneur by the name of Stanley Ho.”

Pai Yao couldn’t resist the temptation, “Hey Wong, don’t be surprised if Teddy Yip ends up owning a Formula 1 car racing team someday and is instrumental in bringing a Grand Prix to Macau”.

“Really?” asked Wong.


Pai Yao thought to himself, the great Stanley Ho almost seemed to be the minor player of these four STDM partners. Who would believe some 40 years later he would become the undisputed King of the Macau gaming industry.

“Time to go, Wong,” said Pai Yao.

“Will I see you again?”

“Depends on how good a job I do turning these knobs!” said Pai Yao.


Pai Yao awoke to an event that was certainly not a casino opening this time. In fact, the moment Pai Yao’s eyes opened, he knew exactly where he was.

It was the evening of Sunday 19 December 1999 and the Portuguese flag was being lowered over Macau for the last time as the 127th and last Portuguese Governor of Macau, Vasco Joaquim Rocha Vieira, along with 2,500 invited guests, looked on. The official transfer of sovereignty was to be at midnight. The ceremony was held at the garden of the Cultural Center of Macau and at dawn the next day, 20 December 1999, the sun rose on a new Macau. A Macau that had returned to China after more than four centuries under Portuguese rule.

“It’s interesting,” Pai Yao mumbled more to himself than anyone else. “The more things change, the more they stay the same. I remember wondering just how different Macau would be under Chinese rule, but very little has changed. The legal system is the same, we still have a border crossing to the mainland, we have our own currency separate to the Chinese currency … and we still drive on the left!”

Pai Yao looked up at the Cultural Center of Macau as he pondered this landmark moment he was witnessing for a second time.

“I only see a few small differences,” he mused. “We have a Chief Executive instead of a Governor and some of the public holidays have changed.”

Pai Yao smiled as he stepped back into the time machine and prepared for his next journey on the road home to 2013.


Pai Yao heard a familiar din – the banging drums of a Chinese Lion Dance. He didn’t need to look at the time machine’s display to know where and when he was – the place was very familiar. The Sands Macao, May 2004. The beginning of the modern Macau era we all know today.

Pai Yao at the opening of Sands Macau in 2004

Pai Yao at the opening of Sands Macau in 2004

Pai Yao heard the voice of a young lady, “Pai Yao, Pai Yao, is that really you?”

He saw a stunningly beautiful young lady in front of him. “Yes, I’m Pai Yao,” he smiled.

“My grandfather, Wong Kok Cheng, told me I might see you here. I’m Wong Weng Ian, but you can call me Wendy. I’m a host here at the brand new Sands Macao!”

And so Pai Yao had come to the modern era. The opening of the Sands Macao kicked off a chain of events that saw Macau become the largest gaming city in the world.

On 21 December 1999, the day after the handover, new Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau Wah had established a committee to study gaming in the new Macau. Six gaming concessions were eventually announced: SJM (a subsidiary of STDM), Galaxy, Wynn, Venetian (which was to become Sands China), MGM and Melco PBL (which was to become Melco Crown).

“Nice to meet you Wendy, but I’ve got to get back to my friends!” yelled Pai Yao as he clambered aboard his time machine, for what he hoped would be the last time.


Pai Yao awoke and looked around. He was back in the warehouse, surrounded by The Gang. His head hurt from all the time travel and it was good to be home. The Gang all descended on him, cheering and asking dozens of questions about his time travel adventures.

Pai Yao looks from the south towards modern day Cotai, past the Macau Dome to Sands Cotai Central with Venetian in the distance.

Pai Yao looks from the south towards modern day Cotai, past the Macau Dome to Sands Cotai Central with Venetian in the distance.

“Where did you go? What did you see? Was there good food?” shouted The Panda as he bounced up and down with anticipation.

“I went everywhere, my friends,” Pai Yao replied. “I stepped back in time and witnessed the making of the Macau we know and love today. And do you know what I learnt?”

The Gang gathered around eager to hear Pai Yao’s latest lesson. “It’s this: Macau is the result of a series of happy accidents. The Chinese didn’t plan it; the Portuguese didn’t plan it. In fact, it wasn’t planned very much at all! The patchwork history of Macau, with independent events layered on top of each other, has accidentally provided the perfect set of circumstances to create what we have here today. It couldn’t have been planned by any one single nation and couldn’t have been achieved without the input of several. Who would have thought that some people from the other side of the world wanting to dry out their goods for trading would lead to the world’s biggest gaming center 500 years later? Yet it did, and that’s something we should all be very proud of.”

Pai Yao wandered slowly over to the warehouse doors and slipped through into the bright morning sunlight. When The Gang followed, he slipped his arms around their shoulders and the eight of them stood there in silence for a few minutes as they stared across to the shimmering skyline of Cotai. As they looked first from Macau Dome and the cranes of the Wynn Cotai construction site in the foreground to Sands Cotai Central and City of Dreams behind and Venetian and Galaxy Macau in the distance, they stood in awe at just how far Macau had come over the years.

Finally, The Tiger broke the silence. “So what now for Macau?” he asked quizzically.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Pai Yao replied. “We’ve only just begun our journey. I bet if we were to stand here in this same spot in 20 years time we would be amazed at how much more we will see. And who knows what happy accidents might take place in the future to help shape Macau? All I know is I can’t wait to see it.”