Macau is one of the most remarkable countries in the world.
But you might not have ever even heard of it.
The GDP per capita of Macau is higher than the GDP per capita
of any other country in the world. This makes Macau the richest
country on the planet. But the residents of the country aren’t
just wealthier than people elsewhere. They’re also healthier.
In fact, they live longer than almost any other population in
Those aren’t the only records Macau breaks. It’s a relatively small land mass with a high population. In fact, it’s
the most densely populated country on the planet. They also have the world’s lowest birth rate. 25% of the
people working in Macau are immigrants from China.
And it’s the only Asian country where the official language is… Portuguese?
There’s a story behind that, too, which we’ll get into later in this history of the country.
Macau is a tiny peninsula dotted with islands. Technically, it’s a “special administrative region” of China. It used
to be a major player in colonial trade. But now it’s the world’s top gambling destination. And the official
language is Portuguese because it used to be a colony of Portugal. It’s so close to mainland China that you
can practically see Hong Kong from your hotel window.
How did Macau go from an unsettled peninsula in the 15th century to the world’s premier gambling
It’s probably best to start with a basic geography lesion. The Macau Peninsula is the tip of a larger peninsula
with 2 major Chinese rivers on either side.
Macau shares a border with mainland China, but that border is only 2 city blocks long. Most of the country’s
border is the 25 miles of coastal border.
It is only 40 miles west of Hong Kong, and it includes the islands of Taipa and Colaoane.
According to anthropologists, the area has been settled for over 7000 years. The area was unclaimed by any
government until the Qin Dynasty. They made the area part of Guangdong Province 1800 years ago.
Ownership of the area was fluid for over 1200 years.
In 1277, the Mongols invaded China, and 10s of thousands of Chinese went into hiding on Taipa and Coloane.
They defended their settlements and eventually expanded their occupation to include the peninsula itself.
Some of the Chinese stayed behind and established the first permanent settlement.
100 years later, fishermen joined these settlers. They were eager to use the easily-accessible islands for
shelter. Eventually a merchant and priest class arose. Historians and anthropologists have found Buddhist
and other folk relics from the year 1300.
Macau was then known as Haojing, or “mirror sea”. It was a perfect spot to establish trade with Southeast Asia.
The Portuguese Occupation
In 1513, Jorge Alvarez was an explorer with a mission to discover trade routes and riches in the name of
Portugal. At the time, Portugal was the world leader in sailing, navigation, and cartography technology. Alvarez
and his crew became the first Europeans to reach this part of the world by sail.
What they found was deserted—at least of permanent life. If they’d landed a little to the east or to the west,
they’d have found a community of people who’d been living there for centuries. Instead, they claimed the
peninsula and its neighboring islands in the name of Portugal. It became a permanent settlement.
– The Jorge Alvarez Monument stands in front of the New Yaohan
shopping mall as a tribute to the explorer.
Eventually, the Portuguese encountered the Chinese, who were (of course) not thrilled that these strange
foreigners with their strange language were claiming such a large portion of their land. Alvarez and his men
fought a brief war with Imperial Chinese troops. This land was obviously considered valuable.
China and Portugal reached an agreement. The Portuguese were allowed to stay but only to make port in the
waters near the peninsula. They were not allowed to build permanent shelters or settlements. Diplomacy
eventually won out, though, and in 1553, the Portuguese were granted permission to build and settle
The Portuguese government had figured out how much money they could make with this new trading
position. Buying the rights to settle for just 40 pounds of silver a year made economic sense. They paid annual
rent for over 300 years in order to maintain their settlements.
This was a classic win-win situation. By 1633, the Chinese had restricted all trade in this part of China to the
Portuguese and themselves. For Portugal, it was like having the exclusive right to deal with Southern China.
Troubled Times Ahead
By the early 17th century, Macau had become an Asian port city unlike any other. The language, food, customs,
and religion were blends of Southern European and South Asian traditions. A new dialect of Portuguese and a
new variation of Chinese were both spoken in the streets.
But there were problems.
At least 10% of the people in Macau were servants. Many were slaves. That’s not a social setup that encourages
In fact, the area had one of the same problems that’s starting to plague the United States in the 21st century.
The immigrant population of Macau was underpaid and overworked.
They also had no control over their own destiny.
The Dutch and the Portuguese had been involved in a cold war for some time. In the early 17th century, the
Dutch sent 500 trained soldiers to take Macau in the name of Holland. Immigrants and slaves defended the
settlement from the invading Dutch.
This forced Portugal and China to address Macau’s autonomy as a country. But it took over 200 years and
plenty more strife before the 2 countries came to any kind of actual agreement.
China and Portugal: Making Friends
During the First Opium War, the Portuguese were able to fully occupy the islands of Taipa and Coloane. By
1887, the Chinese government was so weakened by their war with Great Britain, they gave Portugal
sovereignty over Macau.
Strangely, what brought the 2 countries together was a worldwide demand for opium. China gave Portugal
complete control over Macau with the following understanding.
Macau was required to fully cooperate with the smuggling of
opium from India.
They were also required to work with China to create profitable taxation systems. China needed to get some
money back into its coffers.
It was then business as usual for another 50 years. Portugal had almost total control of trade in the area. And
they were constantly working with China to secure profitable trading deals for both countries.
After the Pacific War ended, Macau became even more important. This was related to its status as a neutral
port during World War II. Not only was Macau a safe haven for refugees of the Chinese Civil War, it was also
becoming a major player in the world trade scene. After the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Chinese
government wanted to reconsider the deal with Portugal. Riots broke out in 1955. The Portuguese government
used violence to quell the political upheaval.
There was calm. But it was uneasy.
The Carnation Revolution
That uneasy calm became a sense of urgency in 1974. It was time for the Portuguese occupation to end. The
Carnation Revolution was an anti-colonialist movement, and a military coup ousted the Estado Novo
Almost no shots were fired.
But the effects were massive.
Both Macau and East Timor were released from Portuguese rule. In 1976, the Portuguese government in
Lisbon redefined Macau as a “Chinese territory under Portuguese administration.”
Essentially, the Carnation Revolution resulted in a reversal of the rental agreement that had been in place for
over 300 years.
What did this mean?
It meant that Macau was now a territory with a lot of personal control. Citizens now had control of all
administrative, economic, and political aspects of their lives. By 1980, Portugal and China had made another
agreement. This one changed one word of their former agreement.
Macau was now “a Chinese territory under temporary Portugues administration.”
This one word, “temporary”, became a step toward Macau’s independence.
Finally, in December of 1999, Portugal and China both got out of the way and granted Macau status as an
Macau is now responsible for its own:
Constitution (“Macau Basic Law”)
Macau’s Casino Age
None of this answers the question of how Macau became a gambling Mecca to the entire world. In 2002, the
new Macau government ended the state monopoly on gambling. They granted 6 casino licenses, including
one to each of the following.
Las Vegas Sands
Galaxy Entertainment Group
Macau became the gambling hub of Southeast Asia almost overnight.
The development of the Cotai strip has been instrumental in the establishment of Macau as a major
gambling center. This development was part of the push away from state-run gambling. The idea was to
imitate the Vegas Strip—only bigger.
By 2007, resorts started popping up on the Cotai strip, the first of which was the Venetian Macao. Billions of
dollars have been spent developing this thin part of the peninsula into a gambling hotspot.
This new stream of tax revenue encouraged Macau to grant more gambling licenses. Unemployment in the
area dropped to less than 1%. The local tourist economy exploded. In 2007, Macau forecasted a need for new
housing in the area. This construction continues even now that over 10,000 apartment units have been built
for the employees of the new tourist industry.
Looking Forward to the Future of Macau
2007 and 2008 were tough years for Macau because of the global recession. Billions continued to pour into
Global trade is still sluggish, which is bad for tourism. Macau is also now the worst case of income disparity in
the world. The massive poverty class there supports the large wealthy class. Homelessness and
unemployment are becoming problems, too.
Immigrants are being hired to do some of the work that locals used to do. So now there’s a furor over
immigration in the country.
The country also faces controversy regarding the official language. Chinese-speaking Macau citizens want
Portuguese removed as the official language.
The recession there is expected to last until the end of 2015, but casino revenue is already up in 2015. Since
2014 was the first year to show a drop in casino revenue, this is particularly good news for the area. Not only
does it represent the beginnings of an economic recovery, it also provides the country with some
much-needed optimism about the future.
Tourism is up. Job growth is up. There’s light at the end of the recent economic tunnel. As the global gaming
industry grows, so does Macau.
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