Last Days of Old Macao

This is my attempt to de-stereotype a stereotypical cultural setting, organized crime in South China. I hope to take this media genre – as depicted in gangster movies and games like Feng Shui, Ninjas & Superspies, Hong Kong Action Theatre, and the like – and connect it the reality of an actual time and place: Macao, right before the nominal end of Portuguese colonialism and the beginning of rule by the People’s Republic of China. For a while I was at a loss, thinking, “What’s a game that can handle complex, diverse societies in transition?” And then it hit me.

THE LAST DAYS OF OLD MACAO: July 1997 – December 1999
A Situation for Shock: Social Science Fiction by Joshua A. C. Newman



Portuguese merchants and missionaries settled the peninsula of Macao around 1557. The islands of Taipa and Coloane, off the coast were eventually added to the territory. Macao’s importance as a trading port varied greatly over the centuries, based on the stability of the Portuguese government back home and the prominence of the Portuguese Jesuits in the Chinese Imperial Court.

The British founded Hong Kong in 1843, just up the coast from Macao. For about a hundred years afterwards, the Portuguese tried to rule Macao as a true colonial territory, but most British and Chinese merchants had moved to Hong Kong, minimizing Macao’s value. Portugal was interested in handing control of Macao over to the Chinese as early as the late 1960s, but the Communist government was interested in preserving Portuguese administration of the port since, at that point, few Western powers would deal with China directly.

Then in 1984, the British agreed to return Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997. Three years later, China and Portugal signed a Joint Declaration, agreeing that China would take over administration of Macao on December 20, 1999. Chinese became an official language of the territory in 1991, but the language of government remained largely Portuguese, frustrating many people.

The player in charge of Colonialism should emphasize the relics and consequences of Portuguese rule.


While Macao’s population is 95% “Chinese,” this masks a diversity of backgrounds and dialects including Cantonese, Fujianese, Hakka, Shanghainese, and a smattering from Southeast Asia. The remaining 5% of the population is made up of Portuguese, Filipino, Thai, and people of mixed ancestry, including the Macanese (2%), a cultural and linguistic group that traces their roots to early inhabitants of mixed Chinese-Portuguese ancestry. In 1996, 56% of residents were born outside Macao and most immigrants are young, working age people.

Portuguese is spoken by only 2% of the population, while some dialect of Chinese accounts for 96%. English is taught in most schools, but only a small percentage of the adult population speaks it, mostly those working in tourism.

A 1998 telephone survey illustrates many of the complexities and divisions that exist in Macao. Only 22% of those surveyed were satisfied with Portuguese rule while 69% of Hong Kong residents were satisfied with British rule. 56% of Macao looked forward to China taking control, while only 35% of Hong Kong felt the same. Almost 60% said Macao’s most serious social problem was deteriorating law and order. Finally, only 39% said they were proud to be a citizen of Macao, while 74% said they were proud to be Chinese.

61% of residents claim to have no religion. However, a majority of the population participates in Chinese folk rituals or occasional visits to Buddhist temples, which are not considered to be part of religious devotion. About 7% of the population is Catholic. Generally speaking, there are three goddesses that govern Macao’s religious life: Kwan Yin (Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion), Mazu/Ama (sea deity from popular religion), and the Virgin Mary.

The player in charge of Identity should emphasize its diversity, messiness, and fragmented nature.


Before the area between Taipa and Coloane Islands was reclaimed, creating the new area called Cotai, Macao had a total area of 21.3 square kilometers (8.2 square miles).

The size of the territory means that everybody knows everybody, everyone is connected to everyone else, and it doesn’t take very long for a small incident to become public knowledge.

The player in charge of Claustrophobia should work to tie everything tightly together.

It’s a Dirty Business

Macao’s businesses interests are strongly connect to the casinos, money laundering, prostitution, arms dealing, gold trafficking, and drug dealing.

Macao has a monopoly on casino gambling in the region. There are no casinos on the mainland or in Hong Kong, so everyone comes to Macao to lose their money. $20US and an hour of your time will get you to Macao from Hong Kong (or vice versa) by jetfoil. The most popular game is baccarat, but people also play blackjack, roulette, sic bo, fan tan, keno and slots. The biggest joint in the territories is Stanley Ho’s massive Casino Lisboa.

Previously, Macao was also a focal point in trafficking all manner of goods for the People’s Republic, since most Western powers didn’t open up trade relations with China until the mid-70s. This illicit trade did not stop after the Communists stopped supporting it, though many traffickers still maintain old ties to mainland Chinese and Portuguese colonial officials.

In 1997, the Macao Legislative Assembly resolved that the abduction or smuggling of people, forcing others into prostitution, aiding illegal immigration, illegally trading, and the manufacture, use, possession, and smuggling of arms are considered organized crime activities, and are punishable of 5-12 years in prison.

The player in charge of Dirty Business should promote the ubiquity and banality of “unsavory” activities. Nobody bats an eye.

Organized Crime

12K, Shui Fong, Big Circle (PLA ties), Gangland War

Brotherhood, Nationalist Roots in Anti-Qing Secret Societies, Semi-Mystical Elements.

Aside from the Three Goddesses, Macao’s secret societies honor Kwan Yu, a general from the Three Kingdoms period.


The Fall of Old Hong Kong

1997 Handover, Hong Kong Underground Moving to Macao

Gangster Movie

The Filming of Casino, Wan Kwok-Koi’s Celebrity, His Arrest Before the Premier

Party Like Its 1999

Handover, Old Debts Need to Be Settled

Old Debts

Asian Financial Crisis, Real Estate Bubble Pops, Old Debts Need to Be Settled


Limbs vs. Clothes

Liu Bei, in The Romance of Three Kingdoms, says: “A brother is a limb. Wives and children are but clothes, which torn can be mended. But who can restore a broken limb?” That degree of loyalty is expected of you. Are you willing to make the necessary sacrifices? And for those who are not gangsters, when the society comes calling on you and yours, will you find the strength to stand up for your own family? Or will you give in to the brotherhood?

Posturing vs. Violence

Everybody puts on an act, either acting tough, not show signs of weakness and intimidating the opposition into submission, or acting harmless or amiable, making the right deals and/or weaseling your way out of trouble. How good are you at maintaining that front? And when that doesn’t work, are you able to use violence to get what you want?


João de Pina-Cabral, Between China and Europe: Person, Culture, and Emotion in Macao (London: Continuum Books, 2002).

João de Pina-Cabral, “New Age Warriors: Negotiating the Handover on the Streets of Macao,” Journal of Romance Studies 5, no. 1 (2005).

Herbert S. Yee, “Macau Citizens’ Attitude Toward the Transition,” Macau In Transition: From Colony to Autonomous Region (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

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