Made in China

Jerusalem Post, October 2, 2008

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I was first introduced to Macao, like many other Israelis, through the popular reality show following psychic Uri Geller’s quest to find an Israeli to carry his spoon-bending legacy. One of the prizes: a show in “Asia’s Las Vegas,” Macao, a special administrative region in China where gambling is legal.

What does Macao have to do with Israel? The man behind the transformation of the area is American Jewish multibillionaire Sheldon Adelson, CEO of the publicly- traded Las Vegas Sands, also a lover of Israel.

Geller’s successor, Lior Suchard, has yet to bend spoons (or chopsticks) in Macao. He’s focusing on Europe and the US first, says his manager, Yaron Ofer.

But my curiosity about Macao remained. As a Los Angeles native, I fondly recall traveling in my family’s motor-home to Las Vegas as a child and returning there as soon as I turned 21. So I was delighted when The Venetian Macao Resort Hotel welcomed me as the lone Israeli correspondent for an Asian press tour of the opening of the Four Seasons Hotel.

My host told me in advance that Macao is first and foremost an Asian destination, catering to Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Filipinos, Indians, Malaysians, etc. With half of the world’s population within a five-hour plane ride, who needs to market to seven million Israelis? My first instinct upon stepping off the hour-long ferry from Hong Kong (following an 11-hour flight from Tel Aviv) was to compare and contrast to Sin City.

The weather was hot, but unlike the Nevada desert, very humid. I noticed many square, discolored pastel towers – the kind that dominate the Hong Kong skyline – but no gargantuan Vegas-style hotels, until I passed the Sands, a shiny black, circular edifice. Only the Wynn Macao, a copycat of the curved, metallic resort owned by another Jewish Vegas titan, Steve Wynn, could compete in architectural elegance.

Located on the Macao peninsula jutting out from southern China, the Sands opened in 2004 as an interim project to satisfy Adelson’s China ambitions while the foundations were being laid for The Venetian Macao. He hit the jackpot. The Sands returned its $265 million investment in less than a year. Since opening a year ago, The Venetian has welcomed more than 20 million visitors.

I stood outside The Venetian, focused on the Italian facades and imagined myself not in Venice, but on Las Vegas Boulevard. The enlarged version of the Vegas original is the cornerstone of the “Cotai Strip,” not an organically grown “strip” but a registered trademark that refers to all Sands properties being built along the 1.2 kilometer stretch of drained marshland connecting the islands of Taipa and Coloane.

Once complete in 2011, the Cotai Strip will include 14 popular hotel brands, owned by the Las Vegas Sands but operated by the respective hotels. A Vegas-style skyline is gradually emerging with the current construction of the Shangri-la, Sheraton, St. Regis and Traders hotels. Costing $13 billion, the Cotai Strip is undoubtedly the largest commercial tourism project ever undertaken.

The Venetian has already transformed Macao into the most attractive gaming center in Asia, but Adelson’s vision goes far beyond casinos. He envisions Macao, like Vegas, as a center for business and entertainment.

Like its Vegas counterpart, The Venetian Macao was conceived as an integrated resort. Suites are designed like mini-apartments. In Macao, casinos account for 5 percent of the property; convention and exhibition space, 10%. A 15,000-seat arena has already hosted pop icons Beyonce and Celine Dion, with Avril Lavigne coming up. The press tour included the premiere of Asia’s first permanent Cirque De Soleil, Zaia, a spectacular show under normal circumstances but somewhat of a yawn on the heels of the Olympics opening ceremonies.

AS I WANDERED alone through The Venetian casino on my first night, my personal fantasies of Vegas-style fun, however, begin to slip away. Slots don’t flash jackpot numbers amid sounds of coins clanking. No scantily clad cocktail waitresses strut by tables, doling out free booze. Macao apparently doesn’t need such casino gimmicks to lure players. Gambling is a Chinese obsession. Players sat at the tables, mostly baccarat, looking focused and serious.

I scoured the tables for blackjack, my favorite, but I heard absolutely no English and players hardly made eye contact with me. While aces and face cards are a universal language, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat deaf and mute and I always like to schmooze while I play. There’s nothing like the communal cheer when the dealer busts or the communal moan when the dealer hits 21. I call it quits before I start.

But the Zionist in me was comforted as I watched people’s chips dwindle. Without their knowing it, Asians are indirectly contributing to Israel. Macao initiatives, gambling revenues included, have made Adelson the third richest man in the US, according to Forbes. Israel and Jewish causes have benefitted from his riches. Adelson is a key contributor to Taglit-birthright israel, Yad Vashem and other educational institutions in Israel and Las Vegas.

Still, I went to sleep in my fluffy bed missing the true Las Vegas vibe, so for breakfast I took comfort in the Starbucks near the lobby. Among the chicken and pork pies, I chose a chocolate croissant, which turned out, to my dismay, hard and chewy.

Starbucks isn’t the only American staple in Macao. The Venetian’s Grande Canal Shoppes is an American capitalistic wonderland. With ceilings mimicking a sky, it’s among the largest malls I’ve ever seen, loaded with familiar brand names. Clowns and gondoliers provided family entertainment. At the soy-smelling food court, families looked happy eating Chinese fast food, shopping bags in tow. While eager for Asian cuisine, I felt overwhelmed by the myriad of pork, oyster, clam and beef noodle offerings, so I went for the safe noodle: spaghetti.

If I thought The Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes were impressive, the adjoining Shoppes at the new Four Seasons hotel made them look like a shouk. The high-end indoor mall could easily outdo Rodeo Drive with its number of designer shops. Only the best of the best for Asia’s new rich and rising middle-class: Dior, Fendi, Prada, you name it. Walking across the fresh marble adorned with mosaics, I felt the poorest I ever have – in communist China.

BUT I DIDN’T come to Macao to enjoy America, right? I hoped a city tour would offer me more authentic Chinese experiences, not that Macao is the ideal place for them. It was a Portuguese colony until 1999. Pink pastel Portuguese villas alongside the gritty towers testify to its European roots.

In the city center, small roads and alleys lead out of a rather dreary European-style piazza. Popular retail brands like Esprit and Levis have set up shop alongside modest storefronts. An outdoor market sells discount clothing. Street vendors sell Chinese noodles and what look like fresh pork rinds. My tour guide, Sunny Pou, a Macao native, points to many locked metal doors. The new industry has led to a rise in rent, causing some merchants to close or move.

In his broken English, Pou says some locals bemoan Macao’s modernization, while others recognize its blessings, particularly more jobs. The Venetian has generated some 12,000. A “back of the house” tour of The Venetian reveals a mini-town for its “team members,” equipped with a recreation center, a 7-11 and McDonald’s (for that Big Mac-ao). As part of the formal press tour, the Las Vegas Sands unveiled plans for the Adelson Advanced Education Center at the University of Macau (the Portuguese spelled it with a “u”) to groom managers in non-gaming businesses.

With all these material developments, however, China’s “Sin City” doesn’t lack spirituality. Macao’s population is split Buddhist and Catholic, and the city’s centuries-old Catholic churches and Buddhist temples appeared just as bustling as the casinos.

At night, Macao lights up. With the exception of the American brands, the hotels try too hard. The Chinese art of feng shui, apparently, doesn’t apply to exteriors. Some are cluttered with bulbs flashing in primary colors. I’m drawn to the Grand Lisboa, a large hotel designed like an electrified lotus, the symbol of Macao. It is owned by businessman Stanley Ho, who monopolized gaming in Macao before it opened to foreign investors.

Tacky crystal beads dangled from the ceilings amid cigarette smoke. The players appeared scruffier than those at The Venetian. I immediately understood the appeal of Vegas imports: They offer spaciousness, refinement and American-style service. When three women in studded bras and thongs came out dancing at a lounge bar, I longed to return to the cleaner-cut Venetian.

The next morning my hunger for friendly Asian cuisine was finally satisfied at the Bambu buffet. Designed according to feng shui with comfortable booths and bamboo decor, the buffet served made-to-order eggs alongside a delicious choice of sushi, dim sum, miso soup, noodles, fruit and scrumptious croissants. It was a bona fide blend of Asia and Vegas.

Finally, the media events kicked off, and I was transported from Vegas to Hollywood. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the posh Four Seasons hotel, Adelson, 75 (who suffers from peripheral neuropathy that impairs his ability to walk), leaned on his Israeli wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, as he cut the ribbon. He might as well have been Paris Hilton from the way the Asian paparazzi shoved me to get a good shot. Unfortunately, I had to catch a plane before red carpet events inaugurated the hotel with local celebs.

At the press conference over lunch, I asked Adelson if the Cotai Strip intends to attract Europeans and Americans.

“There’s another country you forgot to mention: Russia,” he answered while being simultaneously translated into Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. “The Russian market is a very big market, and we have reason to believe that we’re going to attract Russians. It’s closer for Eastern Europeans to come to Macao than it is to go to Las Vegas. For England, I would say it’s probably equidistant… There are a lot of markets to which Macao is as equally attractive as Las Vegas.”

But as an Israeli-American, I often felt like the alienated Scarlett Johansson character in the film Lost in Translation, leading me to believe that the Western traveler would best enjoy Macao as part of a business trip or broader tour to Asia, with companions, good guides and a healthy budget.

Or I have another idea. Adelson should create a new hotel in Vegas, The Chinesian, to allow the Westerner to experience the best of China in America, because he’s doing a mind-bending job bringing the best of America (well, I guess that’s debatable) to the Far East.