Street Life: Macau: People's Army takes over land of casinos

JANNIE CHUNG doesn't usually pay much attention to the deep superstition that governs her grandparents' lives, or to the changes in the weather they take as portents of the future. But when the 23-year-old accountant from Macau woke up to bright sunshine yesterday, she was convinced it was a sign of celestial approval as the territory passed into Chinese control.

"It just has to have positive meaning," she said, as she searched in her bag for her red and green flags to wave as People's Liberation Army soldiers entered the tiny enclave at midday.

Straining to see the troops from the crowded pavement, she explained the meaning of a day of unseasonally heavy rain followed by a day of storm-force winds ahead of Portugal handing back the territory to China. "The heavens washed out the foreign influence and then blew out the foreign ghosts, so today we are back in China and the sky is blue. It's a good sign."

China recovered sovereignty over the gambling haven of Macau at midnight on 20 December after 442 years of control by Portugal. At midday hundreds of PLA troops in trucks and armoured personnel carriers rolled across the Chinese border into Macau to seal Peking's control over its 430,000 people.

Ms Chung joined tens of thousands of cheering people, including local girl guides and scout troops, who greeted the soldiers. Singers in bright costumes belted out congratulatory tunes. Dragon dancers snaked through crowds in a warm reception that underscored the difference between Macau's eager return to Chinese rule and Hong Kong's more apprehensive unification in July 1997.

Macau, even with its cobbled streets and traditional Portuguese buildings painted in Mediterranean yellows and pinks, has always had closer links to mainland China than Hong Kong. Its Chinese temples jostle for space with Baroque-style Catholic churches, and with the 10 licensed casinos, the race track and the Canidrome (dog track) squeezed into six square miles of territory.

As gambling brings in more than half Macau's taxation revenue, many see that as the enclave's new religion. Although gambling is outlawed in China, Peking has promised not to touch Macau's casinos, but it has been hammering home the message that its humiliating history of colonialism is over. "China has been waiting for this day for nearly 500 years," the official China Daily newspaper said. "The last trace of colonialism has been removed from China, and all the disgrace and humiliation that the People's Republic of China inherited from the last century will be replaced by pride and dignity."

While such sentiments might prove too strong for those who look back at Macau's strong cultural identity, almost everyone seems to agree that China's resumption of sovereignty will at least help to bring an end to a seedy turf war that has broken out in Macau's gambling industry, leading to 39 killings of Triad gangsters this year.

The need to rein in the Triads is a priority both for Peking and its handpicked Macau leader, the banker Edmund Ho, who was sworn in shortly after midnight. "Fighting crime and violence must be raised to a political level, and according to the law, by using all the government's resources and policies to protect Macau's safety and stability,'' Mr Ho explained at a handover celebration yesterday.

But the gamblers themselves appeared unimpressed by the momentous events of the weekend. "We gamble whatever is going on, it doesn't really matter who controls Macau as long as they allow gambling," said 73-year-old Lai Mak-ze, who had been betting all night at the Hotel Lisboa casino.

He thought the auspicious date might help his winnings at baccarat, but had made only marginal gains over the night. "It doesn't seem to matter if it is China or Portugal, neither has made me a lucky man," he muttered.