A man teeters on the edge of his seat staring intensely at a roulette wheel, his brow glistening. A few feet away, a group of middle-aged women clutch designer handbags and feed handfuls of coins into slot machines, while nearby a largely ignored troupe of dancers performs an elegant ballroom routine.
This is but another snapshot from one of Macau's vast casinos, which are swarming with visitors - 28 million of them last year, creating a record US$33.5 billion of revenue. Most come from the mainland, many are day-trippers and almost all come to gamble.
The transformation of the once sleepy former Portuguese colony into "Asia's Las Vegas" has been dramatic and swift, and just when you thought it couldn't get any bigger and glitzier, it gets bigger and glitzier.
In 2002, when the Macanese government ended the monopoly of the Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau (STDM) - the syndicate fronted by tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun, who so thoroughly exploited the economic potential of gaming that he earned the nickname "The King of Gambling" - Sands China (a subsidiary of Las Vegas Sands) was quick to move in, creating Macau's first United States-style casino resort within two years.
"Macau has achieved in 10 years what it took Las Vegas 40 years to achieve," says Edward Tracy, chief executive of Sands China and the man helping American chairman Sheldon Adelson realise his grand ambitions for Macau.
The city is now reported to be four to five times bigger than its US cousin in terms of gaming revenue.
"I'm not sure anybody anticipated the first Sands property would do as well as it did," says Tracy. "The wild success of that first project provided the company with the financial wherewithal to move on to our chairman's next vision, which was the Cotai Strip. It became apparent there was tremendous pent-up demand."
Sands properties now include Macau's biggest casino resort, the Venetian Macao, famous for its indoor canal and gondoliers, and which has 3,000 suites, the 15,000-seat Cotai Arena and 1,800-seat Venetian Theatre, more than 30 restaurants and Malo Clinic Health & Wellness.
Over the past decade other gaming operators have grabbed a slice of the action in Macau, including Wynn Macau, Galaxy Entertainment, SJM (a subsidiary of STDM) and MGM.
Macau currently has 35 casinos, 23 of which are on the peninsula, and, by the end of June, the number of live gaming tables had reached 5,498.
More casino resorts are in the pipeline. This year, Galaxy Entertainment began building the HK$16 billion second phase of its Galaxy Macau integrated resort, which will include two luxury hotels that will bring the total rooms and suites in the complex to more than 3,600.
In May, US gaming mogul Steve Wynn announced he'd received the go-ahead to add to the 24,619 square metres of gaming space Wynn Macau already owns. The American magnate unveiled plans for a 20.6-hectare luxury project on the Cotai Strip that would cost US$4 billion to build, saying: "The government's approval represents a vote of confidence in Wynn's efforts to create an imaginative and exceptional resort experience on Cotai, and its ongoing contribution to the transformation of Macau."
Also contributing to that "transformation" is MGM China, which claims it is "determined to create a unique experience" and is planning a project on the Cotai Strip that will include 500 gaming tables, 2,500 slot machines and 1,600 hotel rooms.
Melco Crown Entertainment has received a government construction permit to restart construction of the Studio City resort while SJM is awaiting land grants, also on the Cotai Strip.
It seems there's no stopping the growth of Macau's gaming industry, but questions are being asked about whether it can support such expansion when it comes to infrastructure, workforce and even punters.
None of these issues appear to worry Sands, which is racing ahead with construction on what it calls Cotai "parcels five and six", which are nearing completion. Also, initial approval has been given by the authorities for Parcel Three to be developed, says Tracy.
Part of the Sands Cotai Central stable and opening on Thursday is the world's biggest Sheraton Hotel. The towering behemoth looms over the other giant structures competing for attention in this Disneyland for adults.
On a recent hard-hat tour, I was privy to the finishing touches and the superlatives of enthusiastic employee - or "associate", as the hotel's management prefers to call its staff - Barry Cheong, assistant manager of public relations for the Sheraton Macao Hotel.
AS WE TREK THROUGH the cavernous ballrooms and banqueting halls, Cheong reels off a dizzying list of "biggest" and "firsts".
"There are 3,863 stylish guest rooms as well as the largest Sheraton Club in the world, which will provide an additional 570 exclusive rooms and suites; 15,000 square metres of meeting space; more than 12,000 square metres of outdoor pools, a luxury spa and exclusive fitness suite with individually tailored programmes and three restaurants."
Cheong keeps up the commentary for nearly two hours - 90,796 light bulbs will be placed in guest rooms, that's more than four times the number on the Eiffel Tower; and the average distance the fitness centre treadmills will cover per month will be 12,000km, the equivalent of walking the length of the Great Wall 1.35 times - as he shows me around what is only the first phase of the project; one of two towers.
The opening of such a large luxury hotel in Macau comes amid concerns about a labour shortage in the city. With a population of 560,000, of whom 345,000 are said to be of employable age, and an unemployment rate of just 2 per cent, according to the city's Statistics and Census Service, there are fears that Macau is facing a labour crisis.
"Right now, the number of workers available is zero," says Queenie Zhu, director at MyJobs Macau, a human resources consultancy. Zhu points out that overseas hiring requires relocation, which involves a lot of documentation and administrative preparation. According to Zhu, employers are sometimes reluctant to make such an investment.
About 1,600 workers have recently been taken on for the Sheraton. Mass recruitment of overseas workers was the solution for the hotel, which received 10,000 job applications and interviewed 5,000 candidates in preparation for the grand opening. Recruitment fairs were held in all of Sheraton's Asia-Pacific hotels, according to the hotel's managing director, Josef Dolp.
"We look into how we can create a good experience for our associates as well as our customers," says Dolp. "We try to create a completely different experience for the people attending the fairs and then continue that experience right through to … when they come on board.
"[Recruitment fairs] are set up so that people can come and see what the Sheraton brand is all about."
The fairs included mock rooms created with the Sheraton's Sweet Sleeper beds, bars with bartenders, six-metre-long candy stalls and play areas for the candidates' children. The aim was to get to know as much as possible about potential employees.
"The interview was not at the forefront [of the recruitment process]," says Dolp. "Our management was there talking to potential recruits and trying to relax them. We wanted them to feel comfortable first.
"When we prepared our mission statement and talked to our people we asked them to write down the words they thought were most important ... one of the most repeated words was 'fun'. That was a key issue - we all have to work efficiently, but as it's the hospitality industry, we need to be enjoying what we do as well."
His sincerity and enthusiasm are hard to fault and are clearly contagious, as Cheong and his colleagues seem as excitable as game-show hosts about their new jobs.
Not so enthusiastic are Macau's civil groups, which have protested about "too many non-local employees" at the resorts, claiming they are cheap labour, which they say deprives locals of being hired.
The other big question is whether Macau's infrastructure has the capacity to sustain further rapid development, given that the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and the high-speed rail network from Guangzhou will not be in operation until 2015 and a number of the new resorts will be up and running before then.
Ignoring the possibility that it might be prudent to wait until the necessary infrastructure is in place before erecting more casinos and hotels, Tracy praises the Macau government's efforts, saying: "With the markets at 30 and 40 per cent growth, there's not a government on the planet that could keep up with planning for infrastructure, because it takes an extraordinary amount of time to plan, design and execute.
"Trying to get that much built in that short amount of time is virtually impossible, so the improvements you see are very good and I don't think the Macau government gets a lot of credit for it."
He points out that there's "plenty of money in the bank because we contribute about 39 per cent tax to the government. There's a huge surplus there".
With that much investment focused on gaming, you have to wonder whether the thousands of new gaming tables coming into operation will be absorbed by the market. Tracy is optimistic.
"The population base in China is so extraordinary," he says. "[Currently] the concentration is in Guangdong province and the five major cities there flow pretty freely down to Macau, but … the addition of the high-speed railway and about 90 airports either new or expanding or under improvement [on the mainland] - those kind of things give us access to a bigger population base and that's what's going to drive the growth of the future."
What none of the operators appear to be concerned about are the recent violent incidents that have erupted in Macau, including three murders and a grisly attack on a man whose limb tendons were cut. In August, police raided 21 casinos and arrested 130 people on suspicion of various crimes. These incidents prompted speculation that Macau might be returning to the dark days of the 1990s, when violence was rife.
From a business perspective they perhaps have little choice but to do so, but operators dismiss these as isolated incidents and claim there is "a very robust in-house security and surveillance system and co-operation with the local authorities" in Macau's casinos.
As Macau's gambling industry booms, the government says it remains adamant it will diversify its gambling-dependent economy - although that has been a stated aim ever since 2006, when Beijing set a goal, as part of its 11th five-year plan, to wean the city off gambling.
This year, the Macau Government Tourist Office set up a task force of experts from sectors such as aviation, and brand and tourist destination management to produce a report with the aim of building Macau into a "world centre of tourism and leisure".
Says MGTO director Joâo Manuel Costa Antunes: "The way to promote Macau was changed when Unesco recognised the historic centre as a World Heritage site in 2005. It underlines the perception that there's something to visit in Macau."
Enough to tempt 28 million visitors to step outside their gaming halls? I wouldn't bet on it.
CORRECTION (made on September 17, 2012): The copy has been changed to reflect the fact that Melco Crown Entertainment had recieved Macau government permission to restart construction of Studio City before the article was published.
DOWN AND OUT OF POCKET IN CHINATOWN
Behind the symbolic stone lions that guard the entrance to Chinatown, in central London's Soho, the new Betfred betting shop sits like a giant temple. Its black and blue branding has been translated into Chinese. Inside, an automated ticking throbs continuously, marking the spins on computer-generated roulette games. A Chinese woman sits glued to one machine. A man behind her stamps his feet, paces up and down, and grips her stool. The sign says £0.20 roulette, but she has just lost £290 (HK$3,600) in a minute. He slams the machine, and she loads it up again. It is 11.40pm.
Midnight opening is the latest move from an industry taking advantage of a liberalised approach to gambling. Since regulation was relaxed in 2005, bookmakers (betting shops) have started to roll out these highly addictive machines in poorer areas of Britain, and now they are extending their opening hours. There are no statistics on the national picture, but at least eight bookmakers are now open until midnight in the borough of Westminster, which includes Chinatown. Campaigners warn that Britain is moving towards 24-hour mini-casinos on the high street.
With 120 shops, Westminster already has one of the highest concentrations of bookmakers, so when a new store was proposed on Gerrard Street, 2,000 people in Chinatown signed a petition opposing the development. Formal objections from shop owners, Chinese church leaders and addicts and their families were made at council and court hearings, but the new Betfred was opened in 2010. In April, hours were extended until midnight.
A spokesman for Westminster council says: "The council looks at each application on a case-by-case basis and if the evidence is there before the application, then we can look at it."
But blocking a shop requires evidence that is virtually impossible to gather before it opens, such as extreme nuisance in terms of criminal disorder or failing to protect children from gambling. The only other way a licence can be revoked by the council or the Gambling Commission is if there is evidence to suggest the gambling on the premises is not being conducted in a fair way.
John Travers, a Gambling Commission spokesman, says: "If offending persists we can revoke licences. [But] we find that [betting shops] quickly change in response to complaints."
Bookmakers' shops are classified in the same way as banks, restaurants and estate agents, moving in where they please. The industry tends to focus on poorer areas.
High Streets First is a new campaign calling on the government to give local people the power to limit the number of betting shops in their neighbourhood. It is co-founded with gambling awareness charity Gambling Reform & Society Perception (Grasp), and is backed by several councils. Nikki Lee, an organiser for the Westminster branch of London Citizens, who supports High Streets First, says the Chinese - particularly migrant workers in the catering sector - are particularly vulnerable to high-street bookmakers.
"Gambling is a lifestyle in the catering sector. It's an isolated life with antisocial hours. There's nowhere else to go after work. The community is working late so that's the time they're going to want to go in - after work - and feed their addiction. The industry is exploiting that."
In supermarkets around Chinatown leaflets in Chinese from Westfield Casino offer complimentary dim sum for elderly people and free £10 bets.
"It's in our culture," one problem gambler who didn't want to be identified says. "Being on shift work makes us vulnerable, but it is also in our superstition. We let our children gamble at New Year. Right from the start we want to find out if it is going to be their lucky year."
Henrietta Bowden-Jones knows about these problems. Based around the corner from Chinatown, her clinic is the only National Health Service specialist centre in Britain for problem gambling. She is now dealing with 15 referrals a week and has a two-month waiting list. Although the clinic offers promotional materials in Chinese and translation services, in the last year it has seen just seven Chinese patients, or 1.7 per cent of its intake.
"People may not be aware of us, or they may be choosing to access specialist [community] centres," says Bowden-Jones. "Chinese people also have a strong sense of pride and have an important concept of 'face'. Of course it's hard for anyone to admit they have a problem, but the Chinese community is particularly concerned with reputation and privacy.
"Certainly, when we have treated patients there has been no antagonism, just gratitude. We would love to look at co-managing cases with Chinese community centres. There has already been some talk of this, it's just a question of resources," she says.
The Christian Centre for Gambling Rehabilitation, run by Peter Chan, is seeing a huge number of Chinese referrals. Together with David Li, his one staff member, Chan is taking up to 60 referrals a year.
Leung Li is a restaurant worker who attends the clinic and has been gambling since he was 16. Now 45 and divorced, he is still playing even though he knows he has a problem. Eight years ago he lost £42,000 and was forced to sell his restaurant. Today he is battling depression and suicidal thoughts.
It all started, he says, from loneliness: "There's not much to do in England, my English isn't good and there are not many places to go after work ... People who worked together used to go gambling after work. I was earning £300 a week and spent almost every penny on the races ... It was a good place to meet people."
According to Li, the changing nature of the industry means it is harder to give up now than when he started.
"I like the machines. It's really easy to win. You don't have to wait for the races to come in, it's really fast and you can keep going," he says. "In a casino you have to wait for the wheel to go around, but this you just press 'repeat bet'. It's much more dangerous. It's too easy."
Gambling has repercussions for families, and studies have documented the links between addiction and neglect, debt and violence. Women Together Against Abuse, a four-year project funded by London Councils, found that of 163 cases of domestic violence it dealt with in 2009, up to 30 per cent were related to problem gambling, an increase from 10 per cent two years earlier.
Chan fears that without reform, the suffering he sees will continue to increase.
"If nothing changes the situation will get worse," he says. "The culture of the industry is spreading, and it's not just for us. It's other communities, too. Now people are getting angrier about the shops that never shut. They feel they have no control over changes but suffer the problems of them. Something has to change. Right now the industry is winning and the people are losing. The industry is the only lucky one." Guardian News & Media