terça-feira, 7 de abril de 2009

O reverso da medalha

Busted Flush

Joyce Siu
South China Morning Post
April 6, 2009

Rebecca Kuok Sok-i couldn't have timed her documentary any better. Her crew started shooting Gold Rush, a film about the impact of the casino business in Macau, in June - about the time Beijing introduced travel restrictions that choked the flood of mainland high rollers to a trickle. Filming ended in January, as the financial crisis that began in the US spread across the globe.

By interviewing croupiers, gambling addicts, residents and social workers, Gold Rush captures Macau's widely envied gaming boom turning to gloom.

The 60-minute documentary is a first for Kuok, a frontline social worker specialising in youth problems, and was screened on Saturday at the Macau International Film and Video Festival.

Kuok, 31, decided to take on the project after observing a surge in problems such as gambling addiction, drug abuse and domestic abuse as Macau's gaming industry went into overdrive after the casino monopoly was dismantled in 2002.

"I wanted audiences to realise the side effects of gaming and rapid development in Macau when its infrastructure and people are not yet ready," Kuok says. "I hope it can broaden Macau residents' minds when they see how our young people react to the city's changes."

Social problems that are surfacing, including family violence arising from quarrels over gambling debts, reveal the cost of Macau's five-year gold rush, she says.

There's no denying that the slew of new, internationally run luxury casino and entertainment resorts such as the Venetian have raised corporate benchmarks in Macau. However, a small but swelling chorus, including Kuok, argue that the severe slowdown is a warning to the government and people of Macau to rethink their reliance on one sector. Legislators such as Au Kam-san have called for a diversification of the economy, putting greater emphasis on cultural attractions and family-oriented entertainment to draw visitors who aren't just interested in gambling.

The gaming industry now accounts for about 40 per cent of Macau's gross domestic product. Gaming taxes made up more than 60 per cent of government revenue during the past four years, contributing 29.3 billion patacas in 2007 and 39 billion patacas last year.

During the boom, tens of thousands of young people queued to work in newly opened casinos, from international operators such as Sands to locally operated Galaxy, lured by attractive wages. Card dealers started with pay of between 12,000 patacas and 16,000 patacas a month - almost double the salary of a clerk and similar to that of a secondary school teacher.

The result was students dropping out of school to work in casinos, even if in mind-numbing jobs. Sometimes they dropped out at their parents' request, says Gloria Lin Lai-kuan, a school teacher.

Teachers often despaired at the short-sightedness, materialism, distorted values and lack of respect for education that the gaming bubble has brought to the surface. And it wasn't just among youngsters who were faring poorly in school, but throughout Macau society. Lin, 25, says one former pupil left university after six months to become a card dealer. Some of her classmates also pursued casino jobs, instead of teaching, after graduation.

"Fewer people were willing to take up teaching; a teacher was no longer regarded as a profession that deserved respect," she says.

But the deepening economic gloom has given Lin a good opportunity to bring home the lessons of piling willy-nilly into the gaming business. When she highlighted the consequences of skipping school two years ago, students shrugged off her advice. "All they cared about was which casino offered the highest salary," she recalls.

Now there is no shortage of real-life examples: many students have relatives working in casinos who were laid off, or had their pay cut and forced to take leave without pay.

"It's easier for me to get them thinking, whether working as a card dealer is as rosy as they think," Lin says. "Casinos tend to hire young people but it's also those in their 20s who get the boot when the economy gets worse. The career of a card dealer can be really short."

A number of young people who jumped into the gaming business with just a basic education are starting to feel trapped. Chan, a 23-year-old card dealer, is among them. He got the job two years ago, but quickly wound up with gambling debts of more than 100,000 patacas.

"After seeing people gamble all day, it's natural for us to be hooked on gambling as well," he says. "Also, we don't have anything to do after finishing our shift at night."

Chan has since settled his debts but was hit by a big salary cut; without other skills, however, he is just praying that he will keep his dealer's job.

Another dealer, Ah Chuen, also regrets leaving school early. "The job is monotonous. I wanted to quit after a few months, but couldn't resist the salary," he says. A dealer for more than two years, he considered taking evening courses to improve his options, but constantly changing shifts made it difficult.

The preoccupation with gaming has also hurt other businesses. A number of small and medium-sized firms had to close because they were unable to hire people and could not afford surging rents, says Agnes Lam Iok-fong, a founding member of lobby group Civic Power.

This affects the stability of Macau's economy because smaller businesses are built on domestic consumption, unlike casinos which largely rely on foreign investors and tourists, says Lam. Without these companies, Macau has less of a buffer against external factors.

Advertising director Catarina Lio Weng-kei says her agency was badly affected during the past two years, when young designers were lured away to work for casino operators. Often, junior designers with just six months' experience wound up in middle-management jobs in the resorts, she says.

Although some companies offered competitive pay to retain trained personnel, young people preferred to join casino operators which they saw as cool and trendy, Lio says. Agencies such as hers have to recruit talent from Europe and Hong Kong to fill the vacancies.

The flood of talent into the gaming sector has reversed as casino operators abandoned new projects and redundancies widened in the slump. But Lio says many young people have yet to adjust to life in the "real commercial world" where they're required to multitask.

Larry So Man-yum, an associate professor of social work at the Macau Polytechnic Institute, says it's too early to determine if young people will return to school or university.

So far, young workers have collaborated with unions to call for restrictions on hiring foreign staff at all levels. "They want locals instead of overseas people to sit in managerial positions too," So says. "Young people still think working in casinos is their only way of survival."

But to sustain long-term growth, Macau must stop relying on a single sector, So says, citing the city's mixed east-west heritage and cheaper tickets for film and arts festivals as potential avenues that haven't been fully explored. Its competitive prices and proximity to Zhuhai also puts Macau in a good position to develop conference business, he says, although the city must raise its English standards to compete with Hong Kong.

As Lam sees it, the city should take advantage of lower rents and wages during the recession to nurture cultural and creative ventures. It does Macau no good to be associated so closely with the casino industry, she says. "We need to create a diverse and vibrant image to attract different types of tourists."

For long-term development, So says Macau must invest in building its talent pool. "This all comes down to education," So says.

"Right now young people are still too closed-minded and lack an international scope. Their vision is focused too much on Macau and the casino business."

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