China’s Peasants Gamble on the Future

April 30, 2006

SPIEGEL ONLINE – April 26, 2006, 03:03 PM
URL: http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,413091,00.html
Made in Macau
 

By Ullrich Fichtner

Each day, tens of thousands of communist Chinese peasants stream into Macau, the Las Vegas of Asia, to bet their entire lifesavings in the hope of a better future. But the monetary blessings of capitalism they dream of are at best elusive.

The skyline of Macau, the former Portuguese colony that is now part of China.

DPA

The skyline of Macau, the former Portuguese colony that is now part of China.

After spending five days in Macau and with only 230 yuan (€23) left in her purse, Chen Xi Mei decides she's had enough of the former Portuguese colony and Asian gambling Mecca. So she sets out for her dusty rural Chinese village, which is a 16-hour bus ride and one-hour walk away. The cloth-covered, wheeled suitcase she's pulling along as she makes her way to the border terminal for buses heading to Zhuhai contains a few articles of clothing, a mobile phone, paper tissues — in short, everything she owns. Nothing remains of all the hard-earned money she had saved, and yet nothing has become of her dream of a better life.Chen walks through Macau like someone crossing a fairground in broad daylight, past the Tsai Shen Casino, where peasants play baccarat 24-7 and past the dark temple of the Lisboa Casino, its portals crowned with light bulbs like some jester's cap. She sees the brand-new, shimmering, copper-clad Wynn Casino building, and she sees the mirrored, gold-colored walls of the Sands out by the docks for ferries to Hong Kong. The colorful imitation ruins on the beach, images of antiquity and the wealth of pharaohs — all things anyone can have — with a little luck, that is.

Her route takes her through streets lined with jewelers and pawn shops, where winners show off and losers go begging, where bleach-blonde Ukrainian women saunter from one pimp to the next and young girls from all over China take their new breasts, recently enlarged for 4,500 yuan (€450) a piece, for a walk.

Chen passes the apartment building where she stayed, paying 100 yuan (€10) a night for a windowless room in downtown Macau, where the remnants of 442 years of Portuguese colonial rule seem as out of place as if they were standing in some amusement park and the true meaning of the phrase gambling den is constantly on full display. But it isn't some hell, says Chen. Despite her devastating losses, she still believes Macau is the better China and that it offers a better life. She's certain she'll return to Macau as soon as possible. And that the next time she'll make her fortune.

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She eats a small bowl of noodles in a Taiwanese soup restaurant underneath the girders of the city's elevated highway, where waitresses standing at the tables yell out their orders to the kitchen, as loudly as if they were calling the police. She is here to say goodbye to Wei Quihua, a short, good-humored woman who became her friend within a few days. Wei bet and lost 100,000 yuan (almost €10,000) — the entire capital and earnings of her lamp shop back home in Jiangxi Province.She fidgets with a 50 yuan chip from the Lisboa, her last casino chip, and she draws characters onto the paper tablecloth, eventually forming a rhyme in Chinese: "The longer you play, the more you lose." The two women laugh. Chen Xi Mei, 30-years-old, and Wei Quihua, nine years her senior, drink hot water because the tea, at €0.35, is too expensive for their budgets.

Chen laughs in spite of her situation. When she smiles, it's easy to understand why the two words in her first name mean "fine" and "pretty." She is a slender woman with a mouth that seems a touch harsh, the expressions on her small face quickly shifting with her moods. On the day of her departure from Macau, she's wearing a light-colored quilted jacket, too thin for January, and as she tightens her collar under her chin to ward off the chill, she says: "I'm sad, of course — what else would I be? But I'll be back."

The wheeled suitcase holding her small collection of belongings stands next to her, and in her black imitation leather shoulder bag she carries the yuan she has left, her identification card, a passport and small plastic bags — just in case she feels carsick on her long journey across the country.

Hating home

The trip will take her 1,000 kilometers (622 miles), from the glittering lights of the new to the ancient darkness of the old China, where plows are still pulled by oxen and where villagers have been drawing their water from wells for centuries. A thousand kilometers from Macau to Zhuhai, over Guangzhou, onward to to Nanchang and Xishan and, finally, from there to Zeran, the village where Chen Xi Mei grew up and the place she hates.

People stream into China across the border from Macau's Barrier Gate into the Chinese border city of Zhuhai.

DPA

People stream into China across the border from Macau's Barrier Gate into the Chinese border city of Zhuhai.

She reaches the massive customs checkpoint in the border area separating China's communist mainland from Macau's capitalist special administration zone, where travelers' papers are processed 24 hours a day at 35 or 40 counters, where their bodies are examined with heat imaging cameras that measure body temperature to filter out the sick that could be infected with bird flu.Chen disappears into the crowd, joining the ranks of Macau pilgrims from across China — police officers from Beijing, municipal officials from Hunan, gangsters from Shanghai, Guangdon and Hong Kong, village elders, judges, doctors and factory owners from all over. Today, Macau sees 19 million visitors a year, or over 50,000 a day — easily outstripping Las Vegas. Macau has become the pan-Chinese dream factory ever since the Portuguese pulled out six years ago. It's China's only place with legal citywide gambling, with close to two dozen mega-casinos. It's a greedy machine fed by multitudes of simple folk like Chen Xi Mei, who sheds a few tears as she leaves Macau behind.

She wants to talk about her life. Hers is the kind of story that speaks volumes about today's China. Chen started dreaming about a better future as a child, when one of her chores was to fetch water from the village well and the wooden yoke she used to carry the heavy buckets would cut into her shoulders. At 17, she left her village for the first time and walked to Xishan, passing huts where women roasted peanuts in giant woks and whose walls were covered with slogans proclaiming the victory of communism. But roasting peanuts in a provincial town was never Xi Mei's goal in life. Her dreams were reserved for the cities, the bright lights, love and money.

It was 13 years ago when she took the bus to Nanchang for the first time, uncertain of what she would find there. The big city was jarring and the noise was deafening for a country kid who had spent her childhood hearing nothing louder than the wind howling in rice fields. Her only qualifications were her youth and the three years she had spent attending the village school. She found work in a carpet factory, where she worked 14-hour shifts, seven days a week, and she spent her nights sharing crowded bunk beds with other village girls in a building owned by the factory.

She earned 300 yuan a month (about €30), which seemed like a lot of money back then. But after six months, she became anxious working with spinning machines that sometimes became caught in the girls' hair, and she quit her job. She could have become yet another ant in the hordes of millions of Chinese migrant workers, a dagongmei, or job sister, a prospect that at first didn't seem half bad to her.

A new era

When she was born, in November 1975, Mao was still alive, and the legendary Zhou Enlai was still the first president of the People's Republic of China. But by the time she began attending school in a brick barracks-like structure on the edge of the village, a building shared with the local doctor, the old brand of communism was already on its way out. Premier Deng Xiaoping proclaimed the unleashing of market forces and encouraged the Chinese to begin enriching themselves. The birth of a new era — and a new China — coincided with the beginning of her own life.

The Las Vegas Sands casino in shown in Macau.

AP

The Las Vegas Sands casino in shown in Macau.

She saw new slogans appearing on the walls of her village, next to the old propaganda proclaiming the victory of communism. The village chairman had the new propaganda painted in white, and unlike the language of the Mao era, the new slogans revolved around change, a new era of wealth and taking initiative and Chen sensed that it was her own life they were addressing. The old days, the days of a planned economy were over.A monument commemorating the grand old days of the red revolution still stands in Nanchang — the first big city Chen got to know — a bustling metropolis of 4.5 million. An enormous concrete rifle juts from the ground in the city's downtown, China's red flag flying from the tip of its bayonet. It's a monument to the August 1927 uprising, which led to the formation of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. Nanchang is a city of heroes for Chinese communists — or at least it once was, in some gray prehistoric period. Standing at the base of the monument (which Chen never visited during all her years in Nanchang), one looks across at the mirrored twin towers of the Bank of Commerce and the Wanda Shopping Mall, with its four-storey Wal-Mart superstore and its walls plastered with advertisements.

The surrounding streets are lined with trendy shops selling global fashions and athletic shoes, alternating with Chinese pharmacies where powdered, dried silk worms are still sold. Hong Kong pop blares from open doorways as girls with hip hairstyles and wearing pink fur coats congregate around a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Nearby there are half-naked beggars dragging their broken bodies, face-down, across the sidewalks.

Like Chen, Nanchang's beautiful people have no idea who Zhou Enlai was. They too have only heard about Mao in passing. To them, "communism" and "party" are nothing but words, and phrases like "socialist market economy" are concepts they find difficult to comprehend as they sit in the C Straits Café, drinking latte macchiatos and gazing down at the city's lake, where the elderly still perform their Qi Gong gymnastics in formation every morning, just as they've always done.

In search of a better life

Chen was 18 the second time she set out for Nanchang. Within less than six months of quitting her job in the carpet factory, she decided to flee from her village once again, to search for a new life. This time she found work as a kitchen helper in the Xia Mi Fu Restaurant, earning 40 yuan (€4) a month, with free meals and a place to sleep near the kitchen — although the mattresses stank of frying grease while she slept.

After eight weeks she was promoted to waitress, at a monthly salary of 280 yuan (€28), but it was easy work and her boss was friendly. Chen worked in the restaurant for the next three years, carrying plates, pouring green tea and serving dim sum from rolling carts, but her dreams were relentless. She wanted more. She wanted a better life. Xi Mei, fine and pretty, she thought to herself, deserved more than the life of a slave. To achieve her goals, 13 years ago, she was willing to embark on a long and arduous journey.

It's taken her two days to reach Nanchang from Macau, a trip through flat countryside, around the entire Pearl River delta and through the world's factory, an endless, smoke-belching industrial zone, a place that's the antithesis of ageing Europe with its flagging economy. Here, the discussion is whether growth — of both the economy and the population — can somehow be constrained. It was a journey through a landscape that rarely sees the sun or a blue sky, because the damp air and smog combine to form a shroud as thick as cigar smoke.

Chen isn't concerned about her family asking questions. "They won't ask questions," she says, "no one asks questions in China." But won't they want to know what it was like in Macau? "They think I was there to look for work. It's nobody's business that I went there to gamble."

The trip from Nanchang to Xishan, in an eight-seat minibus carrying eleven passengers, takes about an hour. It passes through a landscape reminiscent of cliché images of wide-open America, with the vast expanses of eastern Chinese farmland stretching along both sides of the road, endlessly subdivided into individual plots of land patterned in the colors of rice fields.

Chen Xi Mei at home with her family.

Ulrich Fichtner / DER SPIEGEL

Chen Xi Mei at home with her family.

Chen tried starting a new life in this region three times, first in the carpet factory, then as a waitress and, finally, with a man. He was 17 years her senior, had money from questionable sources and lived in a nice courtyard apartment on Zhong Shan Street in downtown Xishan. She and the man had a child, Tsen Xin (Two Hearts), but when Chen was in her fifth month of pregnancy the father, a notorious pickpocket, was arrested and sent to prison. She was only 24 at the time, and yet her third attempt to find a new life away from her village had already failed. She wasn't ready for the child, who was illegal because he was neither registered nor approved by any government agency. Indeed, Chen and the pickpocket weren't even registered as a couple, a requirement for engaged adults in China. She found herself staring into a void, cursing the child and cursing a man she didn't love.But there was one thing about the father of her child that had fascinated Chen. He had struck it rich playing banned poker and dice games, essentially without lifting a finger. At the time — five or six years ago — Chen hit upon the idea that perhaps there was an easier way to make a living in China than through hard work. Shortly thereafter she decided to try and take a shortcut to happiness.

On the last leg of her journey, Chen pulls her wheeled suitcase as she walks the last hour to Zeren Zun (Natural Village). Seen from a distance, the village looks like a smudge of dirt on the horizon. A winding path leads to Zeren Zun, through rolling countryside dotted with small farms. Men sit at rustic wooden tables by the side of the path playing cards, farmers wearing balloon caps and old army jackets ride past on their bicycles and meat is set out to dry on sticks in the landscape.

The party has imprinted its slogans on every wall, but unlike the propaganda of Chen's childhood, personal enrichment is no longer the focus of these new slogans, which now read: "Honor your daughters! We are establishing a new tradition!" "Birth control is everyone's responsibility!" "The times are changing — boys and girls are equal!" But none of this has made much of an impression on the Chinese people. The truth is that almost all those who made it into this world in the first place as girls in rural China have already survived once. Chen mentions a friend who terminated three pregnancies because the ultrasound image didn't show the boy she had hoped for. Only 87 girls are born for every 100 boys born in China. The ratio is even more skewed in the provinces, which are home to 800 million people who live far away from the new high-rises in Shanghai and Beijing. They toil away in rice fields and live in huts, condemned to live in a timeless, endless world of yesterday.

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The last section of the path leads through rice fields, and Chen suddenly becomes quiet. She seems nervous as she enters her village, almost as if she were expecting unwelcome questions, after all. On the tiny hamlet's only street, little more than an unpaved path deeply grooved by the elements, children play with chickens and pigs, running in a pack of 30 or 40 that includes only five or six girls. Some of the boys have eye diseases. The crowd of children loudly accompanies Chen to her family's house, which is hidden behind other houses. To reach it, little more than a large hut with a rotting roof, one passes through the living areas of two other houses and two small courtyards. But when Chen arrives, it seems as though she had never left.Her brother is sitting on a box and barely looks up when she enters the house. Her mother briefly sticks her head out of the kitchen, a room with blackened walls in which an open fire rages under a bathtub-sized wok. One of Chen's nieces dances around the room, smiling but barely paying attention to her aunt. No one asks questions. How did it go? What's Macau like? How are you? Who are these strangers? But Chen doesn't seem at all surprised and she'll later say that that's just the way it is in the village. "You come, you go," she'll say, "it's been that way in China for a thousand years. And everyone has a life somewhere in between."

The brother pulls out some more boxes as seating. There isn't a single chair in the house, not even a stool. Chickens scratch around the table, accompanied by cats and young dogs. The room is part living room, part barn. Two small doors lead to bedrooms. Painted signs above the doors read: "The star of good luck shines above you."

Chen's father died a year ago of thyroid cancer. The shrine the family built in his memory — a man-sized altar patched together from dolls, tin foil and colored paper — still stands in a corner. Chen sat here for three months, mourning the father she had loved, hardly ever leaving the house and praying to nebulous Taoist deities she knew from television programs.

Unease at home

She seems pleased that at least her son greets her with enthusiasm, and she kneels down in front of him and takes his head in her hands. Then she cuts his fingernails with a pair of short, rusty scissors. The brother talks about the two and a half acres of land where he grows rice, which he sells to the government. The entire family's annual earnings amount to 10,000 yuan (€1,000), money that has to support six or seven people. Chen, bored by the brother's stories, fidgets and eventually gets up and says: "I'll show you the well now."

A reminder of 400 years of Portuguese rule in Macau.

DPA

A reminder of 400 years of Portuguese rule in Macau.

It's only about 100 steps from the house, at the end of a path lined with rice drying on woven mats and ditches filled with stagnant green water. The village has no sewage system, no flush toilets and no garbage collection service. Chen peers into the well, a place where she once played with her siblings, her two sisters and the brother. It's also the place where she swore to herself that she would not stay in Zeren Zun and that she would leave everything behind, including her son, to find her fortune, once and for all, in Macau.No one in the village will ever find out how things went for her in Macau, however. No one will know how she lost her money, the 9,800 yuan (almost €1,000) with which she had arrived in town, almost as much as her brother earns in an entire year toiling in his rice field and on construction sites. She earned the money in Zhuhai within six months, first in a nail salon and then in massage parlors. But they were straight massage parlors, she insists, not brothels. Besides, she adds, at 30 she would be too old for the business. No pimp would want her, because Chinese bachelors prefer girls over women — the younger the better.

Chen entered Macau on January 5, on a 37-day transit visa. She went directly to the Lisboa, a large, dark building with narrow hallways lined with Black Jack tables. A place with its low-ceilinged, imitation Baroque rooms with walls covered with dark wallpaper, making it seem like some underground temple. It was at the Lisboa, where on the upper floors shady VIPs and high rollers stack chips worth millions, that she went to gamble.

Fleeting luck

She did well at first. She went to the dice tables and played "Big Numbers, Little Numbers," a childish double-or-nothing game. She approached the game quietly, cleverly placing her beds and collecting her earnings after an hour. After that she walked around to pick up tips watching others play. By the second day she had doubled her money to almost 20,000 yuan — two years' earnings for the average farmer, but money she'd won within a few hours. Ahead of the game and feeling lucky, she walked through the hallways as if on air, asking herself why on earth anyone could be stupid enough to work for a living.

She paid no attention to the chain smokers with the nervous hands, their faces gaunt from days of sleep deprivation, and she ignored the losers, the way they would walk through the casino's endless nighttime atmosphere, staring blankly into space. Instead, she focused her attention on the men coming down from the upper floors. They were men wearing expensive suits, men who climbed into limousines and men who were betting millions — mayors gambling away their villages' money and big city party honchos playing with their ill-gotten gains, rubbing shoulders with an assortment of underworld characters. Chen admired them from afar, admired their success, their smell of money and luck — and she felt closer to them than to the losers.

The Lisboa casino.

GMS

The Lisboa casino.

But her lucked turned sour on the fourth day. Whenever she'd bet on the high numbers, the dice would roll out the low, and when, on a whim, she predicted pairs of fives and sixes, the numbers would come out mismatched. She lost a lot of money on Sic Bo, an ancient Chinese game of chance, so much that she decided to switch to cards, playing baccarat and pontoon. When she realized she was losing at the Lisboa, Chen switched to the Tsai Shen. But she lost there, as well.Then she walked over to the glittering Sands, the first casino an American was permitted to build in China, a place that features floor shows and a gallery high above with theme restaurants serving the nouveau riche Chinese everything from pizza to Portuguese food. Down below, Xi Mei was playing for her life.

By the evening of the fourth day, January 8, she still had 2,300 yuan (€230). She set aside 300 yuan, as if she knew what was about to happen. At first she played with 200-yuan chips, winning one game and losing the next, a zero-sum game. At some point she decided that she'd had enough. She took her last 2,000 Yuan, the equivalent of the four Chinese workers' monthly wages, and she played baccarat and pontoon, betting everything she had left on a single hand, on the bank's hand. But the bank lost — and so did the fine and pretty Xi Mei, abandoned by luck and all common sense. That was her first experience in Macau.

Coming and going

It's evening in her village and her mother is about to serve dinner — a cooked chicken, one of the birds that had just been clucking its way through the family living room, a special meal for her daughter and the strangers she brought along, but Chen decides to leave. She says she wants to return to Xishan and then travel to Nanchang, that she can't stay her, not here in this village. She stands up and has barely turned around to go before the family stands up, as well. "You come, you go," says Chen, dragging her suitcase behind her like some loyal little dog. "And everyone has a life somewhere in between."

The next day she returns to the C Straits Café. Dressed for the occasion, she drinks hot water and eats a Pizza Hawaii for breakfast. All she can talk about is Macau, about how she plans to drum up enough money to buy a business visa, one that'll allow her to stay in Macau. She talks about how she'll make money the next time around, with jobs and with dice, how she'll find her fortune in there. But she leaves as abruptly as she arrived. Chen turns around, says nothing and walks away, quickly disappearing into the passing crowd. A reunion with her seems unlikely at this point, but the symbolism of her departure is deceptive and she will give her story its own epilogue.

Two months later, on March 15, she calls from Macau. She's made it, she says. And on March 28, she walks through the glass door of the Taiwanese soup restaurant under the overhead highway near the Lisboa. She looks different. Her lips are painted bright red and her eyelids coated with green eye shadow. She wears a striped imitation fur vest, tall boots and new jeans, and she has so much gel in her hair that it seems wet. She smiles at that thought and says: "It's not what you think. It's even better." She leans forward coquettishly like a girl with a crush, flirting and doing her best to delay having to tell her story. She wasn't able to scrape together the money she needed for a business visa. She tried, she says, to even make peace with her home village, fetching water from the well and spreading rice out to dry on woven mats. But the hatred she had always felt for her old life, hatred for the filth and bleakness of the place, crept back into her head. Xi Mei, fine and pretty, quickly went back to dreaming of a better life, a life without her child and without burdens, a life filled with light, love and cash.

She took the bus from Nanchang, and during the 16-hour trip she vomited again in her small plastic bags. But this time she didn't feel as carsick as usual because, as she says, she had found a new herbal paste to rub onto her temples. She only had a few hundred Yuan in her pockets, but she went to Macau armed with plenty of hope. Upon her return, she met a young couple from Jiangxi. The couple knew some people from Hunan who were interested in Chen's experiences and her abilities. They invited her to a dinner where there were many people, and where every conversation revolved around money, gamblers, casinos and losers.

Made in Macau

The people from Hunan got Chen a room in an apartment, where she has been living with a group of people ever since. In return, she has a simple task. She spends her nights walking through Macau's casinos of Macau — the Lisboa, the Sands, and the Tsai Shen — working from four in the afternoon until three in the morning. She sidles around the tables looking for losers, desperate losers, people in the same position in which she once found herself — in need of fast cash.

Chen brings these people together with the people from Hunan, who then decide whether or not to lend them money. When they do approve a loan, Chen receives ten percent of the loan proceeds as her commission. Xi Mei, fine and pretty, who didn't even know what Black Jack was four months ago, and who once believed that 10,000 yuan was a lot of money, is now the smallest fish in Macau's swarm of loan sharks. She denies that these people are the Mafia. After all, the borrowers need and want the money. And if they're unable to pay back their loans? There are others who worry about that, she says, but admits she has no idea what exactly they do. She crosses her arms, as if to fend off further questions, makes an irritated face and looks out the window.

"I'm doing well," she says. She'll never have to return to her village. "I'm in Macau now, do you understand? In Macau!" She drinks hot water. It's four in the afternoon and time to go to work. Her shift is about to begin out there, among the gaming tables, at the Lisboa and at the Sands.

Translated from German by Christopher Sultan

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