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“Good fortune” in Macau


April 30, 2010
- Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The Masters Hotel in Macau has a sign shaped like a cross, but the hotel is known to charge service fees for “escorts” and the text, translated from Chinese, reads “good fortune.”

The irony of that sign embodies the contrasts of Macau, a small city state whose lavishly displayed wealth is dependant upon games of chance and the bad luck of others.

George and Tobia Veith and Tim and Cindy Buhler, workers to Macau with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network, have noted that because gaming is Macau’s primary industry, most employment is either directly or indirectly related to it. Casino workers, hotel and food services, shops and even city services cater to the industry. Other vices such as prostitution and loan sharking, although more hidden, are also present as part of the gambling culture.

Located just across the bay from Hong Kong, Macau belonged to Portugal until 1999 when it was returned to Chinese authority. Although Macau is part of China, it is considered a Special Administrative Region, governed by different laws. While the gambling industry is illegal in mainland China, it puts rice on the table in Macau.

At the time of repatriation, the local government invited international casino operators to set up shop in Macau and the gambling industry was launched.

“People were actually happy that casinos were coming because it meant more money for the city,” Tobia Veith says. Although citizens anticipated a better lifestyle, they were soon disillusioned by the impact of shift work, urban congestion and rising prices.

“For us in terms of doing ministry it’s not just the issue of gambling, it’s the issue of money, the issue of affluence,” George Veith says. “People in Macau are fighting the increased price of real estate, food, the cost of living. The pressures of life go up a notch.”

Growth in the gaming industry has wreaked havoc upon small businesses and some city services which have closed or been disrupted as workers left to earn higher casino wages.

 “Rather than dealing with addicted gamblers we mainly work with people in the church who need to decide whether or not to work in a casino,” Cindy Buhler writes in an email exchange. 

Since 1999, Macau has grown to become the world’s largest gaming centre, with revenues surpassing those of Las Vegas. Currently, close to 40 casinos and a population of 500,000 are squeezed into an area of about 28 sq. km. That’s like cramming the population of Winnipeg, Man. into Steinbach, Man. – an area only about 5% of Winnipeg’s size – and providing roughly one casino for every 12 thousand people. In 2008, Macau hosted 30 million visitors.

About 35% of casino revenues are turned over to the Macau government in taxes, generating roughly 75% of the government’s total income and supporting a large portion of the city’s infrastructure.

In addition, some schools, playgrounds, social and cultural agencies are subsidized by casino operators like Stanley Ho, the multi-billionaire whom the Buhlers say currently controls more than half of Macau’s gaming industry.

“Gambling licenses are expensive, so the government has lots of money,” Tobia says. “It feels like hush money.”

Because the government and casinos work to beautify the city for tourists, evidence of the bleaker side of gambling isn’t readily visible. Like the poor. “You don’t see the homeless,” Tobia Veith says. “But they are there.”

Education is affected by gambling too. Lucrative employment opportunities entice high school students to drop out. There is an ongoing waiting list for government-offered courses on training for dealers and some economics students at the University of Macau are preparing master theses on gaming.

"As the gaming industry sector has grown, Macau Mennonite, along with other churches in Macau, has increasingly had to face pastoral issues surrounding the gaming industry," Tobia Veith says.

Both the Buhlers and the Veiths are often asked whether jobs off the gaming floor are okay, such as in the kitchen or cleaning department.

“It is very easy for those working within casinos to get caught in gambling somehow,” Cindy Buhler writes. “Even if you don’t gamble in the casinos, there are mahjong dens [a Rummy style game played with tiles] or horse racing, or dog racing. The game mahjong has been a Chinese pastime for centuries.” She notes that young men in particular are susceptible to gambling by exposure.

Maintaining church connections with believers involved in gaming is a challenging aspect of ministry in Macau. “When someone starts to gamble, they quickly disappear and don’t want to relate to the church,” Buhler reports.

Tobia Veith tells the story of one committed believer who suddenly disappeared. “This gentle, soft-spoken young woman had gone to work as a dealer in a casino to earn enough money to care for her mother and younger brother. She was ashamed of her work and that shame kept her from attending church.”

When the Veiths discovered what had happened they told her that she needed support in what she was doing and drew her back into the church. Eventually she found a different job in security, but it entailed shift work.

“We’re dealing with people who have to work shifts so they rarely come to church or participate in small groups. With new believers it’s very difficult to follow-up or do any discipleship,” Cindy Buhler observes. Those who do not work in the gaming industry may work long hours to make ends meet and they have little time for church.

Another young woman viewed casino work as an opportunity to reach out to non-Christians. The Veiths warned her of the dangers and to make sure God was calling her to that position. After much prayer, she headed in another direction.

“Working in a casino has many great temptations and you have to be extremely careful to resist casinos. If you can’t resist gambling, don’t work there,” George Veith says.

For Tobia Veith, the most challenging aspect of ministry in Macau is walking alongside people who are facing deep brokenness from the impact of gambling culture on society. “We’ve wept many tears.”

She points out that despite the challenges, “one of the greatest gifts to me has been the diversity and warmth of the church family at Macau Mennonite Church. Even though it is a small congregation, there are people from various classes, professions and walks of life who are eager to follow Jesus together, pray for, share with, and accept one another. I rejoice when I see a single mom on welfare worshiping Jesus beside another Christian sister who has her PhD. And often they bring seeking friends along. Here I sense the vibrancy that is born of choosing to follow Jesus in a difficult place.”

Her husband George agrees. “The most rewarding has been seeing Jesus transform people’s lives, seeing them walk with Jesus in their daily lives in a place where there are few Christians.”

George and Tobia Veith and Tim and Cindy Buhler serve in Macau through Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network to provide pastoral support to Macau Mennonite Church. They are training small-group leaders for the house groups that meet in homes during the week. The Veiths are currently residing in Canada for North American Ministry.

Sidebar: God is at work in Macau


blue framed sign, Masters Hotel
Macau Mennonite Church family

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Despite challenges created by the gambling industry in Macau, faith and commitment are growing among the 35 regular attendees of Macau Mennonite Church. On June 7, 2009, Treasure Chow was ordained as the first local Chinese leader of the congregation, and by the end of March 2010, a newly elected church council consisted entirely of local citizens.

The ordination and leadership transfer at Macau Mennonite marks the culmination of 13 years of work by George and Tobia Veith, workers with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network, who helped birth the church in 1996. Tim and Cindy Buhler, who work through the same two agencies, live on an outlying island of Taipa with their daughter Kristyn, and are supporting the Chows during their first year of church leadership while the Veiths are on a North American ministry assignment.

Releasing congregations to local leadership is the goal of church planters. As local citizens assume leadership roles, Witness/Mission Network workers have gradually stepped into roles of encouragement and support.

Tobia Veith points out that aside from the deceptive glitz of gaming, Macau is an unrecognized gem of the Orient, with a charming mix of eastern and western cultures, numerous world heritage sites, and the rich heritage of the Macanese people group which resulted from 450 years of intermarriage between Portuguese and Chinese before repatriation. “We have appreciated living there alongside the resilient people of Macau, who are always warm to a conversation in Cantonese, who held our children when they were toddlers on their laps on the crowded buses, who allowed us ‘in’ on the web of relationships that gets things done in Macau's neighbourhoods.”

In an email exchange, Tim Buhler writes that “Macau Mennonite is the fruition of God's leading to plant a peace church in Macau with involvement by MC Canada, Mennonite Mission Network and Eastern Mennonite Missions. Macau is a challenging place to live and work but we join in with what God is doing in the city. We look for His faithfulness to the people of Macau.”

Buhler says that during a recent Bible study, the group expressed a sense of pride in Macau for its Christian heritage, one that began with Protestants and Catholics before the Mennonites arrived, and the numerous Catholic churches across the city that provide a striking contrast to the casinos. “I think they are sure that God is leaving his footprint across the city.”