“Macao exists because of the dream of making it big,” says Danish photographer Charlotte de la Fuente, whose series A Chinese Game of Luck captures the heady rush of Asia’s gambling capital. A Portuguese territory until 1999, Macau is now a Special Administrative Region where, unlike mainland China, gambling is legal. Its recent history has been dominated by a transformation into a Vegas-like hub, leading the hopeful to flock there with visions of leaving considerably richer.
Rather than documenting the hustle of Macau’s casinos, Charlotte set herself the aim of capturing its unique atmosphere of hope, heady anticipation and, at times, sorrow. “This project was an exploration of how luck and the dream of making it big influences the mood of Macao,” says Charlotte. “Somehow this dream of quick success and wealth fascinated me, perhaps because I am too pragmatic to gamble myself. In Denmark there is not a strong tradition for gambling, so meeting a society where it has such a big impact was something that I wanted to explore.”
Before the project, Charlotte had been interning at a newspaper in Denmark, and was keen to embark on an approach that countered this experience. “After working towards the newspaper ideal of ’getting the whole story in one picture’ I wanted to distance myself from that idea and to work more on depicting an atmosphere with my own voice,” she explains. “I felt like doing a project where I was able to explore my own visual style as a photographer and not think too much about photographing in a traditional newspaper style.”
In Macao Charlotte was surprised by how deserted some of the casinos were, as the gambling industry in the region has expanded in excess of demand. “Walking around in some of them almost felt like being in a ghost city,” she says. The venues themselves only added to the surrealism. Like Vegas, casino interiors in Macau are often inspired by European destinations, like Venice complete with fake canals and gondolas. “Each casino has its own scent and musical theme – after just a few hours inside the casinos it always resulted in a headache,” says Charlotte. “I think Vivaldi will always remind me of Macao.”
As well as exploring Chinese attitudes towards luck, the project was also and opportunity for Charlotte to discuss the impact of Macau’s rapid transformation on its inhabitants. “There was a big difference in how the locals I talked to felt about the casino industry,” says Charlotte. “I met a few people who really hated how the expanding gambling industry had changed Macao. Some appreciated the industry because of the jobs but at the same time felt the gambling industry also created problems such as large influx in housing prices and gambling addiction. It is no coincidence that the streets in Macao are filled with pawnshops.”