Sinking Treasure

Updated: 2017-01-05 09:23

By Evelyn Yu(HK Edition)

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The region's high rollers could once be found rolling on the high seas a dozen or so miles outside Hong Kong waters - until such casino cruises ran into stormy waters they couldn't circumnavigate. Evelyn Yu reports.

At around 9 o'clock on a blustery Wednesday in December, the Rex Fortune slipped out of port and into the darkness, headed for international waters just outside Hong Kong's 12-mile territorial limit, beyond the reach of the law. The old cruise ship is one of the few remaining relics from the giddy carnival which people used to call "the Las Vegas of the High Seas".

Back then there'd be over 10 ships, all fully loaded with the highest of high rollers, reportedly including officials and executives from major corporations. Seven nights a week they'd head for the high seas, and for that most exuberant moment when the announcement came over the ship's intercom: "We have arrived in international waters and the casino hall is now open. All passengers are welcome."

Those days fell into their death throes back in 2012 when the central government declared that corruption among high officialdom must end.

Sinking Treasure

Today's punters are of a different species. Aboard for the Wednesday night gambling adventure is a crowd of middle-aged people mainly speaking Cantonese. They're not from Hong Kong but Guangdong, according to the crew, who recognize the familiar faces. They are of unknown provenance, but some, challenged with the impertinent question "What do you do?", reply with an easy laugh and a dismissive "I don't have a job. I'm a full-time gambler."

The line of young waitresses in red and black uniforms who greeted them were scrubbed and polished but the warm welcome and high spirits couldn't conceal the very evident signs - the worn carpets and the peeling paint - that the Rex Fortune is past its prime.

Cabin doors creaked open and resounded down the hallways when the announcement came that the casino was open on Deck Six. There are about 200 cabins on board, able to accommodate over 500 passengers. On this night, the number of passengers was around 100.

Despite its creaky longevity, the old passenger ship remains one of the few that turns a profit running its nightly casino cruises. A member of the maintenance crew remarked that the Rex Fortune stays afloat thanks to the hardcore gamblers from Guangdong. They hop on board just about every night.

From the sounds of their cheerful greetings, it appeared as if the shipmates were acquainted with one another. Possibly they'd met many times on nights like this over several years.

Around 10 baccarat tables with minimum bets of HK$200 or HK$500 were situated in the center. They were encircled by a ring of premium tables in separate glass enclosures, where the minimum bet is HK$1,000. There was no mistaking the fact that these tables were for the people of class.

No doubt there is money among this crowd, especially among the middle-aged women, all aglitter with diamond rings, diamond earrings, diamond necklaces, women of opulence whose composure never slips as the stack of chips before them grows smaller and smaller and smaller.

Some wishful thinkers carry bits of paper, carefully jotting down numbers in hopes of discovering a means of bettering their odds at games of chance.

Most are what you'd call "prudent" gamblers, shifting from table to table watching the high rollers, looking for the "light" to guide them, whether to follow the high rollers who really are on a roll, or whether to bet against them if they are losing.

There were the usual perfunctory exchanges among passengers as the games wore on, including the inevitable queries as to whether "Lady Luck" was being well behaved.

A grey-haired granny in a maroon hat and an overcoat the color of stone crept among the baccarat tables, muttering to herself, apparently trying to pick up some vibration that would tell her this was the table that would bring her luck.

Glory days

No one seemed to give a thought to the other "amenities" that came with the HK$350 ticket price. The bartender sitting in the near darkness of the karaoke room was playing with her mobile phone. She looked lonely. There wasn't another soul in sight. As far as the training room went, it had two treadmills. Both were broken.

This is not how it used to be. Everything changed after the crackdown.

"The business crashed," the same maintenance crew member remarked. Before the crackdown, after the passengers had left, "when our housekeeping staff cleaned the cabins, they'd sweep up receipts for millions of dollars paid out for chips. Nowadays anyone spending a few hundred thousand a night would count as a big spender," he added.

Back in the day, one of the high-profile regulars on the casino cruises was Huang Guangyu, former chairman of GOME Group, the leading home appliances retailer on the Chinese mainland. There were reports of sightings as he sailed regularly on the Neptune casino cruise, until he was arrested for insider trading and other charges in 2008. He was the richest man in China in 2005 according to Time magazine.

A 36-year-old former crew member on the Metropolis Cruise, a man surnamed Hu, said staff were aware that many big spenders were high government officials. No one ever came out and asked. It's just not the practice in gambling establishments.

"Before 2012, Metropolis always carried passengers near to full capacity, around 500 every night. After 2012, the number suddenly dropped to around 200. In 2014 we barely had 100 passengers. Last year there were times when only a few dozen passengers were aboard. We had to lie to them that the trip was canceled because of a machinery breakdown," said Hu.

Running a cruise like this isn't cheap. Factoring in the costs of over 300 crew members, oil, food and other costs, the daily overhead to run one night's casino cruise would be over HK$200,000. In the end, Metropolis could barely make ends meet. The company discontinued its casino cruises last year.

The man told us the owner tried to sell the ship but there were no takers. The Metropolis sits in the Yiu Lian Dockyards in Tsing Yi.

The Rex Fortune, like the Metropolis, was one of the most luxurious casino ships out of Hong Kong. It was built in 1971. At 45, it is much older than the 30-year working-life of most big ships.

The hard truth is, the Rex Fortune wouldn't even be allowed to sail from a mainland port. The Ministry of Transport, in a report released in 2012, declared that vessels over 30 years old may not enter or leave mainland ports. But in Hong Kong, as long as a vessel can pass an annual inspection by the city's Marine Department, there is no date for obsolescence.

The first casino cruise, back in 1988, was operated on board the Oriental Princess. Several casino ships soon followed her out into international waters every night. During the golden age of Hong Kong casino cruises, it's reported that they sliced off about 20 percent of the business from Macao casinos.

There were plenty of reasons to attract a savvy businessman to compete in the casino cruise business. It is tax free - a major advantage when one considers that the gaming levy on gross revenue at Macao casinos runs at around 40 percent. The casino cruise operators don't have the law looking over their shoulders wanting them to report any hint of money laundering.

The government crackdown, paired with the recession in Macao, however, has put the cruises under greater pressure, so that only three ships are still operating.

The cruel sea

The crew member from the Rex Fortune claimed crews of the other vessels are behind on their wages. The pay isn't that great anyway, Hu said. A dealer can earn a basic salary of $800 per month, and they rely heavily on tips from the players.

A Ukrainian chief officer can earn up to $5,000 per month. A sailor would only earn $300. Many of the crew members have seamen's passports from the mainland. They are youngsters who came aboard with the fantasy to see the world free. They are not allowed to stay on land overnight. When they come ashore they're allowed to spend a few hours before they have to be back aboard ship by 7:30 pm to get ready.

Hu's not in the game today. He went back to the mainland and opened an agency recruiting crew members, fresh graduates dreaming about seeing the world. Most would prefer to avoid Hong Kong where they face the same bleak feature. But they'll come if that's all they can get.

It's a boring life that drags on for 10 months away from land, away from families.

They work long hours, chained to the clock. Every night, a double-decker ferry turns up at the Star Ferry pier at 6:30 pm. The passengers are taken on a 15 minute ride out to the ship. Hu said many passengers coming aboard were not even real gamblers, just regular travelers who'd figured the casino cruises at HK$350 a night were the cheap way to stay in Hong Kong.

An immigration officer and a line-up of customs officers await, to check passengers before departure. The officers leave. The passengers are whisked off to international waters, to follow that ever elusive dream of making the big score.

Around 2 am, the gambling hall was still crowded, with the jubilant shouts of those who won and the despairing sighs of those who lost rising through the smoke. The boat swayed slightly on the high sea. Gazing through the port light, toward the endless dark ocean, only a few dots of light could be seen in the distance, probably small fishing boats.

Hu harked back the good old days, the way it was when business was great and gamblers were generous with tips. Dealers could earn more than their salary. Years ago, one passenger lost 100 million yuan ($14.5 million) on an overnight gambling cruise. The ecstatic head of the cruise regaled the entire crews of more than 300, took them to a fancy restaurant when they landed. Those were the days when everybody was feeling good.

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Sinking Treasure

(HK Edition 01/05/2017 page8)