AAS-in-Asia 2014 Panel on “Casino Urbanism”

Casino Urbanism: Mobilities, Scales, Politics

Chairperson | Kah Wee Lee | National University of Singapore
 FRIDAY, 18 JULY 2014 | 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM 
PANEL 44 | ROOM 4 | INTER-AREA 

The Las Vegas Strip holds a privileged position in urban studies: it is the archetypal city of spectacles as well as the birthplace of architectural postmodernism. Yet, there are arguably many “Las Vegas Strips” in Asia today. Singapore and Macau, for example, represent the new frontiers of the global casino industry, where gross earnings from casinos have surpassed Las Vegas. Other cities in Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Taiwan have also considered or moved ahead with large-scale casino developments in an attempt to tap into this lucrative industry. The urban transformation of these cities and their regions presents new insights into the intersections of transborder capital flow, cultural imagination, institutional regulations and geopolitics, as well as challenging extant paradigms of urbanism constructed from the Las Vegas model.

This panel presents transnational and comparative perspectives on the concrete manifestations of casino development in various Asian cities. It investigates the conditions that led to the opening up of markets for the casino industry, and how different actors such as casino developers, financial institutions and governments engaged in negotiations that led to a specific form of casino urbanism. It broaches questions of modernity, identity and power, looking critically at how these developments shape the lives of those who live in their hinterlands. Bringing together different theoretical and disciplinary approaches, the papers collectively challenge us to trace emergent lines of politics at the urban, national and regional scale through the proliferation of an industry that is at once lionized and stigmatized.

Macau’s Themed Casino Resorts and the Subjection of the Post-Socialist Consumer

Timothy A Simpson | University of Macau

Following Portugal’s return of Macau to the People’s Republic of China in 1999, and the subsequent liberalization of the city’s casino industry, Macau has improbably been transformed into the world’s most lucrative site of casino gaming revenue.  Transnational capital invested in the city has produced a phantasmagoric cityscape of iconic glass architecture and themed resorts that are interspersed with Macau’s colonial-era Portuguese buildings.  Several of Macau’s new casino concessionaires are Las Vegas entrepreneurs, and Macau’s new themed resorts resemble the themed architecture typical of Las Vegas; in fact, Macau’s Venetian and Wynn Resorts are direct imitations of Las Vegas properties.  The architecture of Las Vegas is often considered the epitome of postmodern design, defined by such semiotic characteristics as simulation, hyperreality, and implosion.  However, I address Macau’s themed environments not as hyperreal and implosive postmodern architecture but as highly-differentiated post-socialist spatial formations whose very materiality plays a functional role in production of a post-socialist Chinese consumer subject.  From this perspective Macau’s resorts may be understood as a contemporary, neoliberal form of the danwei, or work units, which characterized China’s socialist era.

Casino Urbanism in Cambodia: The Naga World Casino along the Mekong in Phnom Penh

Teri Shaffer Yamada | California State University Long Beach

The Naga World Casino was built in 1995 on prime land along the Mekong River less than a mile from the National Palace ostensibly with outsider funding (Malaysia).  It was built against a building code that prohibited the construction of any building in that area taller than the palace.  The Naga describes itself as “the finest integrated casino-hotel in Indochina, rivaling top Southeast Asian and world-renowned casinos…with themed public gaming halls, karaoke lounges and gaming machines.” (http://www.nagaworld.com/about-nagaworld-hotel)  Its construction heralded a land speculation bubble in Cambodia, especially in the city of Phnom Penh, involving the reclamation of squatter lands and the forced displacement of impoverished citizens to outlying areas without adequate social infrastructure.  The Naga also signals a point in contemporary Cambodian politics when a shift to a more authoritarian political structure and increasing corruption seemed to occur.

This paper will explore the consequences of the Naga on the geographical shape of the city as more land was reclaimed around it for development, including the land reclamation and construction of expensive homes and a convention center on nearby Diamond Island.   It will also explore the politics of corruption and economic opportunity the Naga signifies.  The fame of the Naga as a site of money laundering and other forms of “illegal” activity has even found its way into Khmer contemporary short fiction. Its presence transmits a mystical power in the imaginary of the mostly lower social-class citizens of Phnom Penh.

The Casino Global City: Speculative Capitalism, Rentier State, Risk Society, Singapore

Daniel P.S. Goh | National University of Singapore 

Within three years of their opening, the two international casinos in Singapore’s integrated resorts have propelled the city-state to join Macau and Las Vegas as the top gambling destinations in the world. Gambling profits have outstripped Las Vegas and Singapore has benefited handsomely from the increased tourist traffic and global city branding. The casinos opened with much political controversy and increased opposition to the long-ruling People’s Action Party government. They signaled a major reversal in anti-casino tourism and urban redevelopment policy, conflicted with the anti-gambling stance of the regime and contradicted the straight-laced public morality the elites promulgated. Why did the same ruling elites do such a drastic U-turn to build casinos as the cornerstone for economic growth and urban renewal in the 2010s?

This paper argues that the global city form of casino urbanism in Singapore reflects the convergence of economic development, state formation, and societal evolution. The Asian Financial Crisis and the large surplus stock of household savings and sovereign capital brought on post-industrial economic reforms that pushed Singapore into financial services and speculative capitalism. Beset by political pressure for democratization, the state took steps to devolve dependence on income and capital taxes, becoming less dependent on the citizenry thus, and derived more of its revenue from land sales, sovereign wealth fund and consumption taxes. Immigration of skilled workers and talents became a critical policy to sustain the new political economy of state-led participation in financial capitalism. These developments exposed society to the volatile inflationary and deflationary risks of globalization, thus pushing the famously anti-welfarist state into providing social safety nets. The casino global city keeps Singapore attractive for speculative capital, provides lucrative revenue for the rentier state, and reflects a risk society running head on to embrace globalization and accept its fate and fortunes.

Mongla: Is it a Chinese or Shan Town?

Tharaphi Than | Northern Illinois University

Mongla, a border town along Myanmar-China boundary line, elicit awe and uncertainty for many visitors. Keng Tong, a Shan town, might be only two hour drive away from Mongla, but residents of the latter might prefer to have stronger cultural and economic ties to Dalou of China. Casinos, SUVs, Karaoke bars and Chinese language might be the agents of modernity that better connect the people of Mongla to ‘civilization’ of the ‘other’.   How does one understand the identity and changing cultural and social landscape of people in this border town?  How do residents appropriate the culture of vice while living amidst Shans, whose identity is rooted in Buddhism?  How does cease-fire agreement between the Special Administrative Region and Myanmar government affect the political economy of the town? This paper attempts to answer these questions so as to better understand the parallel and competing forces that help shape Mongla and its people.

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