I knew Macau had modernized and had become a mega Chinese gambling mecca on a scale equal to Las Vegas. The sleepy quaint Portuguese flavoured backwater I remembered from the early 90’s had long been buried under steel and concrete . It had eclipsed Vegas some time ago in terms of revenues generated. My interest then was to return after a 27 year absence and develop a series I would call Puntopia. A sequel to the dystopian street photography series I created a year earlier in Hong Kong. A collection of images with a neo noir vibe. Work I call Neonopolis. Puntopia I thought is where I present a sort of futuristic pleasure dome, the place where Neonopolis fat cats and high rollers come to play and gamble away their illicit fortunes.
Like with all of my street projects it often takes some time before I begin to see the nuances of place and a style emerges. I like to let what I’m seeing and feeling decide the visual narrative/style of the pictures. For example high key, low key. In fact my camera dictates to me how this is going to emerge stylistically. Yes the ‘look’ almost has a life of its own. I don’t ‘try’ to force anything. And I don’t mean the story! Because a lot of what I do today is less about story and more about vibe. The vibe is the story, the narrative is the vibe. The construct of the picture and how I frame eventually becomes central to the way the series emerges photographically speaking. The cameras finds the frame and vibe for me. At least it seems that way to me. I find that a fascinating process. Hence my love for street photography.
In the case of Puntopia the myriad floors and walkways of hotels, mega shopping complexes and casinos are paradoxically the streets. Retail high streets tucked away in gargantuan glitzy malls. 100’s of kilometers of shopping and eating strips, stuffed with nothing else but A-list brands, Gucci, Bulgari, Hermes, Prada, Kate Spade. Add in the multi-level gambling floors from VIP to mass gaming across the 49 plus Macau casinos. Equally the preponderance of colossal 60 floor high hotels scattered across both Macau and Taipei added another yet more levels of excess.
Yes Puntopia is about excess. Excessive gambling, eating, shopping. Under the bright lights the punters dream. Desire. Succumb to the illusion. Mostly they don't get it. That gambling is the ultimate bait and switch. They are presented with glamour and gucci, but what they get is loss, poverty and despair. The odds are stark and real: the odds don't lie. They get buried in existential punting addiction and greed.
And within the serried ranks of this gambling madness there are legions of Chinese croupiers and observers, and security guards from places such as Wuhan, Tianjin, Manila, Katmandhu or Cox’s Bazaar. They sit or stand watching, observing 12 hours a day. They watch the winners and losers, the big spenders. They are watched themselves by the big bosses upstairs! Eyes and cameras are everywhere. Frugality is a dirty word in Macau. Unless of course you are one of the security team on a minimum wage. Uncountable numbers of tourist and gamblers from mainland China descend on the town, bussed in and out. 24/7. The place never sleeps. The shops never close. Hookers linger day and night.
Oh and it’s all so amazing stylish. The level of grandeur is stupendous. The quality of furnishings opulent beyond my wildest dreams. I thought to myself. Goodness when I walked this enclave some 25 years ago, those across the border were still walking about in blue, grey or green Mao suits. And in many cases rags too. Could they have ever imagined this level of luxury and sophistication? And if not, then why are they not showing amazement now as they stroll around heads bowed into their smart phones? They seemed to be missing the miracle of it all. I certainly wasn’t!
Ultimately there are so many sub-subjects buried within this place I call Puntopia that I could never hope to complete the work I envisage in just 5 days. The images you see here are merely just the building blocks to something bigger.
I would like to get in much closer to the gambling tables, and capture the tempo, moods and characters of the players. The nuances of winning and losing big money. Cooperation from the casinos will be necessary. Or I go in with some spy cameras. There is the ‘hidden’ sex industry. Massage parlous and karaoke bars. All of these take serious time to penetrate (excuse the pun), if one can get access at all. Therefore certainly for now, I’m more than happy to make inference to some of these no-go areas. I like to imagine what’s happening in that building, room or behind those closed doors. Imagination is a fascinating thing.