Photo by António Mil-Homens

Lisboa, the monster

Gambling in Macau is measured before and after Hotel-Casino Lisboa. Inaugurated in February, 1970, it changed everything and only finds a rival in the opening of Venetian in Cotai.

MB Feb 2020 Special Report | Casino Lisboa – 50 Years

To say, 50 years later, that the opening of the Hotel Lisboa in February, 1970, had a similar impact to what the Venetian caused in 2007 does not say everything about the opening of the first hotel built from scratch by STDM .

Immediately after the inauguration, “Macau’s image is marked by an iconic building, which would change the course of the city’s history,” as can be read in a doctoral thesis presented in Portugal on the theme of Macau’s casinos.

“Occupying the entire block, strategically located on the main streets of Macau, Lisboa stood out for its dimensions and metaphorical and postmodern architecture. An imposing building, located by the sea, in a very central location, being seen from anywhere in the territory,” also says the author of the thesis “Na espacialidade dos Casinos de Macau” [In the Spatiality of Macau Casinos], Rita Silva.

Beyond all that, Lisboa has become “an icon in the city tourist itineraries arousing the interest of many investors. The surroundings grew, the terrain became denser and the morphology of the city has changed completely,” state Ms Silva.

The caption of a postcard published in the 1970s reads: “Side facade of the Casino-Hotel Lisboa Tourist Complex, the most impressive building in the Far East.”

“The gambling business dramatically changed in 1962 when the government awarded the next monopoly license to a syndicate named Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau (STDM),” state two researchers, Philip H. Loughlin and Clifton W. Pannell.

The Tai Heng monopoly failed to win a renewal of its contract, mainly because it “had not kept up with the times. Its primary offering was traditional Chinese games in quaint but outdated facilities,” both authors add. “In contrast, STDM was able to make the industry more productive,” introducing European games of chance, including high end VIP gambling, in addition to the traditional Chinese games that had dominated the older gambling houses.

“The main center of gambling moved down the street from the Hotel Central to the new and much more elaborate Casino Lisboa, a casino and hotel complex that became a landmark,” according to Loughlin and Pannell. Without surprise, it “quickly became the most famous casino in Macau,” that “created a ‘must see’ effect,” according Jorge Godinho.

“Hotel Lisboa has become a representation of Macau and a justifiable symbol of Macau’s financial growth and success” – Stanley Ho

“When it was built it was overrated. It was too much for what there was then. You would come to Penha, look at the Bay and see a monster there, which visually almost competed with the Guia hill, although it did not obstruct it,” recalls the Macanese architect José Maneiras (84 years old), deeply knowledgeable about the various stages of the project.

The four founders of STDM (Teddy Hip, Henry Fok, Yip Hon and, of course, Stanley Ho, the youngest one and the least rich) realized that Macau needed a new image to be able to assert itself as a true gambling destination. Lisboa would be the sign of this new ambition and the changes that were to come – the first five-star hotel in the Portuguese colony.

Between the signing of the contract and the inauguration are the events known as the “1, 2, 3 incident” (1966) that would weaken the Portuguese position against China. Stanley Ho seems to have taken advantage of the situation.

No sooner was the landfill in the Praia Grande Bay ready (yes, Lisboa is the first in a long history of landfill casinos) than work began, in 1966 precisely.

Almost four years, the opening.

The building was designed by one of Hong Kong’s most famous architects, Eric Byron Cumine, and consisted of two closely linked buildings: a three-story casino, open 24 hours a day, and a hotel with 12 floors and 300 rooms.

Mr. Cumine was extremely sensitive to Stanley Ho’s requests to co-think the ideas of the fong soi master who thought of space (see text on these pages).

One of the superstitions said that the works in the complex should never stop. And STDM took it very seriously – three years later there were already works, namely the pool.

Over the past 50 years, a number of refurbishments and renovations have been carried out, most notably the one in 1991 that brought a new wing with 270 rooms. In 2008, another intervention stabilized the hotel in 978 rooms.

“It was in February 1970 that the Hotel Lisboa first opened its doors to greet customers from all over the world. Since then, Hotel Lisboa has become a representation of Macau and a justifiable symbol of Macau’s financial growth and success,” summed up, many years later, Stanley Ho himself.

The Bat and the Cage

In August, 1995, the master of fong soi and Chinese geomancy Luk Ku explained to Macau Magazine the details of the construction of the Lisboa.

It is thus known that every trace of the construction project, and even the direction of the entrance, resulted from the master’s suggestions.

The casino’s main door represents a bat with wings and an open mouth, meaning that it will eat all the players’ money (“happiness” in Cantonese is “fuk,” the same word for bat…).

Two owners

With the end of the STDM concession on 31 March 2002, Casino Lisboa was reversed, as planned since 1962.

However, instead of taking possession of the premises, the MSAR chose to lease it to SJM so as not to interrupt the operation.

SJM bought the casino in 2007.

“The Lisbon hotel and casino complex now has two owners: the casino belongs to SJM and the rest to STDM,” University of Macau professor Jorge Godinho summarizes in his book “The Casinos of Macau” (2019)