MACAU — One of Macau's most infamous gangsters must be feeling like Rip Van Winkle.
When Wan Kuok-koi, 57, better known as Broken Tooth, was released from prison on Dec. 1, nearly 14 years after he went behind bars, he emerged to a city utterly transformed. Instead of cars burning in the streets, Bentleys with dual Macau-China license plates prowl newly built highways. Gone is the sleepy, rough-around-the-edges colonial backwater, supplanted by a city that has become the gaming capital of the world, with more than five times the annual gambling revenue of Las Vegas. In a little more than a decade, Macau has calmed down, cleaned up, and gotten immensely rich. And now, nearly two months after being freed, the former leader of 14K, Macau's biggest and most-feared criminal triad, has barely made a ripple. After vowing there was "absolutely no way" he would disturb the peace in Macau, Broken Tooth seems to have gone into hiding, with local media reporting a rumor that he exiled himself to Thailand or Hong Kong for several months as part of an agreement with Chinese authorities.
One month before he was arrested in 1998, Wan said that "anyone who's done something bad to me will never escape. I won't kill him. I'll make him take a voyage to another world." Now he says he simply wants to become a law-abiding citizen, and that revenge is a thing of the past. "I don't want to affect the stability of Macau. There's absolutely no way I want to do that. I want to be left alone," a bashful-sounding Wan said to the Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper the South China Morning Post.
It's a far cry from the swaggering Broken Tooth of old, but one that fits the times. In 1998, Wan was the irrepressible criminal king of Macau, then a Portuguese colony in its tumultuous last days. Like Bugsy Siegel in 1940s Las Vegas, he had a reputation for violence, ruthlessness, and ambition that approached megalomania. Wan earned his nickname as a young man after crashing his car and damaging his teeth. (He later had them capped.) As he rose through the triad ranks, he was shot twice and survived an attack from a meat cleaver that rendered two fingers permanently immobile. In the 1990s, he drove a purple Lamborghini and bragged about losing more than $1 million at a single gambling session. In an interview with Newsweek in 1998, he claimed to have 10,000 triad followers. And at the time of his arrest for loan sharking and money laundering, he was said to be watching the 1998 movie Casino, an autobiographical film he commissioned to dramatize his criminal exploits (not, it seems, connected to the Robert De Niro film of the same name).
In the years leading up to Macau's handover to China, triad violence surged as gangs vied for a bigger share of the pie that would be left after Portuguese power receded. The high point was 1999, the year of the handover, when 42 people died in gang-related attacks. Broken Tooth's triad torched cars and was believed to have killed a Portuguese gambling official near the Casino Lisboa. At Wan's disco, Heavy Club, a mannequin dressed in a police uniform reportedly dangled from a noose tied to the ceiling.
Under Portugal, a somewhat reluctant colonial power, the city had a sleepy air and a sluggish economy to match: a combination of triad violence and the Asian financial crisis caused Macau's gross domestic product to contract by 6.8 percent in 1998. Portugal repeatedly tried to return Macau to China as part of its 1970s decolonization push, but Beijing refused to retake sovereignty until 1999. At the time of the handover, textile manufacturing dominated Macau's economy, and the relatively small casino industry was controlled entirely by Stanley Ho. Seen in Macau as a sort of roguish, eccentric patriarch -- part Howard Hughes, part Donald Trump -- Ho allegedly earned the money to start his first business as a reward for single-handedly defeating pirates who attacked an employer's ship during World War II.
Nowhere is the contrast between then and now more apparent than in the Lisboa, Ho's landmark property and one of the city's oldest and most iconic casinos. It was also Broken Tooth's old haunt. Wan allegedly had a $50 million stake in a VIP room at the Casino Lisboa and was arrested in a suite at its hotel back in 1998. Then, the casino -- a tacky structure resembling a multicolored onion -- was guarded by a battalion of cops wielding automatic weapons. Today, the automatic weapons are gone, the casino has expanded with an enormous, glitzy addition shaped like a golden lotus flower, and the lobby is filled with tourists elbowing each other to pose in front of a life-sized gingerbread house. (The seamier side remains: A basement hallway below the Lisboa has a parade of prostitutes perpetually cat-walking between a restaurant and a fruit stand.)
In 2002, the Macau government broke Ho's monopoly on gaming and opened it up to international players. It granted six casino licenses to foreign operators, including Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn and GOP-bankroller and Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson. (Ho remains a powerhouse; he owns 17 of Macau's 34 casinos.) Beijing also loosened restrictions on mainland tourists coming to visit Macau, in an effort to boost the economy after the SARS epidemic struck China in 2003. And yet Macau's success was far from a sure bet.