The outlook for the city at the time was still murky enough that Gary Loveman, CEO of the world's largest gaming company, Caesars Entertainment Corporation, gave Macau a pass -- a decision he has since called his worst mistake. In 1998, 800,000 mainlanders visited Macau. In 2011, it was 16 million. As the only Chinese territory where casino gambling is legal, Macau has an irresistible allure to the newly rich and the middle class alike. In 2012, gambling revenues reached $38 billion. But one of the most striking changes after the handover was an end to the violence that had plagued the territory. Immediately after regaining sovereignty, China set up a garrison of the People's Liberation Army in Macau. Within a year, violent crime had dropped 46 percent. This was due partly to the jailing of Broken Tooth and the presence of China's military. But much of it is because it's more profitable for triads to help keep the peace.
Triads get a piece of this new action by dominating the "junket" industry of Macau, which brings high-rolling gamblers to the territory and collects debts on behalf of the casinos. These businesses also allow VIPs to stake more than the $50,000 legal limit on how much money Chinese are permitted to take out of the country every year. (In essence, junkets collect their clients' money on the Chinese side of the border and give them loans to gamble on the Macau side.) This scheme makes a convenient vehicle for money laundering. Steve Vickers, Hong Kong's former chief of the Criminal Intelligence Bureau, has said that he knows of "no Chinese junket operator that doesn't have some association with triads."
Although Broken Tooth's conviction dealt his old triad, 14K, a heavy blow, the gang remains active in Macau, as do his former associates. In August, six men with alleged triad ties, wielding hammers and sticks, attacked Ng Man-sun, one of Broken Tooth's bitterest former rivals. And one week before his release, police arrested Broken Tooth's former right-hand man for attempted murder.
"Everyone realizes that triads are still active," says Ricardo Pinto, a Portuguese publisher who covered the triads as a journalist in the 1990s. "Now they are working in a kind of legal framework, which of course changes very much the perception of their activities.... Now they are behaving more like normal businessmen. They made peace with society and joined Macau by operating in a legal way."
That is not to say that triads have given up on crime, of course. Around the world, these crime syndicates continue to be major players in drug trafficking, prostitution, financial fraud, software piracy, loan sharking, and human smuggling, according to a Library of Congress report on Chinese criminal organizations.
"Junkets are allowed to operate because they are good for the business of casinos," says Bill Chou, professor of public administration at the University of Macau. "The casino license holder does not care how they go about attracting the high rollers, who are sometimes also the gangsters in other parts of the world." He says that junkets are seen as more or less mainstream businesses, though most "are still controlled by gangsters."
The junket trade can still lead to some occasionally violent attacks that take place out of the public eye. In July, two mainland gamblers were stabbed to death in a five-star hotel after failing to pay up on large gambling losses. That same month, a Chinese woman with a Japanese passport was found bludgeoned to death in a residential area. Macau police believe both crimes are tied to junket operators and triads. Both murders remain unsolved.
For locals, Macau's rapid changes have not all been positive. The flood of tourists and foreign money has driven up the price of real estate by more than 400 percent since 2004. Traffic and pollution have worsened. And residents say the government has all but ignored their concerns in the drive for breakneck economic growth.
"Like China, Macau has become one of the most money-making places in the world," says Hao Zhidong, a sociologist at the University of Macau. In fact, he says, many people have actually become nostalgic for Portuguese rule -- Broken Tooth and the years of violence notwithstanding. Many say the city has become too venal, too focused on gambling, and too indifferent to the political demands of its citizens.
Even though Broken Tooth's days as a kingpin may be over, whenever he returns from exile, he may find Macau almost as congenial a place to make money as in the 1990s. While he lost millions of dollars in property due to police confiscations after his arrest, he has emerged from prison with many connections intact, including his brother, Wan Kuok-hung, who built a profitable business supplying uniforms to the casinos. Local newspapers have even reported a rumor going around -- that Broken Tooth's old friends and rivals have decided to give him a welcome-back present: a share of the lucrative junket business in exchange for hanging up his gun. Defanged, perhaps, but not out of business.