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Sleepy Taiwan isles face dicey $2 billion makeover

By Peter Enav

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Sept. 10 2012 6:20 a.m. MDT

In this Aug. 22, 2012 photo, a young boy passes one of the only convenience shops on Beigan in the Matsu Island group off northern Taiwan. In early July some 3,000 Matsu residents voted 57 to 43 to permit casino gambling. Their votes were clearly influenced by the promises of not only a casino, but also a tourist resort, expanded airport, roadway infrastructure, a university, and perhaps most alluring of all, a monthly payment of 80,000 New Taiwan dollars ($2,666) for every resident.

Wally Santana, Associated Press

BEIGAN, Taiwan — Cheng Yu-lan surveys the terraced courtyard outside her deserted Matsu tea shop and considers the $2 billion bonanza about to wash over the offshore Taiwanese archipelago — a bonanza that seems set to change the lives of its 7,000 people beyond all recognition.

In July, some 3,000 Matsu residents voted 57 to 43 to permit casino gambling in this onetime Cold War flashpoint, immortalized during the 1960 American presidential campaign when John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon traded barbs over possible American aid in the event of an attack from mainland China, just 16 kilometers (10 miles) to the west.

Their votes were clearly influenced by the promises of American businessman Bill Weidner, who pledged not only to build a new casino, but also a world-class tourist resort, a vastly expanded airport, a 3-kilometer (2-mile) bridge linking Matsu's two main islands, a university designed to train some of the 5,000 people needed to run the facilities, and perhaps most alluring of all, a monthly payment of 80,000 New Taiwan dollars ($2,666) for every Matsu resident five years after the casino opens.

The choice might have seemed clear in a place with just the barest patina of industry and agriculture — in fact the barest patina of anything at all except for heart-stopping natural beauty and the presence of tens of millions of increasingly prosperous Chinese consumers just across the waters of the East China Sea.

"Of course I voted in favor," said a woman who identified herself only by her surname, Lin, as she lazily prepared hong dzao, a sorghum-based sauce that is a staple of local cooking. "With all this money how could I not?"

But to Cheng and other Matsu natives — even people who voted "yes" — the issue is anything but simple, complicated by serious concerns over the environment, and the possible introduction or drugs and organized crime into their placid island home.

"To say whether this project is either good or bad is very difficult," said Cheng, 55, proudly showing a visitor the traditional southern Chinese furniture she has painstakingly assembled in her dimly lit tea shop. "There are both pros and cons, good points and bad."

Weidner's head of Asian operations, Hong Kong-born Eric Chiu, acknowledges Cheng's worries, but said he and the company he represents will safeguard Matsu's traditional culture even as they develop a world-class casino and resort complex that will attract visitors from all over Asia.

"The key to this project is good management," he said. "And we will provide that management."

Weidner's Matsu development is part of an overall effort by international gambling moguls to take advantage of the seemingly insatiable demand of Chinese nationals with increasing amounts of disposable income to try their luck at casino gambling. The practice is banned within China, except in the former Portuguese colony of Macau, which Beijing governs under different rules. There, Chinese high rollers and slot machine addicts alike are betting billions of dollars annually.

Matsu's proximity to 40 million people in northern Fujian and southern Zhejiang provinces — to say nothing of the 23 million in Taiwan itself — make it a natural to join the list, Chiu said. He said he expects the project will draw a million visitors during its first year of operations — still 4½ years off based on the year and a half needed for Taiwan's legislature to iron out oversight details, and the additional three years required to complete construction. By year five, he said, the Matsu venture will be hosting about 4.5 million visitors, about 70 percent from mainland China. Monthly payments of NT$18,000 to each of Matsu's 7,000 residents will begin in year one, he said, rising to the NT$80,000 figure in year five, based on the expected arrival figure of 4.5 million.

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