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For a ship that can carry 600 people, and is staffed with over 200, it’s incredibly quiet—there appear to be only 100 or so passengers on board. Most gather in the dining room getting a bite to eat from the buffet of fried noodles, rice, steamed vegetables, samosas, jelly, and tiny cupcakes. They drink lots of tea, and a little alcohol, which costs extra. Some wander the halls exploring the ship from top to tail, taking selfies excitedly.
“Look, I’m on the ocean,” says a young woman who appears to be video conferencing from the top deck.
The bars and karaoke lounges sit mostly empty apart from lonely staff. It’s a trend that continues pretty much throughout the night—a contrast to cruises and casinos outside Asia, where many passengers are determined to stay buzzed throughout the journey. In Hong Kong, gambling is a business to be taken seriously.
It’s around 9:30pm when the staff announces over a loudspeaker (in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English) that the casino is open for business. At about the same time our phones lose service—a sign we’ve arrived in international waters.
The occasional GPS signal we do get shows the ship is moored somewhere between Hong Kong Island and Dangan Island, Chinese territory that’s one of the last islands between Hong Kong and open ocean.
In the casino, there is a flurry of quiet, intense activity. Filled with almost as many staff as the 80 passengers gathered around a dozen tables, it’s certainly no mammoth Macau casino hall, but the money flowing is nothing to scoff at. The mostly older clientele sit clutching stacks of chips that combined could easily total a million Hong Kong dollars (US$130,000)
Most play baccarat, a few play blackjack, and there’s one table for dice where the newbies congregate. The minimum buy-in at the standard tables is HK$100 (about US$13), but these prove unpopular. It’s the high-roller tables with a minimum bet of HK$500 that are crowded with players and spectators.
The ships operate around the clock, seven days a week. “Sundays to Thursdays it’s mostly people from the mainland, on weekends we see more people from Hong Kong,” says the female masseuse, from the Chinese city of Chongqing, who charges HK$100 for a 45-minute massage. While the ship seems incredibly empty, she says that “today there are more people” than normal.
Investing in Hong Kong’s casino ships might have seemed like a good idea just a few years ago, but with the shaky economy, and Chinese president Xi Jinping’s harsh crackdown on corruption and money leaving the mainland, the industry is not as lucrative. Just a few years ago, as Macau heaved with gamblers, the spillover crowd looking for a cheaper alternative flocked to the boats, which can cost just HK$150 to board. At one point, there were about 10 of these ships cruising Hong Kong’s harbor and heading out every night to international waters.
According to ship tracking data, only four “voyage to nowhere” cruises still operate. One casualty of the turning tides floats in Hong Kong harbor. The New Imperial Star has been abandoned by its owner, and its crew remain on board, unpaid. They have asked the Hong Kong government to seize the ship, auction it off, and pay their wages. Our boat was anchored right nearby in the harbor.
The New Imperial Star, on the left in the background. (Kevin Lau)
The Rex Fortune is doing much better than the New Imperial Star —in the nine months ending in March 2015, it had 21,500 visitors and earned HK$16.6 million in profit, according to the annual report of Rex Global, which runs the ship. Still, it’s going to take a long time for Rex and the other joint venture owner, Norvest Global, to make their money back. They bought the ship in August 2014 from Success Universe at HK$93 million, according to Hong Kong stock exchange filings.
The first casino ship in Hong Kong came into being in 1988, a refurbished container ship that was renamed the Oriental Princess , owned by a Macau gambling tycoon named Yip Hon, writes Sonny Shiu-hing Lo in The Politics of Controlling Organized Crime in Greater China .
Depending on the state of the economy, the number of ships has waxed and waned since then.
According to Lo, the ships have been used by mainland cadres and Chinese Communist Party officials, who go on board to exchange bribes, and people like business tycoon Wang Guangyu, who was arrested in 2009 for money laundering through the cruises. Triad gangs have warred over their junket operations, Lo writes, and regularly used a complicated system of chips on board to launder money.
Disappearing without a trace.
In the karaoke nightclub, the only patrons are two men that look to be in their twenties.
“I’ve been on a couple of times, just found people offering cruises on the street, so we came to sing ‘K’ [karaoke] and play a bit,” says the one who identifies himself as Mr. Ho. “But we don’t gamble much. It’s serious there” in the casino. “Besides gambling and singing karaoke, not much to do here,” adds the second guy, who goes by Mr. Ip.