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Thursday, January 5, 2017, 09:11

Sinking treasure

By Evelyn Yu

The region’s high rollers could once be found rolling on the high seas a dozen or so miles outside Hong Kong waters — until such casino cruises ran into stormy waters they couldn’t circumnavigate. Evelyn Yu reports.

Sinking treasure

At around 9 o’clock on a blustery Wednesday in December, the Rex Fortune slipped out of port and into the darkness, headed for international waters just outside Hong Kong’s 12-mile territorial limit, beyond the reach of the law. The old cruise ship is one of the few remaining relics from the giddy carnival which people used to call “the Las Vegas of the High Seas”. 

Back then there’d be over 10 ships, all fully loaded with the highest of high rollers, reportedly including officials and executives from major corporations. Seven nights a week they’d head for the high seas, and for that most exuberant moment when the announcement came over the ship’s intercom: “We have arrived in international waters and the casino hall is now open. All passengers are welcome.”

Those days fell into their death throes back in 2012 when the central government declared that corruption among high officialdom must end. 

Today’s punters are of a different species. Aboard for the Wednesday night gambling adventure is a crowd of middle-aged people mainly speaking Cantonese. They’re not from Hong Kong but Guangdong, according to the crew, who recognize the familiar faces. They are of unknown provenance, but some, challenged with the impertinent question “What do you do?”, reply with an easy laugh and a dismissive “I don’t have a job. I’m a full-time gambler.” 

The line of young waitresses in red and black uniforms who greeted them were scrubbed and polished but the warm welcome and high spirits couldn’t conceal the very evident signs — the worn carpets and the peeling paint — that the Rex Fortune is past its prime. 

Cabin doors creaked open and resounded down the hallways when the announcement came that the casino was open on Deck Six. There are about 200 cabins on board, able to accommodate over 500 passengers. On this night, the number of passengers was around 100. 

Despite its creaky longevity, the old passenger ship remains one of the few that turns a profit running its nightly casino cruises. A member of the maintenance crew remarked that the Rex Fortune stays afloat thanks to the hardcore gamblers from Guangdong. They hop on board just about every night.

From the sounds of their cheerful greetings, it appeared as if the shipmates were acquainted with one another. Possibly they’d met many times on nights like this over several years. 

Around 10 baccarat tables with minimum bets of HK$200 or HK$500 were situated in the center. They were encircled by a ring of premium tables in separate glass enclosures, where the minimum bet is HK$1,000. There was no mistaking the fact that these tables were for the people of class.

No doubt there is money among this crowd, especially among the middle-aged women, all aglitter with diamond rings, diamond earrings, diamond necklaces, women of opulence whose composure never slips as the stack of chips before them grows smaller and smaller and smaller. 

Some wishful thinkers carry bits of paper, carefully jotting down numbers in hopes of discovering a means of bettering their odds at games of chance. 

Most are what you’d call “prudent” gamblers, shifting from table to table watching the high rollers, looking for the “light” to guide them, whether to follow the high rollers who really are on a roll, or whether to bet against them if they are losing.

There were the usual perfunctory exchanges among passengers as the games wore on, including the inevitable queries as to whether “Lady Luck” was being well behaved.

A grey-haired granny in a maroon hat and an overcoat the color of stone crept among the baccarat tables, muttering to herself, apparently trying to pick up some vibration that would tell her this was the table that would bring her luck. 

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