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Sleepy Matsu faces dicey US$2 bil. casino-driven makeover

BEIGAN, Taiwan--Cheng Yu-lan, an elfin-looking woman of 55, surveys the terraced courtyard outside her deserted Matsu tea shop and considers the US$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 early 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 NT$80,000 (US$2,666) for every Matsu resident five years after the casino opened.

For a place with just the barest patina of industry and agriculture, a place with just the barest patina of anything at all in fact, 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, the choice might have seemed clear.

“Of course I voted in favor,” said a wizened looking 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, 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 says that 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 says. “And we will provide that management.”

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This Aug. 22 file photo shows a view from the 220-meter summit of Mt. Bi, looking down on the airport's single runway jutting out into the sea on Matsu's Beigan. In early July some 3,000 Matsu residents voted 57 percent to 43 percent to permit casino gambling. Their votes were clearly influenced by the promises of not only a casino, but also a tourist resort, expanded airport. (AP)

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