Profile: the fall of Alvin Chau, Macau’s junket king

Alvin Chau made a fortune catering for Chinese gamblers as the authorities turned a blind eye. Now he’s on trial for illegal cross-border gambling, fraud and money laundering.

Alvin Chau
(Image credit: © Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Around a decade ago, when the tiny former Portuguese territory of Macau grabbed the global casino crown from Las Vegas, it boasted revenues seven times that of the US gambling capital.

Arguably, no one did more to advance this gold rush than “junket king” Alvin Chau, whose company Suncity cornered the market in shepherding wealthy Chinese “whales” from the mainland – where gambling remains illegal – to Macau’s baccarat tables where “$1m could be wagered in a single hand”, says Nikkei Asia. Hosting VIP rooms, and making travel and credit arrangements for these high-rollers, made Chau, 48, a billionaire.

Now he’s on trial for a string of charges including illegal cross-border gambling, fraud and money laundering. If convicted, he faces decades in prison.

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A mission in Macau

Chau’s arrest last year has sent shockwaves through the Asia-Pacific gambling world – not least because the Chinese Communist Party had for years tolerated Suncity’s activities, despite rumours of links to organised crime, says the South China Morning Post. Within Macau, Chau was viewed as a pillar of the community.

In 2018, Chau told an admiring CEO Magazine that his “mission” was “to transform Macau into a world centre of tourism and leisure”. To that end, he started a host of companies offering everything from luxury cars and jewellery to property management, financial services and global VIP travel. Within the gambling world, he moved with the times – establishing online platforms, accessible via a smartphone app, in Cambodia and Vietnam, and pushing into new markets such as Australia.

Chau’s apparent rags-to-riches rise from a “humble” upbringing in Macau added to the respect he was accorded for transforming a once “murky” industry, says the SCMP. Having entered it at just 20, he was credited for building Suncity from scratch from 2007 by dint of hard work.

Yet Chau’s early life “has always been shrouded in mystery”, says the Sydney Morning Herald. Some suggest he got his main break as a “disciple” of Macau’s organised crime boss, Wan “Broken Tooth” Kuok-koi – a triad leader who reportedly encouraged a friend to bankroll Chau’s fledgling junket venture.

Suncity’s speed of growth was certainly remarkable. Within a couple of years, it had established branded “high-roller rooms” in almost every major Macau casino. Australian casino giants such as Crown and Star swiftly followed suit.

The good times are over

It didn’t take long, though, before the authorities were sniffing around. Alerted by a drugs arrest in 2012, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission found evidence that some of the huge sums arriving in Australia from China were proceeds of crime. There wasn’t much they could do about it. But as Chinese president Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption gathered steam, hints that Chau might be targeted began appearing in state news outlets.

Since Chau’s arrest late last year, a “detailed” picture of Suncity’s alleged activities has emerged, says Macau Business. He and some 20 other executives at the “now-shuttered” business are claimed to have cheated the Macau government out of $1bn in tax revenues, while robbing its casinos of $2bn via “side bet” and “under-the-table” scams in Suncity’s VIP rooms. Perhaps billions more may have been “laundered” via transfers from front companies and “underground banks” in mainland China.

Hit by Xi’s crackdown and then Covid, Macau’s “gambling-dependent economy” was in trouble long before Chau’s legal troubles began, says Foreign Policy. Sadly, his spectacular fall is another reminder to the citizens of “this once-booming city” that “the good times are gone”.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.