ONE of Macau's most glamorous new hotels staged a sumptuous banquet on the weekend for more than 1200 people. At its tables were rare vintage wines, irresistible regional delicacies - and some of the most powerful organised-crime bosses in Asia.
The banquet was held to fete Saturday's release from prison of Wan "Broken Tooth" Kuok-koi, the fearsome triad boss whose former crime syndicate, 14K, brought explosive bloodshed to the streets of Macau in the 1990s and remains one of the largest gangs operating there.
The Broken Tooth release party was a dinner invitation with a dilemma. Decline, and earn the fury of a once notoriously violent crime lord; attend, and risk enraging Beijing.
With peace between Macau's different criminal groups and triad-linked operators reportedly on a knife edge, Broken Tooth, 57, has been warned not to try anything. Late last month, police arrested five triad members, including his former right-hand man. Imprisoned in 1998, shortly before Macau's transfer to Chinese rule, Wan has spent the intervening years behind bars - equipped, sources say, with the latest mobile phone and abreast of developments in the world's most lucrative gambling enclave.
But during his years inside, the territory he once ruled with fear has changed dramatically. In 2002, Macau's gaming monopoly was broken and new casino operators, particularly Americans, entered the fray.
About 28 million visitors now play baccarat in glittering casinos. Macau's official gaming revenues have risen from about $US2 billion in 2000 to $US33bn last year, driven by gamblers arriving from mainland China, where gaming is illegal. But the gaming industry's role as a money-laundering conduit, say police and intelligence sources, mean that the actual amount of money bet in Macau could be as much as 10 times greater.
As the day of Wan's release drew near, Macau became unusually jumpy. Memories remain vivid. His name is synonymous with the bombings, drive-by shootings, street brawls and gunfights that defined the city in the pre-handover 1990s.
Wan has muttered from jail about the obliteration of his rivals, and some fear that he may attempt to restore his gang to its former dominant position.
Others believe the threat is negligible and overstates his influence. "Wan Kuok-koi is yesterday's man," said Steve Vickers, a former commander of the Royal Hong Kong Police and an expert on triad activities.
"Other more powerful triad societies are now exercising control over the industry and are making huge profits. There is just no room for the wild bunch in Macau any more."
Macau now operates under the glare of Beijing. The triads running the money-laundering, drugs, extortion, prostitution and human-trafficking rackets there may have flourished over the past decade, but have done so with an understanding that the open violence of the Broken Tooth era must be suppressed to avoid Beijing putting a stop to it all.
Nevertheless, casinos have taken on more security and police have made a number of high-profile swoops on the gangs and hundreds of arrests.
"There is real fear about what is going to happen in the period after Broken Tooth's release," said one gaming insider.
"At the back of everyone's minds. they are thinking that this was a guy who used to run the biggest and nastiest criminal gang in the region, and who is not yet old enough to retire."