Cotai’s Metamorphosis

2 September 2016

“When I was a high school student in the early 1970s, I thought Coloane was a long way away,” reminisces locally born Eddie Yue Kai Wong, a prominent architect in Macao. “When we went there we had to take a small ferry, but from time to time the ferry wasn’t able to reach the pier because of the shallow waters. Those trips were special occasions for us. Coloane had a village-like environment and we went for picnics. It was very different from Macao and I found it an adventure to be out in the ‘wild.’ For a very long time Coloane was a preserved area. The Portuguese administration wanted the village there to remain protected, enveloped in nature.”

“When I returned to Macao as an adult, there already was a causeway connecting Taipa and Coloane, but the road across lead only to the Westin Hotel. Then, during the 90s, the government began using part of the land on the side of the causeway as a sewage and refuse dump. That is what the Caesars Golf Macau golf course is built on. In the early 2000s, Venetian Macau proposed the Cotai Strip to Macao’s government. Looking back at the early times, nobody thought Macao had such potential. But Venetian invested a huge amount of money, building a huge hotel in this once remote city. They were the pioneers of the Strip and real gamblers.”


In the early 1990’s, when the Macao Airport opened and before the international casino operators arrived, local business tycoon Stanley Ho and his business partners hatched a plan to turn Cotai into a World Trade Center. The plan included 10 hotels, an exhibition center and a theme park. An architectural scale model was built and displayed at the then Hyatt Hotel during an official visit to Macao from the Portuguese President Mário Soares. It failed to win government support at the time, and the plan was shelved.

Then, before the transfer of Macao’s administration to the People’s Republic of China in 1999, the Portuguese administration devised its own plan to reclaim and turn Cotai into a residential and commercial area for 200,000 inhabitants. This land extension was to cater to Macao’s future development. Architect Lima Soares designed the architectural scheme for this plan, together with PAL Asiaconsult LTD., the engineering consultancy supporting the project.

In 2001, the same engineering consultancy, along with Eddie Wong and Associates Limited, Machado, Perry & Bragança, Arquitectos Lda. were commissioned by the Infrastructure Development Office to pick up the plans
created for the former Portuguese administration and adapt it to accommodate hotels instead of residential units. After seeing the completed architectural scale models of their adapted plan, Wong remembers laughing and wondering how these big land lots could ever be occupied.

“This adapted plan was created in only six months, with each residential and commercial unit within the blocks being converted into hotels instead, as simple as that,” explains Machado.

“People always think Macao doesn’t have plans, but Macao is full of infrastructure plans. The hotels in our plans had 1,000 rooms. Now the hotels have doubled, tripled that. We simply could not have envisioned the scale. When the current operators adapted their plans for the Cotai strip, the main roads remained, but all the side streets in the original plans just vanished, absorbed by the sheer scale of the new integrated resorts,” said Machado.

When it was completed, the revised proposal was submitted to the Infrastructure Development Office. It was used by the government and shown to the concessionaires entering the territory to explain its vision for the future of Macao.

“We weren’t sure what was eventually to come to Cotai back in the day; we constructed this plan, this model, but the mission and the vision weren’t clear. But, as soon as we knew that some of the concessions were given to companies based in Las Vegas, we knew that Macao’s landscape would change and that the Cotai strip would be a Las Vegas-style strip. It was obvious that a total transformation was about to come,” said Machado.

“Today, the size and number of hotels on the Cotai Strip are much larger than what we imagined. Macao residents never expected Macao to become the eastern Monte Carlo,” said Wong. And it all happened in the blink of an eye.


Only 12 years have passed since Sands China Ltd. (SCL) gambled on the success of Cotai and began reclaiming the swampland between Taipa and Coloane. Until then the Macao peninsula was considered the only destination for hotels and casinos.

Building in Cotai therefore carried with it a tremendous risk of failure and many said it would not work. But the detractors were quickly proven wrong and Cotai has since been transformed into a global entertainment mecca. On just 5.9 square kilometres of land, three gaming operators—Venetian Macau, S.A., Melco Crown (Macau), S.A. and Galaxy Casino, S.A.—have already built an oasis of mega-hotels, casinos and entertainment venues.

In 2015, Macao had a total of 74 hotels with over 30,000 hotel rooms, compared to 35 hotels with fewer than 8,300 rooms in 2002. In little more than a decade, the number of hotels in Macao has doubled and the number of hotel rooms has tripled. Cotai alone boasts almost 17,000 hotel rooms, over 300 restaurants and food outlets—including seven with Michelin stars—and daily entertainment shows. These operators employed nearly 65,000 people in 2015, one tenth of Macao’s total population.

The city’s three other concessionaires—Wynn Resorts (Macau), S.A., MGM Grand Paradise, S.A. and Sociedade de Jogos de Macau S.A.—are in various stages of constructing their own properties and will soon make their mark on Cotai.

These developments have transformed Cotai into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors daily. Thirty million visitors travelled to Macao in 2015, roughly 50 times the population of the city itself.

Cotai’s overwhelming success has established Macao’s reputation as a hospitality heavyweight, attracting international headlines and bringing some of Asia’s most prominent conventions.

In September, a new icon will be unveiled to the world. A 162-metre replica of the Eiffel Tower will stand in front of The Parisian, a new theme hotel on Cotai from SCL.

Macao’s Eiffel Tower will be the tallest and most accurate replica of the famed Parisian symbol in the world. At half-size scale, it will be as tall as a 38-storey building and will have two lifts to transport passengers to the observation deck in 40 seconds. From there, views of Hengqin, a Special Economic Zone in Zhuhai, as well as Guangdong and the Cotai Strip are to be enjoyed. More than 6,600 LED lights connected by 26 kilometres of electrical cabling will illuminate the Eiffel Tower every night.

The Parisian hotel will contain roughly 3,000 hotel rooms and a 1,200-seat Parisian theatre, recreating life in the French “City of Lights”. There will be street artists, can-can dancers, gardens and fountains as well as carousels and arcades.

“The company has been fortunate to grow with Macao and privileged to support the government’s drive to transform the city into a world centre of tourism and leisure,” Wilfred Wong, president of Sands China, told Macao Magazine. The Parisian is an exemplary response to the Macao government’s request for operators to diversify tourism and provide non-gaming facilities. All six operators are constantly striving to provide new and attractive venues with unique and innovative features. Cotai’s new venues require billions of dollars of investment and depend on a continuous flood of visitors from not only mainland China, but from all over the world.


In 2002, the Macao Special Administrative Region (SAR) government ended a 40-year gaming monopoly held by Stanley Ho’s STDM (Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau) and granted gaming concessions and later, subconcessions to a total of six operators.

Cotai is an abbreviation of Coloane and Taipa, the two islands that, together with the peninsula, now make up the 30.4 square kilometres of Macao. The pioneer in the reclamation was Sheldon G. Adelson, chairman and chief executive of Sands China Ltd. (parent company of Venetian Macau, S.A.), who spearheaded Cotai’s development. Anticipating the tourism potential of Macao—with one billion people living within a three-hour flight and three billion within five hours—he set about transforming the city’s gaming industry.

Many in the industry were skeptical about his new ventures in Macao at first, but undeterred, Adelson incorporated Venetian Macau, S.A. in June 2002, and entered into a subconcession contract with Galaxy Casino S.A. in December of the same year.

Hsin Chong Engineering (Macau) Ltd. was tasked with the challenge of reclaiming and filling in the bay between Coloane and Taipa islands, which they undertook head-on and at breakneck speed. In fact, Hsin Chong has managed the construction of all of SCL’s projects in Macao.

Keith Buckley has been the executive project director at Hsin Chong in Macao since the beginning. After working all around the world—from building a PVC factory in Poland in 1976, to building infrastructure projects in Iraq in the midst of the 1981 Iran-Iraq war, to building 12 hospitals across Malaysia in five years—Buckley arrived in Macao in 2003, at the time of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, to build the original Sands Macao on the peninsula.

When Sands Macao was nearing completion, the Cotai Strip appeared on the radar as a new development opportunity for SCL. Buckley moved over to the Venetian project in 2004, when it was just a causeway between Taipa and Coloane, and has stayed in Macao ever since, the longest time he has stayed in one place.

“The situation is unusual. You normally don’t have the same developer building properties in such a small area as Macao, or as small as the Cotai Strip. Although the Venetian project had been built in Las Vegas before, The Venetian Macao was bigger, the biggest single building project in the world at the time. For me, it was a different sort of project, because I had never been in a casino before, and my vision of one was a Monte Carlo James Bond-style casino.”

At the time, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) from San Francisco was commissioned by Las Vegas Sands to master plan the strip in collaboration with EDAW, a U.S. landscape architecture firm. “Unlike most leisure and recreational developments where the land’s natural features form the focus of the development, this flat piece of land was to become a new growth area for Macao’s tourism industry. We did not participate in the design of individual buildings; rather we created a master plan or framework, drawing inspiration from the Las Vegas Boulevard, and orchestrated a large number of developments from a variety of developers and design teams,” said Ellen Lou, Director of SOM to the Macao Magazine.


Construction on The Venetian Macao began on 22nd July 2004, and with a three-year construction deadline, it officially opened on 28th August 2007 after a mere 37 months of construction. The largest building in Asia, it is twice the size of its Las Vegas sister, with over 2,900 hotel rooms, almost 350 retail boutiques and 55 restaurants and food outlets. It also houses a 15,000-seat Cotai Arena and a 1,800-seat theatre for entertainment and sports events. Inside the complex, Italian gondolas traverse its three 150-metre canals.

According to Buckley, during the SARS epidemic, many companies and workers were prepared to come from Hong Kong to Macao due to the depression in Hong Kong’s construction and property market.

At the time, there was a much higher percentage of Hong Kong workers than there is today. Importing construction workers remains a challenge; because there aren’t enough workers in Macao, many of the workers are now from Mainland China. “Another challenge was the logistics,” said Buckley. “Everything was on a large scale not seen before in Macao, be it piling, excavation, ready-mix concrete, bringing in materials, mainly from China. The quantities were huge, but the process went remarkably smoothly. And to have finished the project in three years, including the land reclamation and foundations, is surprising. Actually, the spirit on that job was the best out of all the projects—it was exciting and had never been done before. There was a great feeling among all the people involved in getting this great job done.”

Thus the Sands Cotai Strip anchor property was established in 2007. Just one year later, Sands opened The Plaza Macao, which includes the Four Seasons Hotel, the Paiza Mansions and the Plaza Casino.

In 2006 construction of Sands Cotai Central had commenced, but in November 2008, construction stopped for almost a year and a half because of the global financial crisis. It resumed in 2010, and in April 2012, Sands Cotai Central opened across the street from The Venetian Macao and The Plaza Macao, accommodating international hotel brands Conrad, Holiday Inn, Sheraton and, more recently, The St. Regis. All told, SCL occupies almost 560,000 square meters of the Cotai Strip.

With the opening of The Parisian Macao, SCL will have invested more than US$13 billion (MOP104 billion) in Macao. By September 2016, SCL’s portfolio on the Cotai Strip will contain approximately 12,700 hotel rooms, nearly 850 retail boutiques and 130 restaurants and food outlets.

While many marveled at the ambition, scale and opulence of SCL’s projects, others were skeptical that SCL could quickly earn back its investment, let alone make a profit. Yet for the year ended December 2015, the adjusted EBITDA (Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) for SCL was US$2.223 billion (MOP17, 754.7 billion).

Since 2007, SCL properties have welcomed approximately 300 million guests. In 2015 alone, a combined total of over 68 million people visited SCL’s Cotai resorts, an average of 186,500 visitors per day.

SCL staged 73 live entertainment events attracting more than 331,000 visitors and hosted almost 700 MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) events drawing over one million visitors in 2015. To facilitate operations on such a grand scale, SCL employed over 26,000 people representing 54 nationalities.

SCL also owns and operates Cotai Water Jet, a high-speed ferry company that links Hong Kong directly with Taipa and Cotai. Its 14 ferries make on average 45 round trips daily.


Melco International Development Limited (now the biggest shareholder of Melco Crown Entertainment) was founded in 1910 and is one of the 100 oldest established companies in Hong Kong.

It wasn’t always in the integrated resort business however. Melco stands for the Macao Electric Lighting Company Limited and, until 1972, managed the electricity supply service in Macao from its headquarters in Hong Kong.

The company started a joint venture in 2004 with Australian gaming company Crown Resorts Limited to establish Melco Crown Entertainment Limited (MCE). MCE, through its
Macao subsidiary Melco Crown (Macau), S.A., entered into a subconcession contract with Wynn Resorts (Macau), S.A. in September 2006. MCE owns and operates casino gaming and entertainment resort facilities in Macao, as well as in other parts of Asia.

Today MCE holds a land concession for an area on Cotai that is almost 330,000 square metres, on which it has constructed the world famous City of Dreams. The company operates four hotels on Cotai. Crown Towers, Grand Hyatt Macau and Hard Rock Hotel are each located in the City of Dreams and opened on 1st June 2009 following three years of construction. The Studio City Hotel in Studio City opened 2015. With a combined total of more than 3,000 hotel rooms and over 60 restaurants and food outlets, over 16,000 staff from 28 nationalities were employed by the company as at December 2015.

In September 2010, MCE opened the doors to the now famous show The House of Dancing Water, a HK$2 billion (MOP2.06 billion) entertainment project at City of Dreams that has since attracted more than 3.5 million viewers.

Designed by Li Chung Pei, son of the world-renowned architect I. M. Pei, the 270-degree Dancing Water Theater has 2,000 seats, approximately 240 independent water jets and 11 hydraulic 10-ton elevators to convert the aquatic stage into a solid floor. The theatre contains the world’s largest commercial pool: 48 metres wide and 8 metres deep, holding more than five times the volume of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

It is the world’s largest water-based show. The cast comprises 90 performers from more than 25 nationalities chosen from some 700
of the world’s best performers, musicians and acrobats auditioned across five continents. Cast members received over two years of training in Belgium before the show was officially launched. Twenty scuba divers are also on hand to support the performers in the water on every show.

The House of Dancing Water has been the most popular and longest running show in Macao for the past six years, bringing a new kind of entertainment to the city.

Studio City, one of MCE’s most recent ventures, opened on 27th October 2015. Inspired by Hollywood, it aspires to be “Asia’s Entertainment Capital” and contains the world’s first figure-eight Ferris wheel, a Batman-themed 4D flight simulation ride, a family center featuring Warner Bros. and DC Comics characters and The House of Magic, Macao’s only permanent magic show.

“The City of Dreams and Studio City fully demonstrate MCE’s continuous support for the Macao government’s initiative of further diversifying the local economy and expanding Macao’s appeal as a multifaceted tourist destination,” Lawrence Ho, chairman and CEO of MCE and son of gaming tycoon Stanley Ho, told the Macao Magazine.

To date, MCE has invested MOP52.68 billion (US$6.5 billion) in Macao, the second largest investment among the six gaming operators. And in 2015, the adjusted property EBITDA for the group’s Macao operations was US$932.0 million (MOP7.4 billion).

Before making its mark on Cotai, MCE opened the Altira Macau hotel in Taipa in May 2007. “In the past 12 years, Macao’s tourism industry has been shifting its center of gravity southwards to Cotai with new resorts opening in the neighborhood, further enhancing the entertainment proposition of this area,” said Ho.

MCE’s future plans include completing the futuristic-looking fifth tower at the City of Dreams. It was designed by the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, whose world-renowned projects include the Aquatic Centre for the London 2012 Olympics, the Broad Art Museum in the U.S. and the Guangzhou Opera House. The tower is slated to open in 2018. Spanning 39 levels, it will house approximately 780 hotel rooms.


Galaxy Entertainment Group Limited (GEG), established in 1988 in Hong Kong, is another operator with a presence in Cotai. GEG’s Macao subsidiary Galaxy Casino, S.A. received a gaming concession from the Macao government in June 2002, enabling GEG’s entry into Macao’s gaming industry.

Like MCE, GEG’s first project in Macao wasn’t on the Cotai Strip. It opened the Casino Waldo in Taipa (before the reclamation of the Cotai Strip) in 2005 at a site that is directly opposite the current Galaxy Macau.

GEG’s anchor property, the Galaxy Macau, opened some six years later on May 2011. A pedestrian footbridge now connects the Casino Waldo (which has been rebranded The Broadway Macau) to the Galaxy Macau.

GEG’s Galaxy Macau project sits on a nearly 480,000-square metre plot of land on Cotai (although not directly on the Cotai strip). It has seen two distinct construction phases so far: the first phase opened on 15th May 2011, and the second phase on 27th May 2015.

Together, these two phases yielded five hotels: The Ritz-Carlton Macau, Banyan Tree Macau, JW Marriott Hotel Macau, Hotel Okura Macau and the Galaxy Hotel. Collectively, these hotels contain nearly 3,800 hotel rooms, more than 200 retail boutiques and over 120 restaurants and food outlets.

GEG opened the UA Galaxy Cinema in December 2011 bringing the multiplex cinema experience to both Macao residents and visitors alike.

More recently in 2015 GEG launched the Grand Resort Deck, home to the world’s longest sky top aquatic adventure river ride, at roughly 580 metres in length, and the largest skytop wave pool, which also features a white sand beach.

As part of the second phase, GEG renovated and rebranded the Casino Waldo as The Broadway Macau. It has introduced a new concept to Macao: a food venue offering up a variety of local cuisines. Of the 40 food and beverage outlets, approximately 30 represent small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in Macao.

“Looking back at Macao ten, twenty years ago, there were many distinctive small stores full of character. Striving to retain these traditional characteristics, [Galaxy] hopes to spur the growth of small and medium sized enterprises,” said Francis Lui, vice chairman of GEG.

As at December 2015, GEG had invested HK$43 billion (MOP44 billion) into Cotai and employed a staff of 22,000. The adjusted EBITDA for 2015 was HK$8.7 billion (MOP8.9 billion).


Providing non-stop entertainment, exquisite cuisine and luxury experiences are only a few of the Cotai operators’ goals. Behind the scenes, dedicated staff works tirelessly 24/7 throughout the year to ensure that all the shows, restaurants and hotels run smoothly, and it is imperative that those team members are provided with the necessary tools to excel and grow.

In 2015, Sands China provided more than one million training hours and since its inception, Macao residents have been the recipients of 12,900 promotions. All this was accomplished through its in-house programme the Sands China Academy.

This year, Sands China Academy launched My Way, a two-year programme that trains team members in non-gaming areas, including food and beverage, business development, facilities, etc. This programme aims to laterally move Sands staff across different sectors, providing them with diversified skill sets.

Melco Crown also aims to provide more business and development opportunities to help employees enhance their professional credentials and productivity. The You-niversity Bachelor programme, part of Melco’s Whole Person Development Initiative, targets employees who have yet to complete a university degree. As part of the programme, MCE teamed up with Edinburgh Napier University to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Business Practice.

The Accelerated Development Programme, launched in 2015 by Galaxy Entertainment Group, aims to nurture local talent for supervisory and managerial roles. The four-month program focuses on developing skills through classroom, on-the-job and online training.

A plethora of training facilities, programmes and courses ensures that employees of the Cotai Strip are well equipped to develop and improve their careers. The operators have invested time and money into ensuring the future success of their employees and Macao.


On the 22nd August this year, Macao will see a new arrival to the Cotai Strip: Wynn Palace. The resort with some 1,700 rooms, suites and villas, is the result of a US$4.2 billion (MOP33.5 billion) investment by Wynn Macau. The property is situated on an area of land that totals 210,000 square metres.

Wynn Palace will include over 2,440 square meters of MICE space, 50 retail boutiques, as well as a performance lake, which can be seen from the rooms, restaurants and hotel entrance.

The property will have a floral theme and will continuously exhibit large-scale floral sculptures by renowned New York floral designer Preston Bailey. The property will also include the “SkyCab”, an aerial tram transport system featuring gondolas resembling smoke-breathing dragons that will carry customers from Macao’s light-rail system (opening in 2019) directly to the hotel.

Wynn Palace’s arrival to the Cotai Strip comes ten years after Wynn Macau opened its first property, Wynn Macau, on the peninsula in September 2006. Wynn Macau includes gaming facilities, a hotel, restaurants and a performance lake. In April 2010, it added Encore at Wynn Macau, a boutique hotel. Wynn Resorts (Macau), S.A., led by Stephen A. Wynn, was incorporated on 17th October 2001, and was granted a gaming concession by the Macao government on 24th June 2002.

As an avid art collector, Wynn continues to buy the best art pieces money can buy for his properties around the world. The Wynn Palace in Cotai will boast a collection of rare art pieces, most notably a giant Tulips sculpture created by artist Jeff Koons, which cost the company HK$262.7 million (MOP270.5 million).


In the first quarter of 2017, there will be a further addition to the Cotai family. MGM Cotai will open its doors.

At a cost of HK$24 billion (MOP24.7 billion), this new property built on almost 72,000 square metres of land will feature 1,500 hotel rooms. It will offer Asia’s first dynamic theatre—a versatile, transformable theatre space with over 14 seating configurations and a 180-degree immersive stage backdrop, allowing MGM Cotai to have a sport event one night, a concert the next, a nightclub environment, an art show, or a ballroom for luxurious weddings.

Another highlight is the Spectacle Show, which utilises 23 LED walls in one atrium space. It will facilitate the presentation of images and video at an unparalleled scale and size – over four stories high.

Grant Bowie, chief executive officer of MGM China Holdings, said, “with the expansion of the room base, we intend to continue targeting quality customers who spend longer periods of time at our property. We remain focused on bringing a world-class offering to the market in the first quarter of 2017.”

MGM Cotai is owned and operated by MGM Grand Paradise, S.A., incorporated 17th June 2004. The company holds one of the three subconcessions to operate games of chance in Macao, having entered into a subconcession contract with SJM in April 2005. The company’s first project was the MGM Macau, which opened in December 2007 on the peninsula.


The last operator to make its mark on Cotai will be Sociedade de Jogos de Macau, S.A. (SJM) with its HK$30 billion (MOP30.8 billion) Grand Lisboa Palace, scheduled for completion in 2017. Its opening is targeted to coincide with the completion of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge.

The Grand Lisboa Palace, built on almost 74,000 square metres of land, will have three hotel towers, the “Grand Lisboa Palace,” “Palazzo Versace” and “Karl Lagerfeld.” Together, these hotels will provide approximately 2,000 hotel rooms, in addition to facilities for meetings and conferences, shopping, dining and entertainment and a casino. The property will also include a wedding pavilion. Ninety-five per cent of the total area will be used for non-gaming facilities.

The Grand Lisboa Palace will have approximately 1,400 hotel rooms and suites. The Palazzo Versace Macau, the first hotel of its kind in Asia, will have 290 hotel rooms designed under the creative direction of Donatella Versace. The Karl Lagerfeld Hotel, which will also offer around 290 hotel rooms, will be the first hotel in the world to be fully designed by the iconic fashion figure. SJM expects to employ over 8,000 people for the Grand Lisboa Palace.

SJM chairman Ambrose So said, “Grand Lisboa Palace, with its distinguished East-meets-West design incorporating Western architectural style and traditional Chinese motifs, will help diversify Macao’s economy and enhance its position as a World Centre of Tourism and Leisure. The project will be the only integrated resort in the world housing two hotels designed by world-class fashion brands. The Grand Lisboa [in Macao] has a strong brand name noted for luxury hospitality and acclaimed restaurants… In comparison, the Grand Lisboa Palace on Cotai emphasises lifestyle and fashion, while its multicultural design reflects the heritage of Macao,” said SJM chairman Ambrose So to the Macao Magazine.

SJM was incorporated 28th November 2001 and was granted a gaming concession from the Macao government on 28th March 2002. SJM Holdings (the holding company of SJM), through SJM, operates hotels and casinos in Macao and is headed by Stanley Ho, the very same man that had the first plan for Cotai in the early 1990’s.


In 12 short years, the world has witnessed how this small territory, once a quiet city that enjoyed a slower pace of life, became one of the world’s strongest and most vibrant economies.

Whilst Macao has always been known for its entertainment industry, the scale of the investments and developments on Cotai changed everything. With the support of the government, six companies on 5.9 square kilometers of land have transformed an entire economy.

There is no doubt that this rapid rate of growth has caused challenges for its way of life – older residents can scarcely believe their eyes. But Cotai brings tremendous opportunities for Macao and its people, opportunities to learn and grow and build businesses on a scale that has not been seen for many generations. (Macao Magazine, by Mariana César de Sá and Mark O’Neill, photos by Julius Santos)