When the Hollywood movie Macao came out in 1952, it got a mixed reception. The New York Times dismissed it as just another “cheesecake” confection to display the charms of Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell “as they brazenly parade their irresistible persons back and forth across the screen”. Still, Macao is now viewed by some film buffs as a classic ‘noir’ picture of its era. Sultry extras, tropical heat, seaports and gambling dens: all the western clichés about this exotic former Portuguese colony abound.

Back in its romantic ‘noir’ days, Macau used to be known as the ‘Monte Carlo of Asia’ or the ‘Las Vegas of the East’. These days, this tiny island off the coast of Guangdong is a much higher-roller than either – the new giant of the global casino industry, four times bigger than Vegas. In 2010-11, gaming revenues from its 33 casinos hit a record high of £14.7 billion; PwC reckons that could almost double to £27.5 billion by 2014.

Few visitors are disappointed by the marblecolumned glitz. The Venetian Macau (the world’s largest casino by floor-space) has a fully fledged ‘St Mark’s Square’, complete with gondolas. Yet a stone’s throw away, it is still possible to get a sniff of life on Macau as it was. The colonial architecture and cobbled streets evoke a Mediterranean fishing village; old world restaurants serve up Macanese soul food. It is over 200 years since the Jesuits left, yet the signature of Macau remains the baroque facade of the ruined St Paul’s Cathedral, which looms over its streets and squares like an elegant, slightly disapproving aunt.

Portuguese galleons first visited Macau in the 16th century, establishing a trading enclave which swiftly blossomed. Indeed, until its usurpation by Hong Kong in the 1840s, Macau was the principal meeting point between China and the West. Its lengthy decline thereafter sealed its reputation as a seamy sort of place, whose main income derived from licensed brothels and gaming houses. The 19th century Portuguese symbolist poet, Camilo Pessanha, described it as “a material and moral rubbish heap”.

For the residents of Hong Kong and China the appeal of Macau was simple, says Jason Wordie, author of Macau: an Exploration. “It was close enough to be accessible – and far enough away from prying eyes.” That hasn’t changed.

Gaming tourism took off in the 1960s, when the ‘casino king’ Stanley Ho (whose original Casino Lisboa is considered a model of ‘old-style kitsch’) secured monopoly rights. But the big turning point came in 1999 when Macau returned to China under the ‘one country, two systems’ formula. The subsequent liberalisation of the gaming industry saw a massive influx of cash and razzmatazz from the US gaming giants – and a cascading stream of increasingly prosperous visitors from China, where gambling remains illegal. In 2001, there were just three million trips to Macau; by 2010, that figure had mushroomed to 25 million.

Can the good times continue to roll? Despite the huge increase in visitor numbers, nearly three-quarters of Macau’s gaming revenues still derive from ‘VIP’ clients, lured by third-party ‘junket’ operators, in return for a sizeable cut of the casinos’ profits. Allegations of money-laundering are rife. However, despite several regulatory inquiries being underway, Macau has embarked on a drive to clean up its act and woo the mass-market with more wholesome pursuits. Businesspeople are arriving for conventions, sales from designer boutiques and theatres have quadrupled, and Cirque du Soleil has arrived in town. The signs look good.