Lee Kah-Wee's new book is devoted to the study of the city-state of Singapore's historical relationship with gambling. More specifically, it is an exercise in trying to make sense of the Marina Bay Sands Casino, built on one of the old harbor's most prominent sites and perceived by the author as a discursive, architectural, and juridical exception to the nationalist regime's otherwise punitive official stance toward vice. In his effort to understand this apparent paradox, Lee sets out to deconstruct Singapore's political discourse, which he sees as positing “progress without crisis,” preserving “a semblance of continuity and normalcy within which a narrative of change is inscribed” (2), by examining the former British colony's troubled past.

Las Vegas in Singapore does not constitute “a social or cultural history of gambling.” Rather, it can be read as “a spatial history of the control of vice that explores how abstract ideas generated across different historical contexts were transposed onto an array of spatial and material registers in order to be explained, administered, and used to change society” (9). To this end, Lee adopts the Foucauldian “genealogy” concept as a general methodology. His purpose is not to establish a chronological or comprehensive account of the history of gambling in Singapore, but rather to draw on significant historical moments and related topics in connection with space, which may help him “question the present and … recognize the fragile foundations upon which the fiction of progress without crisis rests” (5). He thus construes his work as a dialectical account of the entangled historical processes of “criminalization and legalization, stigmatization, and normalization” of gambling in the territory (6).

Through this methodological point of entry, the author analyzes these processes by establishing two separate but complementary genealogies, which correspond to the book's two main sections. The first, titled “City of Violence,” grapples with the colonial government's initial attempts to criminalize vice in the late nineteenth century through the deployment of the Common Gaming Houses Ordinance, as part of its reforms aimed at promoting administrative, juridical, and urban modernity. The territory's postindependence governments would continue with such reforms, using the same means, but with increasing earnestness and diligence. For example, during the late 1960s, the young nation's leaders legalized a national lottery as a way of increasing public revenue to fund urban transformation and the construction of public buildings such as the National Stadium.

The second genealogy changes the scenery entirely, taking us across the Pacific Ocean to Las Vegas, although not the time period, as it also begins around the 1950s and 1960s. Titled “City of Progress,” this section examines the same dialectic between vice and the built environment, but this time it plays out inside the casino, where new technologies and different architectural forms make its spatial expression arguably more easily controlled, always keeping the maximization of profits in mind. Here, the author delves into the origins of the Las Vegas model of casino gambling and its networks of expansion, which, over time, would be used to overcome the unflattering association of Las Vegas with vice and crime and transform the city into a capital of luxury and globalized glamour by the early 2000s, precisely through the establishment of American casino industry subsidiaries in (or near) South Asia's most prominent financial centers. According to Lee, the integrated resort model provided the vehicle through which the casino would become not just acceptable but desired by “cities and communities that had historically been wary of large-scale commercialized gambling,” including Singapore, of course, but also cities in Japan and the Philippines (239).

The intertwining of these two genealogical points of entry allows Lee to achieve his larger purpose of examining the historical trajectory of the control of vice in Singapore through architecture and the built environment. To this end, he draws upon a remarkable array of primary sources, ranging from colonial and national archives in both the United Kingdom and Singapore to oral archives, legislation, local press coverage, and government reports. Carefully researched and judiciously argued, using materials on gaming technology, casino design, corporate management, and administrative science from the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Lee's book offers a multilayered and compelling narrative.

Another important feature of this study has to do with Lee's focus on the norms and forms of the built environment, whether at the architectural level or the urban level, and how these shape their inhabitants. It is unfortunate, however, that the author's chosen methodologies did not include mapping this spatial history. As we see the Las Vegas casino evolve through a collection of plans, it would have been fascinating to be able to consult a cartography of Singapore Island portraying the specific morphologies of Chinatown and the concentration of gambling activities in other neighborhoods and streets. This would have added another layer of complexity and concreteness to Lee's analysis of the social and economic functions of gambling in the everyday lives of working-class Singaporeans, especially presented alongside a similar cartography of state-led urban renewal projects that supposedly disrupted these traditions in the name of modernity.

The concept of modernity itself and its connections with the nationalist regime's policies might also have warranted further discussion and problematization. Indeed, in sketching out the stories of the Chinatown street economy, where gambling definitely served as an economic engine, the author tends to posit this as a traditional, “sophisticated” society that was then “besieged by post-independence modernization” (93). In this scenario, Lee presents the criminalization of gambling, as well as hawking, as nothing short of a “sustained assault on a way of life and a form of social organization” (115). For a more nuanced interpretation, however, it would be useful to put the analysis of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western “rush towards modernity” (29) into perspective as a global aspiration, whether in a metropolitan, colonial, or postindependence framework. In fact, state-building practices based on technoscientific knowledge were implemented all over the world during this period, representing precisely what the author refers to as forms of “spatial control” (245). Urban restructuring, control over public space and public life, infrastructure, public buildings—these are all features of the design and construction of the modern state as it took form in the nineteenth century.

State-building efforts have always required public funds, and, for the most part, public treasuries have benefited from concomitant tax reforms. However, creating state monopolies from formerly illegal activities to fund specific projects is not unheard-of either. In the nineteenth-century imperial hub of Macau, for example, the city's Portuguese administration legalized most of the southern Chinese provinces' traditional gaming activities as a means of asserting the city's political independence. Given the seductive income generated by gambling, as well as lucrative concessions that represented up to a third of Macau's total annual state income, the authorities continued to condone these practices. No morals clause could ever compete with the material profits of such an arrangement. As such, Lee's critical reading of the historical trajectory of Singapore toward Las Vegas culminating in the Marina Bay integrated resort as “a story not of ‘liberalization,’ but of gradual monopolization and enclosure of a lucrative economic activity by a partnership between modern states and corporations” (240) also reveals a rather predictable consequence of early twenty-first-century economic globalization.

Nonetheless, Lee's book, with its careful methodology and thoughtful use of sources, constitutes a valuable contribution to the fields of cross-cultural relations and global social history as these relate to the built environment. Offering an important point of departure for further research on the history of gambling in South Asia, it will be useful to anyone interested in the social and urban impact of formal and informal economies during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.