I didn’t travel on the mainland during my time in Hong Kong, for various reasons, but primarily the expense. In some ways, I’m glad, because it allowed me to understand my city, Hong Kong, more intimately. I think I know aspects of it better than most of the other exchange students, or even some residents.
I did take a short day trip to nearby Macau. Hong Kong and Macau are the two “Special Administrative Regions” in China. Together they are sister “city states”, self- governed, with their own currency, their own police, and their own embassies (OK, technically “consulates,” even though they are older and bigger than the ones in Beijing). Macau is also the gambling capital of the entire world, with a revenue that is annually six times bigger than Las Vegas’s and growing. In fact, the owner of Sands casinos (one of the biggest in the world) is relocating their headquarters from Vegas to Macau.
But Macau is more than the gambling Mecca of a gambling-crazed China. It was a Portuguese colony for close to four hundred years, versus Hong Kong’s mere century and a half of British colonization, and the character of each city is much different from the other. Macau is going through huge changes, at lightning speed, but still feels Old World in a way that Hong Kong doesn’t.
Much of Macau still appears and is as old as many Latin American cities, or even parts of Portuguese cities. There are the brightly colored houses found throughout the Latin world, the names are in Portuguese, and mosaic tiles are used for the old city square paving. Catholic churches from past centuries are all over the island. I recall my Mexican friend walking around saying: “I need to look at the Chinese faces because I keep thinking I am back home”. Truly there is nowhere else on earth quite like it. And in the typical dense fashion of a Chinese city, a few blocks from all this architectural beauty you’ll find yourself in a land of towering concrete skyscrapers and glassy casinos, mostly Western, though two of the largest casinos are local.
Despite the Portuguese charm, the city feels seedy, as if it truly is a den of vice. Hong Kong was long regarded as a tame city (despite its own triads, pirates, and smugglers), while Macau historically was famous for being the place to find prostitutes, gangsters, pirates, and various other ruffians. Shanghai in the 1920s stole that image from Macau, and it has now shifted further west to Bangkok. The vibe you get is as complicated as Macau’s history and identity, as you feel the Asian sensation of calm chaos, yet you imagine yourself being dragged into an alley by a gang of hooded figures, and you also feel like you’re somewhere you are somehow familiar with. Totally unique experience.
During my visit, we did a bit of everything, ranging from museums to venturing into the Casino Lisboa, the second biggest in town, and marveling at the thirty million dollar (you read that right) gold-plated, ivory-accented, jade-filled Ming Vases in the entrance, the diamond chandeliers, the golden dragon statues, the bright lights, the flashy cars and bars, the beautifully carved mammoth tusk. And yet, like Macau, this opulent palace is all based on bad habits and foolish choices, and felt tainted.
We went to the upper level restaurant overlooking the gambling floor. The carpets were bright orange, like a hippie’s rug for his van in the ‘60’s. The lighting was off, the tables looked worn out, the men in purple suits looked like they could’ve been found as extras in a ’70s low budget crime movie, and the music being played was coming from the most decrepit bar band I’ve ever seen. It sounded just as bad as it looked. Even the showgirls looked like they were on their last tour before being retired; the entertainment certainly wasn’t on par with the legendary Las Vegas shows. However, unlike Vegas, which is billed as a place to bring the kids for some wild magic acts and amazing performances, Macau has only one concern and that is gambling. The money generated in one month at Macau is more than the GDP of some of the countries in South Asia. Per capita, after Qatar and Luxembourg, Macanese are the richest people on earth. You’d never be able to tell by looking at the denizens of the casino.
The strange, conflicted image seemed very much like the rest of Macau, a city that was unsure of what it was, or what it is. You could walk along the wall from the 1500’s and admire the beautiful stonework while looking out over a city that resembled a dystopian future city from an ‘80’s movie, with its dingy houses along the polluted Pearl River. Hazy air rolls in from four London-sized cities just across the river from Macau. When you saw Macau’s flag flying, it looked tired, as if it knew that in thirty years time, it will be replaced by the flag of China as they take over total control.
As we took the high speed ferry back to Hong Kong that night, I wasn’t sure of how I felt about Macau. It was just too confusing, the emotions and vibes the city produced puzzled me. You’d see someone serving up fusion foods of Portuguese and Cantonese food (some of the best food I’ve had) while standing in the doorway of a French owned bank, next to housing slated for demotion. There is nowhere like it, and Macau is definitely worth going to see, but unlike Hong Kong, it isn’t any place to live.