“Cocaine”, as Bill Hicks famously said, “is God’s way of telling you that you have too much money”. I was pondering if perhaps there was a line in the teachings of Confucius which told the middle classes of mainland China a similar cautionary tale about what it means if you spend all of your weekends in a gaming room on a miniscule peninsula in the far south of the country.
Looking around me, through a fug of cigarette smoke, at the pushing, jostling, shouting, bottle-slamming, sweat-stained hordes swarming around the baccarat and roulette tables in a typically window-less and clock-less casino, made me doubt it severely. Because if you’ve got too much money in China these days, there’s a strong chance that you’ll be coming to Macau to spend it.
Pity really, as there’s far more to Macau’s bijou pair of islands (just 10 square miles), plus the peninsula linking them to the mainland, than just gaming chips and duty free. The best thing, however, about getting the hour-long ferry from Hong Kong to visit this other SAR (Special Administrative Region) of China is that all the other [does he mean non-casino, or non-Macau?] attractions are notably free of visitors.
This is the only place on earth where Portuguese and Chinese culture clash head on. It’s incongruous, like Mick Hucknell doing a duet with Kanye West, but not nearly as nauseating. The town centre is full of impeccably maintained colonial buildings, mosaic tiled pavements, shaded walkways and an utterly disproportionate amount of stalls selling gargantuan slabs of beef jerky – an inexplicable local favourite.
This is the only place on earth where Portuguese and Chinese culture clash head on. It’s incongruous, like Mick Hucknell doing a duet with Kanye West, but not nearly as nauseating
Brits may have been sorry to see Hong Kong revert to Chinese rule in 1997 but the Portuguese clung onto their territory even longer: it wasn’t until 1999 that Macau became part of China. There’s a distinct lack of Portuguese ex-pats on the streets these days and my initial attempts at greeting street vendors with a vibrant “Como esta?” yielded little but uncomprehending stares. But I loved wandering the little maze of streets that are still chock-full of old syrup-coloured Catholic churches, arcane antiques shops selling porcelain urns and Confucian statues and, inevitably, a fair array of duty-free stores selling everything from Hermès to horseradish.
The tourism websites and brochures implore visitors to check into one of the 3,000 room casinos that now utterly dominate the second island of Taipa, where miniature Venetian canals are seemingly utterly ignored by gamblers who, once they’ve landed at Macau’s charter airport and heli-pad, exhibit little desire to do anything other than remain manacled to the tables for eight- to 10-hour stretches.
The Pousada del Sao Tiago, however, is a decent boutique retreat, set inside a 17th century Portuguese fortress, where visitors actually have to climb a stone lined staircase running with water to get to the reception. My room was bedecked in heavy wood furniture, with a monsoon shower head the size of a dustbin lid and a balcony with views over the crowded harbour.
Before leaving for Macau I asked around my friends in Hong Kong as to why, if you’re not enamoured with gambling, a trip to Macau is worthwhile. Not for the first time, I was mostly met with non-committal answers which usually involved drinking sessions away from wives and girlfriends, and bringing back discount perfume for not-particularly-valued secretaries in the workplace. That was until I met Roger, a banker from London, based on Hong Kong Island, who filled me in on the islands’ not always obvious appeal:
“You’ve got to avoid the casinos,” he told me over a dim sum lunch in a wipe-clean canteen in Kowloon. “They’re not like Vegas, where you get families and smiling dolly birds handing out free cocktails. These places are very macho, very loud and actually very horrible. You need to get to the far island of Coloane. Nobody ever goes there and that’s where you get the retreat from the noise of Hong Kong that you need if you’re staying here for a long time.”
I took his advice and, having hurtled through the peninsula and Taipa, I found myself on Coloane (all three are connected by vast bridges), on coiling country lanes that tapered and twisted past tiny Taoist temples, tin-roofed fishing huts and, right at the end of the island on Hac Sa beach, a veritable oasis with nothing to bother me but the sight of a solitary fisherman on the edge of a beach whose sand is the colour of condensed milk.
Colonial neglect and cruelty have given way to an altogether different type of foreign rule: that of the Chinese holidaymaker
A coffee shop nearby sells the traditional Portuguese custard tarts known as “pastais de nata” and it was here – equipped with said tart, heart-palpitatingly strong coffee, and a copy of the comically threadbare English language daily The Macau Times – that I started to make some kind of sense of what makes this mildly surreal appendage to China a little more alluring than Andorra, the UAE, and other duty-free stores posing as countries elsewhere in the world.
Macau is a nation whose purpose is utterly transient. When it became useless as a trading port it became home to clutches of missionaries attempting to convert Asia to Jesus. When the missionaries departed it turned to gambling to justify its existence. And when Portugal finally decided that it wasn’t worth the bother to keep up such a distant outpost, China, not quite deeming it worthy of inclusion into the nation proper, made it a playground for alcoholics with credit cards and insomnia.
And that’s the feeling that engulfed me during my three days on Macau. Charming, atavistic and tranquil in places, neon-splattered and coarse in others, it’s a testament to where Asia as a whole is heading. Commerce, avarice and a wan and sickly type of hedonism are slowly swallowing the colonial legacy of Macau. Colonial neglect and cruelty have given way to an altogether different type of foreign rule: that of the Chinese holidaymaker. One suspects that there’s already a handful of entrepreneurs thinking that one those ancient Catholic churches would be a great place for a floor show and a roulette wheel one day.
Rob Crossan is a regular contributor to High Life, The Time and Sunday Times Travel Magazine