As a new expat in 2005, I listened to the crackly Portuguese language radio station from Macau whose air waves barely wafted across the water to my Zhuhai, China apartment. I do not understand Portuguese and yet listening to the banter mixed with recognizable music from the West was my comfort blanket in those early months. I soon also developed the habit of spending weekend mornings crossing the border to Macau from Zhuhai in order to sit outside in Senado Square and drink coffee while reading English newspapers.
I have a tender spot in my heart for Macau.
Macau, a Portuguese colony until 1999 and now part of China under “one country, two systems,” is filled with gritty old world charm: romantic squares paved in wavy black and white stones; an ancient temple creeping up a hill and studded with wrinkled beggars; and lanes of old shop fronts filled with pungent drying fish. The major historic sites are kept fresh with bright paint, but other interesting corners of the territory are unkept, messy and heavy with forgotten dreams.
Macau is not all nostalgic charm; eye-sore casinos have made their mark. For decades Stanley Ho held a monopoly on the gambling business in Macau and the dated Casino Lisboa was the only show in town.
Since 2002, when gambling restrictions were loosened up, a wide swath of Macau has bloated with a vapid stretch of flashy new casinos and hotels. Fake Venice has appeared on reclaimed land and is now surrounded my a sea of conspicuous consumption. As my daughter put it, when she tapped on a fake rock in one of the endless luxury shopping centers:
“This is hollow. Everything here is fake.”
Casino construction is never-ending and gambling revenues in Macau exceed Las Vegas by seven times.
The territory floods with Mainland Chinese tourists keen to gamble (Macau is the only place in China where it is legal), shop and sight-see. They come in swarms and fill the streets and lobbies, but I can’t fault them. Macau is friendlier to Mainland tourists than Hong Kong and visiting the territory gives them a shinny, safe taste of the outside world. I like that they all seem to be having a jolly good time. Happy holiday makers, dressed in sometimes outrageous clothes, with cameras ever at the ready:
Both Macau and Hong Kong enjoy freedoms unknown in the Mainland and I was very interested to run across this display of books about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which is strictly a never-mentioned, non-event in the Mainland. These taboo books were out for sale in heavily touristed areas and were placed next to tell-alls about the Chinese Community Party and President Xi:
Re-visiting Macau last weekend was marvelous. I will always have a tender spot in my heart for Macau, Radio Macau, Largo do Senado and the unknown ferry boat crew member who has hung a pair of red underwear out for public drying on every crossing I’ve ever made on the Zhuhai – Macau ferry. My last visit was no exception: