The problem with Macau is you can never tell.
There you are, chuckling at the quaint and peeling awkwardness of the tiny airport and its complete lack of formality (or on-duty officials) as you stroll unmolested out of the clunky, rattly old exit doors, then bang — you are cruising over a bridge like something out of Flash Gordon as you approach a city skyline that surely can’t be real.
Multi-thousand room concrete monoliths squat by the shoreline, backed by a jumble of buildings that look like monstrous ice cream wafers, 200-metre high carnival headdresses, Venetian palaces or shiny city-sized doughnuts. All covered in gold — and with no windows.
Massive construction sites stretch every which way, infinitely long bridges connect tiny islands with six-lane highways and barges ceaselessly ferry thousands of tonnes of building materials in and out of the harbour. The scale and sheer size of it all shout Now! Money! Today! with a bravado that is gobsmacking.
Then, once you are accustomed to this dedication to decadence and consumption and gambling, you turn a corner and there, tucked behind a wall is a cemetery that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jane Austen novel.
Tenderly cared for monuments, tombstones clean as the day they were carved in 1700 and fresh flower offerings all gleam in the warm, quiet sunshine. Outside, old ladies sit in a village square that could be mistaken for the south of France if it wasn’t for them wearing Chinese pyjamas.
Cockerels strut and scratch as locals read newspapers and play cards, and there is slab of ruined church that was built in, oh, around 1600. It’s all a bit unsettling. After leaving the cool quietness of the cemetery, I fetch up in a part of the town that was neither ancient artefact nor modern contrivance — it’s an area of everyday apartments called Penha Hill, where the Macanese middle classes live.
But it’s more than just apartments. It’s an ironwork bonanza. The blocks seem to have been built not to live in, but to support balcony art. From the distance, the apartments look like something from inner Eastbourne or outer Paris. But get close and they are without exception superb eye candy. Every balcony is different, every one is ornate, every one tells a story about the apartment owner’s tastes. Shiny chromed, delicately painted, curlicue-laden or reassuringly lattice, they make dull housing blocks look like a frilly wedding cake you could live in.
Inside, some apartments had been renovated but had kept the maze-like warren of rooms and stairs, nooks and crannies like they had back when they were built, probably for well-off merchants around the turn of last century. And today, the people that live there probably have to be well-off too; Macau faces a looming problem. All those astonishingly palatial casinos pulled in some $45 billion last year — several times more than Las Vegas and Singapore combined. But a local law says only local inhabitants can work as dealers, and with a potential 40,000 shortfall in casino workers the inevitable is happening. Property prices are rocketing as people want in, and the locals are being squeezed out.
“I have been here for 10 years,” says Grace, the Chinese woman on the desk. “When I came here it was good, plenty of work, money to send home and no problem finding a place.”
Today, says Grace, you need to be both either a highly paid croupier or to share your apartment to get by. Or be Macanese — the unique mix of Portuguese and Asian that still rules the roost in Macau. My host at one of the casinos, João, was happy to tell of his mixed Chinese and Portuguese heritage, keener still to tell of his language and connection skills (he speaks English, Mandarin and Portuguese, the only language allowed in legal and many political transactions) and keenest of all to offer a drive in his Porsche Panamera. He had a few other cars in a similar vein, he mentioned.
When the Portugese first arrived back in the late 1500s to trade with the Chinese pottery and silk merchants, they brought religion, European food, and lots of randy sailors. Macau rapidly grew to be The Orient’s greatest trading outpost, and the Macanese are still very proud of their unique mix of Sino-European cultures.
Today, having a Portuguese name puts you top of the list at most restaurants, social gatherings, deal-making ventures, and often puts you in the pleasant predicament of having to choose which mansion to live in.
To check out how such a unique place (there are about 10,000 people involved in manufacturing and agriculture, yet 84,000 working in casinos) makes its money I walked down to the glistening water’s edge, to the MGM Casino. I was instantly dwarfed by its scale. Mammoth mermaids cavorted, fountains gushed gallons and 40-metre pink plastic trees pulsated up to the (very high) ceiling.
My initial reaction was “how tacky” — but in many ways these distractions are hugely impressive, with levels of internal decor that equal any frescoed Roman villa for opulence and splendour. Like all the other visitors, I gawped and snapped, astonished that anybody would spend money on non-functional decorations like that. Still, with $45 billion coming in each year, you can probably afford a bit of glitz here and there. As a temple to Mammon, this would be hard to match. I asked Grace where else was worth a look. “Try Coloane Island. It’s just over the bridge,” she said. “It’s very different from here.” She wasn’t wrong.
Although the edges of the island itself were pure casino, with a tumult of gigantic construction sites and ceaseless pile-driving noise, just a few minutes up a steep mountain road to the island’s central peak saw a view that could have been on a remote Mediterranean island.
Quiet white beaches, red tiled houses and the wind riffling gently through spindly pines, as steep paths wound down to the water’s edge, the only distraction was picnicking families munching on home-cooked noodles and rice. Children, notably absent from the built up parts of town, ran across the grass and jumped from stone walls or dragged kites around in a vain effort to fly them. It was utterly different from the scene just 15 minutes drive away.
I sat on a stone bench under the shade of a tree in the village square on the other side of the hill, and took a bite from some freshly-cooked Macau custard tarts. The chef, Nan, had told me his custard tarts are better than the ones you get in Portugal. I wasn’t sure if that was casino-style marketing: full of hype and puffery. Or would they be like Penha Hill’s balconied apartments, as interesting inside as they are attention-grabbing on the outside? I bit into my tart.
Nan was right. Bloody marvellous; I immediately bought another box. That’s the problem in Macau. You just get comfortable with all that trash culture and then the real thing ambushes you.
More pics HERE