Macau: half old charm and half vapid glitz

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.

Lisboa Macau _

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:

Freedom on display in Macau _

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:

Red underpants on Zhuhai Macau ferry

22 responses to “Macau: half old charm and half vapid glitz

  1. I never knew such a place existed, to be honest. Fascinating to see how it operates within the confines of China, yet remains so free!

    • Like Hong Kong, only with shorter buildings and a bit more vice. It’s a cool place and is only an hour long speed ferry away from Hong Kong.

    • ah, let’s see what happens to you if you critize the chinese gov’t in Macau, then you find out how truly free you are (NOT!)

      • Yes, I’m sure Macau is facing the same pressures to conform as Hong Kong… Was interested to see, however, that table full of books for sale criticising the PRC government!

    • Nine years ago I was constantly in a language jam in Macau as only Cantonese or Portuguese would do! Now lots of Mandarin and English is spoken. I’m sure the older Macanese would be happy to chat in Portuguese with you. Come over! They have cake.

    • The Macau to Zhuhai ferry is often called “Wanzi Mato” from the Macau side. The journey takes 2 minutes and is thus much faster than waiting through the big lines at the Gong Bei crossing.

  2. My hunch is that the red underwear is not for wearing by any unknown crew member but for warning off evils, a folk belief among some Cantonese.

  3. Those books are certainly an interesting phenomenon…

    I’ve only been to Macau once, a long time ago, and the chances of me remembering red underwear are pretty small, but you know I’m going to be thinking about it for the rest of the evening. Way to totally eclipse all the deep and worthwhile stuff you wrote about in this post.

  4. Do enjoy the “nostalgic charm” of both Macau and the underwear on the ferry. I’m thinking it’s got something to do with the “lucky” passage over the water? Either that, or somebody’s “got lucky” on the ferry? 😉

    • I hadn’t considered the lucky crossing angle! Nicer story that way. I’d previously spent 4 years thinking some crew member was just a great multi-tasker.

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