Macau, Hong Kong’s nearby neighbor, is a land of strange juxtapositions. In one tiny place, there are elements of a European colony, provincial China and artificial Las Vegas.
The first European conquest in the far east, Macau was settled by the Portuguese in the days of Marco Polo. China later formally gifted the area to Portugal in the hopes that the rich European empire would protect against pirates. For over 400 years, Macau was populated by the Chinese, but governed by the Portuguese. In the late 1990s, in a symbolic ceremony much like that between China and England over Hong Kong, Portugal returned its colony to China. In the future, Macau will be fully incorporated into Mainland China, but for now, it occupies the same status as Hong Kong: Special Administrative Region. We had to go through customs and exchange currencies in order to visit — we picked up some MOPs, or Macanese patacas, upon our entry. China, Macau and Hong Kong are all quite close — we took an hour-long ferry and we could see the mainland once we exited the boat — but the areas remain starkly different.
Macau’s biggest tourist appeal is evident as you approach the shoreline: gambling is legal here, and the coast looks just like Vegas, complete with the towering Wynn, MGM and Venetian casinos. After clearing customs, we were mobbed by representatives from all the casinos, all vying for our attention and wallets. In lieu of taking a cab from the harbor to the center of the Macau peninsula, we hopped on board one of the casino shuttle buses, as did nearly every single tourist, because we had read that one of the casinos was walking distance to the central historic square of the city.
We made a beeline out of the casino to a recommended restaurant in the more authentic part of the peninsula. Macanese food is a truly unique experience, combining Portuguese and Cantonese influences and taking advantage of the abundant and fresh seafood. We started with stuffed crab, which looked upon first glance like the rendition I’ve had before on the shores of the Atlantic, but the spices were quite different than those used at the Oyster Bay clam bar. One of the hallmark dishes is African chicken, which has been cooked on the bone and left to simmer in a sauce of chilies, garlic and coconut. We also enjoyed a baked dish of curried crab and shrimp. Before ordering, we had been offered a photo book of the food served in the restaurant and had been puzzled as to what we might receive. The unusual pairings of seasonings from around the globe proved to be quite delicious.
After our lunch, we embarked on a walking tour of the more legitimate, less Vegas portion of Macau. When I was studying abroad in Spain, I took a brief trip to Lisbon. While in Portugal’s capital city, I remember being struck by how provincial it seemed in comparison to Spain. Despite the mere miles that separated the Iberian metropolises, Lisbon seemed to have held more closely onto the traditions of its founding, while the Spanish cities had forged ahead. Similarly, Hong Kong has taken on the future with gusto (more on this later), whereas Macau, underneath its flashy casinos and bright lights, bears much more of its past on the surface.
The historic squares and churches look like direct replicas of their Lisbon inspiration. But in the alleyways between the preserved Unesco heritage sites are Chinese families, attending school, minding little shops and barreling down the narrow passageways on motor bikes. Despite being a tourist paradise, Macau is genuinely Chinese; dilapidated apartment buildings with drying laundry flapping in the wind populate the same skyline as the world’s fanciest casinos. On one street filled with bakeries, we visited one of the more famous outlets. With a very Chinese-sounding name and countless varieties of mystery meat jerky, the store also featured the eggy custard tarts and almond cookies ubiquitous on the streets of Portugal.
There is a sense of colonial imperialism to all of Macau, with its Portuguese street names and Chinese translations as an afterthought. The Chinese may have taken back their land in 1999, but they opened it up to international gambling enterprises in 2001. Since the exit of the Portuguese, the wealthy chains of Las Vegas lore have set up shop. Even if governing power has begun to return to native hands, the driving force of the economy is very clearly Western. The local people are employed by the casinos, but just as in the Portuguese bakeries, they are promoting a culture seemingly different from their own.
Desperately in need of an air-conditioned respite, and genuinely curious about what we might find, we visited the massive Wynn casino. We walked in a circle for close to 20 minutes, passing table after table of poker, baccarat and black jack. The floor had just opened, and so it was largely empty. Every table was staffed by a dealer in a Wynn uniform, but few players were out yet. We were unable to find an answer, but left very curious as to who visits Macau’s many luxury resorts. We saw very few Western-looking people walking around Macau, and the few we spotted seemed to have British accents. The majority of tourists looked like they came from Mainland China, making this tropical peninsula seem even more like Las Vegas or Atlantic City. We were definitely not alone in our touring of the historic sites, but you have to wonder if the other people scoping out the old churches with us would be retiring to the gaming tables and slot machines after their trip down historical memory lane.
Before leaving for Macau, we had stopped by the international school where Bruce and Wendy work. While waiting for Bruce, we had made conversation with his secretary, who is a native of Hong Kong. She commended the travel choices we had made us far. She was especially impressed by our authentic dim sum choice (although she scoffed that the restaurant had been for locals only, until it was featured in Lonely Planet, which we didn’t even realize). She said it was good we were going to see Macau; in its rush to economic glory, Hong Kong had destroyed some of its more historic treasures, whereas Macau had managed to hold onto its history — at least for now. Our Asian adventures never included a trip to Mainland China, but the back streets of Macau did provide some perspective on what we perhaps could have witnessed.
We boarded a ferry back to Hong Kong as the sun was setting. Our TurboJet looked more like an airplane than any ferry I’ve ever seen (although to be fair, my experiences on the Cross Sound Ferryfeel more like a crossing to Ellis Island than a 21st century boat ride). After a long wait to clear customs, we were ushered into an air conditioned mall and welcomed back to Hong Kong.