Journalist and producer based in Spain working for UK press. My focus here is safe travel and tourism in Spain. I also cover current affairs, business, architecture and rural regeneration, and work / have worked for The Guardian, BBC, FT, The Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Reader's Digest, Evening Standard.
Perched on a volcano at night, I’m watching helicopters crisscross the Pearl River Delta and reflecting on a day which involved haggling in Chinese street markets, studying the work of Jesuit priests, entering a hotel room to find a mechanical bull and walking through the streets of Venice, from the Ponte di Rialto to St Mark’s Square via the food court. There’s no doubt about it, Macau offers a fresh twist on the mysterious East.
The closer you get, the more Macau unravels. It’s part of China, yet not, with Portuguese signage, two currencies and multiple faiths. It’s a city with a couple of islands attached and a World Heritage site. It’s old-fashioned yet futuristic, overcrowded and empty, urban and green, enormously wealthy yet quite run down. If there’s a real Macau, I can’t find it.
An early incarnation was as a trading post, a port of call on the Southeast Asian trade route, and for storm-tossed explorers, most notably the Portuguese, who arrived in the 1550s and stayed, eventually governing Macau until 1999, when it was returned to the Chinese government. All this is succinctly explained in the Maritime Museum and Museu de Macau.
The first underscores Macau’s nautical heritage, while the second focuses on the Chinese and Portuguese ways of doing things, with a small scale street illustrating the latticework, lanterns and shrines of the former and the balustrades, green shutters and verandahs of the latter. It illustrates this unique fusion by re-creating a typical Macanese spread — a table groaning under the weight of a cross-cultural high tea comprising fried rice, dim sum, egg tarts and cream cakes.
Outside Macau is raucous, its narrow streets packed. A coping strategy adopted by Japanese tour groups is to stick to the map and follow a trail along the narrow cobbled streets that links the 25 sites of the Historical Centre. The Ruins of St Paul’s at the heart of Macau is a good place to begin (look out for the bas-relief of the Holy Mother slaying a seven-headed hydra), but it takes a disciplined tourist to stay on course.
The Chinese of Macau are firm believers in availing themselves of all divine power, from Buddhism and Christianity to Taoism with its gods for all occasions, and every directionless amble leads to churches, temples and shrines. There’s interesting stuff at every turn: vendors banging tins, shops selling live fish, tinctures and fig oil rolls, the linguistic fusion of signs (Sapateria Tai Fong, Merceraria Fong Seng) and the balconies of Portuguese apartment blocks hung with washing. There’s shouting, car horns and, occasionally, a burst of firecrackers — a tribute to A-Ma the Goddess of Seafarers or Kwan Tai, God of Riches, Literature, War and Pawnshops.
In a city so dense and loud, pockets of peace are welcome. There’s the Old Protestant Cemetery, where British and American settlers and seamen lie under banyan trees beside their wives and children, but also shady squares where at dusk middle-aged neighbours line up and dance to traditional songs.
Macau sits on a peninsula of the Chinese mainland, linked by sleek bridges to the island of Taipa, and beyond to the island of Coloane in the tepid South China Sea. The taxi journey from end to end takes little more than 30 minutes, but the contrast between thrumming Macau, the bright lights of Taipa, and the sleepy southernmost island is extreme. On a hike through Hac Sa bay and along the cliff path to Coloane village, I saw no one. Anyone with any sense was avoiding the midday heat and was packed into a blue-tiled pousada eating suckling pig and bacalhao.
Despite their vast differences and the water between them, Macau, Taipa and Coloane, with a combined area of 26sq km and a population of just over half a million, form one of two Special Administrative Regions of China (along with Hong Kong). As an SAR, it has the freedom to operate a little differently. To run casinos, for example.
It’s these that now define Macau. Four decades after the King of Gambling, Stanley Ho, opened Macau’s first, The Lisboa, there are 32 casinos flashing neon into the night sky, and last year they generated £8.5 billion. Ho’s monopoly ended in 2002 when the Americans arrived — first, Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson. They ratcheted up the glitz with the same opulent mall, restaurant, hotel and casino all-in-ones they’d made earlier in Las Vegas and Nevada, but even bigger.
Adelson led the advance on Taipa and the Cotai Strip with the Venetian Macau, not only among the largest buildings in the world but housing, at last check, the world’s largest casino. Modelled on the fantasy of the same name in Vegas and then in turn on Venice, it’s an arresting sight. Inside, there’s a Grand Canal complete with water, bridges, gondolas and gondoliers, frescoes, balustrades and piazzas, but with the added benefits of air-con, Streetmosphere, an international food court and 600,000sq ft of gaming tables.
Gambling in Macau is a challenging process. The lingua franca is Chinese, the pace is fast and, for a dilettante, sic bo, boule, fan-tan and mah jong are a puzzle. Of course there’s always roulette, poker and baccarat (which accounts for 70 per cent of Macau’s casino takings), and endless rows of ‘hungry tigers’ (or slot machines), but the cheapest approach is to regard gambling at megaresorts as a spectator sport. The same can be said for shopping. Useful to the winners, the in-house mall — Shoppes at Four Seasons with its Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada and a hundred others of a similar ilk — is a monument to extravagance.
These Vegas-style resorts sell escapism and there’s an appetite for it, as well as a growing super-wealthy audience on the doorstep. A dozen international companies have put their pre-crunch plans on hold, but the newly opened City of Dreams stands like a bright and shiny beacon of hope over the clusters of half-built towers and deserted construction sites.
It’s a classy, conjoined hub of hotels, restaurants, shopping, gaming and entertainment. Part owned by Stanley Ho’s son Lawrence (along with James Packer), City of Dreams is at the vanguard of a new generation of megaresorts. In 2008, 30 million visitors came to Macau, but the average length of stay was just 1.3 days. By adding spas and shows, and making the casinos part of the mix, it’s hoped that City of Dreams will have broader appeal and become, in their words, ‘a top multiday stay leisure destination’. I could have spent multiple days inside this man-made pleasure dome myself — just to explore it — and they hadn’t even opened the third of its hotels, the Grand Hyatt.
The two that opened first, the Hard Rock and the Crown Tower, are so different that to move between them without leaving the building is as disorienting as air travel. Over in the Hard Rock Hotel, there are young, excited guests, neon signs, and Mariah Carey’s jacket, Keith Moon’s boots and Michael Jackson’s shoe lit up in glass cases. A few floors up, I find retro suites with funky chandeliers, bars and mechanical bulls and, on a terrace high above the traffic, people cavorting on a beach to Amii Stewart’s Knock on Wood.
Over at the lobby of Crown Towers, a few minutes’ trot along a hermetically sealed boulevard of shops and food outlets, all is calm, cool and expensively chic. There’s an architectural display of orchids and heliconia and an air of hush. Through the window Beijing artist Sin Ji Quo’s sculpture of Chairman Mao’s jacket is nicely framed by the Venice skyline.
It’s pointless attempting to pinpoint the real Macau while sitting on a concrete volcano at Fisherman’s Wharf (a re-creation of a fisherman’s wharf by the ferry terminal) as Japanese tourists are trundled in buggies from the Roman amphitheatre to Aladdin’s Fort below me. It’s these collisions of East and West, past and present, natural and fantastical, kitsch and sublime, that makes Macau unique. Not so much real, but surreal, and all the more intoxicating for it.
WAY TO GO
British Airways flies to Hong Kong from London Heathrow. Join the Executive Club and earn up to 14,948 BA Miles when you fly First to Hong Kong. Visit ba.com where you can also find great-value holidays and Avis car hire.
Tips for budget dining:
Pork chop bun, the Chinese hotpot, ta pin nou, dim sum (including the well-loved steamed buns stuffed with pork, char siu pau), galinha Portuguesa and bacalhao (oven-cooked chicken and salt cod respectively). There’s good food-hunting to be had along the Rua do Almirante and roads off it, as well as Rua do Cunho, in Taipa village (queue at Dom Galo for Macanese food in a colourful setting).
In Coloane, try the Portuguese Sunday buffet at Pousada de Coloane above Cheoc Van beach, and pasteis de nata from Lord Stow’s Bakery. The Venetian food court offers a gastronomic journey from Morton’s of Chicago to Maxim’s de Paris, via India, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Argentina, while the Food Colosseum at City of Dreams is the place for ramen, sushi and tempura.