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The Modern Face of an Ancient City Called Macau
Shiny and glittery, just like a giant Christmas tree bauble that someone forgot to take down and put away ready for next year.
This was my first impression of Macau when I visited recently.
I was looking forward to going. I’d heard good things, exciting things, fascinating tales of the wonders of this place so, being taken there as an early birthday present was a fantastic gift.
Or so I thought.
From Little Acorns
Situated along the South East China coastline, close to Hong Kong and justifiably proud of itself for being ‘one of the few regions in Asia with a very high Human Development Index', Macau currently ranks 24th in the world with Japan being the highest.
It’s also renowned as one of the world’s richest cities and these days, probably the world’s biggest gambling centre, but more about that in a while.
The tiny in stature but magnanimous in reputation, Macau; Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, welcomes you with a hassle free transit through customs and a gratis air-conditioned comfort coach ride to any casino/hotel/leisure complex of your choice.
With each venue boasting compelling names like City of Dreams, Sands and StarWorld, it could take you a while to decide.
My friend and I caught the ferry from Shenzhen port in SE China’s Guangdong province to Zhuhai, from there we took a taxi to the Macao/China border.
We could have taken the ferry straight to Macau but the crossing to Zhuhai was more frequent and I wanted to scope out a future trip to that city.
The Macau-China customs and immigration border is not a trip for the fainthearted or the weak of legs. It entails a very long walk in-between the two countries and again on either side.
In some places there are stairs with no escalators.
‘Where do the old and infirm go?’ I wondered after looking around and seeing no-one who fitted this description.
Perhaps Macau prefers only eager, young gamblers entering its gates?
Walk This Way
At the border I looked around for ordinary public buses that could take us into the heart of the real Macau, away from the vast hotel and entertainment complexes, but I saw none.
Maybe these too, like the elderly and infirm, were hidden on another worldly plane?
Instead the layout gently but persistently guides you to the many brightly decorated, alluring coach stands, whose pretty attendants usher you straight on if the transit through Macau’s screening and official process grants you good timing.
At this point I was still pumped and the large soft seats gave me a grateful opportunity to rest my legs after all of the unexpected walking from border to border.
Forty minutes later after driving across long bridges spanning the sea, with clouds so low we passed right through them, we reached our destination and my disappointment at Macau settled itself around me like an unwanted extra layer of clothing.
We entered the Venetian hotel, a monument to opulence, my mind kept whispering.
Once inside the massive building I noticed the stark absence of windows, clocks and even animals. Instead I saw only shops and more shops, people and more people, food and more food.
The faux sky which covered the food pavilion was compelling in soft pastel blues with painted whispy clouds as long as you didn’t gaze upon it’s artificiality for too long.
Food and Money
Once we’d satisfied our by-now very hungry bellies with an interesting combination of pizza and Chinese food (Macau-nese food?) we strolled down to the casino where the attendant asked to see my passport.
I obliged and she checked it out obviously not comprehending a single word before handing it back with a gracious smile which I returned. If she could pretend that she was doing her job well, then so could I.
The casino was also huge, again, with typical hynoptic décor, ie no clocks, no windows, no sense of time or urgency.
Unlike in the UK the card dealers were middle aged men and women who handled their tables and their visiting gamblers with calm skill and dexterity.
The richly patterned carpet felt thick and springy under my feet, slowing my pace and encouraging me to linger amidst the hint of hope and the tangible but faint promise of un-imagineable success which oozed from every card table, roulette game and slot machine.
The Real Macau
But I refused to succumb.
I wanted, really wanted to go out into the real world. I had an overwhelming desire to confirm its existence and to hear the swell of the sea, feel the air on my skin and take a leisurely walk along a sandy beach.
I wanted to take my shoes off and walk softly inside a Buddhist temple without disturbing the afternoon meditation.
I wanted to climb many stairs up the side of a green and foliage filled mountain in order to breathlessly admire China from a world once removed. The real world of Macau.
I wanted to visit the Unesco World Heritage Site and take photos in St. Dominics square, to see the treasures of the Taipa House Museum and buy an overpriced copy of an artifact, but on this occasion it wasn’t to be.
Macau never offered me an alternative to the ritz and the glitz.
No chance to greet its inhabitants, to sit at a neighbourhood eatery and sample local delights.
Not even to walk down streets steeped in ancient history, trodden previously by Asian and European men, women and children, on their way to life, love and play.
Instead I was trapped within a complex of virtual reality and to escape would have required more time, which we simply didn’t have.
Let's Go Outside
Do people really travel all that way just for the gambling, indoor shopping malls and fake indoor piazzas where they take photos pretending that they are outside?
Why not just go outside?
In a poor parody of its former glory it has generally become Macau or bust, at least that’s what it seems like to me.
I really wish I'd been able to form another opinion.
I just don’t get it.
Macau was once a sovereign power, revered and taken seriously by the rest of the world.
The Portuguese envied it so much they invaded and settled for more than a hundred years.
Nowadays, it seems that no-one values such historical greatness.