Fear And Loathing In Macau
Sunday, April 20, 2008
With Its Mix Of Modern Casinos And Historic Portuguese Past, Macau Is A Land Of Contrasts
Just down the cobblestone alley from the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a heavy-set British woman is being served a Portuguese egg tart by a Chinese street vendor. The air smells of pork cutlets cooking on a grill and the smoke lingers upwards towards the yellow and white trimmed colonial building at the base of a well manicured hillside. This kind of scene is becoming a rare reality in South China. Before globalization began making its mark with every McDonald’s franchise it could muster, colonization was the face of Asia. A face that can be seen everywhere from Shanghai’s famous British financial district — also known as the Bund — to Phnom Penh’s old French quarters. However, the elements of old colonial society and modern globalization have never met in any place quite like they have in the small Chinese municipality of Macau.
The contrasting cultures found in Macau portray a palette of color rarely seen in Asia. However, the colors most often associated with Macau aren’t those of the colonial buildings of Largo do Senado (Senate Square), but instead those of the intoxicating nightlife fueled by the rows of casinos filled with sunglass-wearing Chinese tourists in black suits hovering around gaming tables. It’s an area of contrasts; a world where Hunter Thompson himself would have found plenty of material.
Macau’s glitter is often compared to that of Las Vegas, and it has been attracting an exponential amount of chip-wielding tourists from across Asia and throughout the world. (In fact, last year Macau overtook Las Vegas in gambling revenues.) As if it wasn’t a secret before now: Chinese people really love to gamble.
At the center of this former colony (Portugal returned Macau to China in 1999 after 450 years of colonial rule) in the middle of Macau’s casinos stands the monolithic spire of the Grand Lisboa. Standing proudly like the Olympic torch, the Lisboa is a building that resembles a large fan of flame and represents the ferocity of Macau’s economy. As soon as the sun sets, this torch displays a set of vivid lights that make it a prominent beacon in the night sky.
Though it seems to be the heart of Macau to many tourists, the seedy casino underbelly of Macau casts a dark image over a land full of otherwise vivid colors. Just before I left Hong Kong, a man who caught a glimpse of several large bills sitting in my wallet said to me, “Be careful in Macau.”
There is no doubt that the vibe in Macau shifts as quickly as the sunset and that its nightlife overshadows a much more exquisite beauty. The heart of Macau takes its form in a pure blend of Chinese characters accented by the colorful and ornate Portuguese architecture. A walk up the white and black trimmed alleys towards the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral is like moving through a piece of modern art where the brushstrokes take the form of old churches. An image jarring enough that you’d forget you were in China if you weren’t surrounded by countless Asian tourists.
On a vast hilltop adjacent to the ruins of St. Paul’s sits a dilapidated Portuguese fortress. On top of this fortress rests the remains of tarnished cannons once used to defend this vulnerable colony. The corsairs of the cannons overlook a much more modern picture of contemporary China; mostly bamboo scaffolding and high-rise building towering over the hidden treasures below. Yet, a peak down one of the palm tree lined alleys off of Largo do Senado will
reveal a number of well-hidden Portuguese style restaurants, churches, and a even a small fountain depicting the Virgin Mary.
Macau is a place that clashes like no other, yet has a look and feel unique to its own. The contrast is so great that countless artists have become inspired and have begun setting up galleries along its alleys. It is their hope to reveal to the world the beauty and color that Macau truly embodies.