Macau day trip


David Whitley takes the ferry out of Hong Kong towards the gambling capital of the world, and finds a Portuguese past still intact 

The uncomfortable feeling grows in the room, slowly stifling in the smoke. It’s only midday, yet every table is full. Those who got the seats are surrounded by swarms of standing room-only compadres, all too willing to throw their chips in as well.

This isn’t Vegas. It’s bigger than Vegas. And the atmosphere is vastly different. There are no shrivelled hags in hotpants handing out free beers, there’s no whooping and high-fiving, there’s no gregarious chat between strangers who happen to have fallen next to each other. There’s merely intense concentration on the dice and cards. And when things go the wrong way, cursive shouts and table thumping. The casinos of Macau are anger palaces, displaying the worst aspects of the Chinese obsession with luck.

Macau is the world’s biggest gambling centre. Its gambling revenues surpassed those of Las Vegas quite some time ago, and they now soar above. With casinos illegal in Mainland China (not to mention Hong Kong and the main island of Taiwan), this Special Administrative Region has a rather handy niche. When the Chinese propensity to gamble on just about anything – including which fly will climb up a wall first – rears its head, it’s Macau that reaps the benefits.

Macau is one of the world’s oddities. Like Hong Kong, it was an old colonial trading post, and it still has a same-but-different status. You can get in visa-free on the hour-long boat trip from Hong Kong, but you still need to get your passport stamped at both ends. It was the Portuguese who nabbed Macau as a base for bringing tea, porcelain and spices to Europe. Despite not really wanting the tiny peninsula for at least half of their tenure, the Portuguese were lumped with Macau until 1999, when China finally decided to take it off their hands.

The Lusitanian influences still remain. Despite the voracious development around the coast and on the formerly rural islands of Taipa and Coloane, the heart of the city remains pleasantly preserved. The shop signs may be Asian, but the narrow, cobbled streets and mosaic-paved squares are most definitely European. In places, it feels like a cutesy little Mediterranean town – pastel-painted churches sit alongside Jesuit seminaries and shops compete with each other to sell those Portuguese egg tarts that are supposed to be in some way appealing to eat.

Diverge off the main plazas, however, and the backstreets leave you under no illusion as to whereabouts in the world you are. Little old ladies in tiny shops sell unidentified dried foods, Cantonese lettering rules. But then you emerge to see the absolutely absurd golden lotus of the Grand Lisboa. This was local casino mogul Stanley Ho’s fire-versus-fire riposte to the opening up of gaming licences to the Vegas big boys. While the gondolas of the Venetian arrived as competition, he built this giant, gaudy monument to shamelessness. It dominates the skyline in many parts of the city. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help but like it.

There’s no sign of abatement in the new Macau. Bigger and bolder projects are going up at a furious pace, yet the centre still remains with dignity intact. Some of the positive sides of Vegas – the big shows, if not the in-hotel rollercoasters – are beginning to come in, whilst the money has seen Macau quietly become a world foodie hotspot. It’s a very, very odd place though.

I walk back to the ferry terminal. My path is blocked by a giant fake volcano. I feel like thumping a table.