Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bright Lights And Big Bets

At the mouth of the Pearl River, on either side of the estuary, lie Macau and Hong Kong, former colonies of Portugal and Great Britain respectively. And although they were returned to China (in 1997 in the case of Hong Kong and 1999 for Macau) they still remain administratively and politically separate from mainland China under the "one country two systems" policy and are classified as Special Administrative Regions. They are free of the all-pervasive Chinese censorship; travelling abroad is far easier; they tend to speak Cantonese rather than Mandarin; and use traditional Chinese characters to write rather than simplified characters. In fact in some ways they are more Chinese than their mainland brothers as they have retained some traditions that were purged during the tumultuous years of Mao's China. The ex-colonies are also easier to visit for foreigners than for ordinary Chinese who need a special permit to visit the SARs.

A small shrine outside a shop where incense is burnt and often a food offering (e.g. an apple or an orange) is left is a common sight in Macau and Hong Kong, but almost extinct in mainland China.

Of the two Macau is the elder, having been founded in the 16th century as a trading outpost when the Portuguese were the undisputed masters of Asian trade thanks to their strategic outposts around the Indian ocean: Malacca, Goa, Diu, Hormuz, Muscat, Nagasaki and Zanzibar to name but a few. This venerable presence is obvious in the narrow, cobbled streets of old Macau with its baroque churches and Mediterranean-style villas (Portuguese food has also made a big impression with bacalhao and pastries, although the language, despite enjoying joint official status, has had less of an impact). With the rise of Hong Kong as a trading hub Macau went into decline only to reinvent itself as a gambling centre in the early 60's For a long time the gambling scene was a seedy monopoly, but as soon as restrictions were lifted in 2001 the big American casinos, eager for the untapped potential from the gambling-mad, and increasingly affluent, Chinese, moved in, building giant, bombastic gambling palaces, recreating the look and feel of the Las Vegas Strip, on large tracts of barren, reclaimed land. Indeed Macau has inevitably earned the nickname of the "Oriental Las Vegas", although in reality its gambling revenues already exceed that of its American brother (and have done so since 2007) and look set to soar even further as more mega-casinos open up and the number of wealthy Chinese increases.
Portuguese colonial architecture dominates in Macau's old town.

Now you may wonder what could possibly interest me, an avowed miser, in such dens of chance that are designed to make you part with your money. But casinos are subtle and do this indirectly by lulling you into spending by making you relaxed and feeling good. If you are aware of their tricks then you can use them to your advantage. Free shuttle buses link the casinos with major points in town; the casinos run 24hr left luggage facilities; and there is often free entertainment in the form of street-performers inside the casinos themselves. So when I crossed the border to Macau I first caught a shuttle to the Venetian casino, which is the granddaddy of bling in terms of casinos: the largest hotel and casino in the world, and 5th largest building full stop in terms of floor area. Ultra-tacky it is immensely popular and is a garish pastiche of a doge's palace, complete with mock-frescoes, rococo frills, indoor canals and gondolas. I dumped my rucksack at the left-luggage and headed back into town to do some sightseeing. Upon returning in the evening I wandered the vast gambling hall with its baize tables offering a myriad different games of chance for the discerning punter. Blackjack, poker and roulette I know, but I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of different games that I knew nothing about: baccarat, craps, casino war, sic bo and plenty of others whose names I can't recall. And then there are the endless rows of slot machines with their esoteric signs and multitude of buttons. It seems to me that you need a special degree just to be able to understand all the baffling rules of the many games. And finally when I wanted to go to sleep nothing but the largest room in the house would do for me as I snuck into the hotel's arena, where live shows and sports events are staged, spread some dust covers on the ground between the stands and dozed off (remembering to set my alarm so as to get out before anyone was likely to turn up in the morning).

The behemoth of bad taste that is the Macau Venetian.

From Macau hydrofoils whisk whisk you the 45km across to Hong Kong in only an hour, past the beginnings of the bridge that is currently under construction to connect the two sides of the delta. Hong Kong is one of those rare cities, like London, New York and Singapore, that everyone seems to pass through at some point or another. It is the East Asian transport and financial hub and opens its doors to travellers, business people and domestic workers from all around the world. Despite being a densely built-up city Hong Kong feels surprisingly cosy and is easy to navigate on foot. This is facilitated by the extensive network of raised walkways that allow you to get around most of the central district without having to descend to ground level as well as the world's longest elevator network that makes ascending the city's hilly terrain far more manageable. Also, tucked away between the skyscrapers and designer-label boutiques one can even find some authentic tastes of China as old-school markets fill out the narrow back alleys and you can find century eggs, stinky tofu, grannies selling dildos (admittedly only in one market on the Kowloon side, but strange nevertheless) and stores with afterlife accessories. The latter are linked to traditional Chinese ancestor worship rituals where fake, paper money is burnt as an offering for deceased ancestors for them to use in the afterlife so that they may enjoy a more comfortable death. Nowadays though money is not enough (especially since you are free to make the money any denomination you want, which must be leading to rampant inflation in Hades) and it is possible to buy paper versions of pretty much anything, from iPads to irons, microwaves to Mercedes and suits to sandals. All can be bought cheap to make your great-great-great grandfather's (after)life more stress free.

Hong Kong by night, perhaps the most beautiful contemporary urban view in the world.


karen he said...

I have to disagree with you about the small shrine thing, Erik, as it is in every houselhold's entrance in my building and my neighborhood. It is commonly believed there is God of Door, God of Kitchen inside and God of Land where houses or apartments are located. I guess you stayed mostly in new buildings in gz where you didn't have a chance to see it.

Erik said...

Hey Karen,

Interesting. I really didn't see many shrines in all my travels throughout China, either in peoples' houses or outside shops (not to say that I didn't see any, but far far fewer than in HK or Macau). Perhaps they're not so obvious? or perhaps I'm not good at looking?

Jun said...

Yes, i agree with karen, it's easy to find in old community of guangzhou, in my hometown Hubei province, it exisits more in the countryside.