The American writer and journalist Ambrose Bierce once wrote that ‘the gambling known as business looks with austere disfavour upon the business known as gambling’. In Macau, however, the chief business is gambling and business looks upon it with a particularly vigorous favour. During my recent visit to Hong Kong, in which I stayed with the Wilsons on lovely Lamma Island, I paid a visit to Macau to see first hand its collection of Portuguese colonial architecture. During my day spent in the territory I must have been one of the few visitors travelling for purposes other than gambling – Macau is a huge haven for legal gambling visited by thousands of mainland Chinese every day.
Macau (or, if you prefer, Macao) returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1999, and like neighbouring Hong Kong, it operates as a Special Autonomous Region, entitling it to a certain local leeway. Hence the gambling, and the maintenance of a separate local currency, the pataca, that travellers are warned not to bother taking out of the city, because it’s next to useless as soon as you board the ferry.
The SAR status means visitors from Hong Kong have to go through border control both when leaving Hong Kong and upon arrival in Macau. This involves standing in a huge hall with several thousand mainland Chinese day-trippers for about 20 minutes each time. And if you’re me, it also involves the Chinese guy behind you slipping his snotty tissue into your bag when you’re not looking. Gosh thanks mister, you really know how to make a gweilo tourist feel welcome!
The swift catamaran journey from Hong Kong only takes an hour. On the day I travelled the skies were murky grey and visibility was low. (Services had been significantly disrupted the day before by an impenetrable fog bank that blanketed the region). After another border crossing I took a quick bus ride from the wharf to emerge into the heart of old Macau – a little corner of Portugal in the Far East. The triangular Largo do Senado (Senate Square) is surrounded by pretty low-rise official buildings decked out in brightly-coloured paint, leading to a twisting pedestrian precinct that winds its way up the slope to the site of Macau’s most famous building. Or, to be precise, the remains of said building.
After a 20-year programme of construction, the foundation stone of St Paul’s Cathedral was laid in 1602, during the 60-year Spanish rule over Portugal. The cathedral marked a new bastion of the Catholic faith in the far-flung corners of the Iberian empire. Following a destructive fire in 1835 St Paul’s suffered massive damage, and all that was saved for posterity was the ornately-carved façade that had been carved by exiled Japanese Christians in the 1620s. Now this thin sliver of history is visited by a torrent of tourists, and it has become the most prominent landmark in a city that, aside from its downtown colonial core, does not boast an enviable architectural heritage.
This much is obvious when the city is viewed from on high in the Monte Fort adjacent to the cathedral. Macau is crammed with crumbling apartment and office blocks, but one building stands out must win plaudits for its sheer bloody-minded oddness. Dominating the Macau skyline, the Grand Lisboa casino can only be described as a gigantic flaming onion bestriding the city below. It’s a monstrous size, 261 metres tall, but it’s so much taller than the surrounding buildings that its bulk is emphasised. The outwards flare of its upper storeys gives the building a gravity-defying appearance. Despite its theatrical levels of vulgar attention-seeking, I decided that I loved the Grand Lisboa, tacky gold mirror-glass and all. After all, there’s no way you can come to Macau and fail to form an opinion on it – mine is that the architect must have been completely bonkers – and what better edifice to sum up the spirit of the modern city full of gamblers?
Walking back down from the fortress into the rabbit-warren of city streets I managed to get hopelessly disoriented, but this didn’t prove to be a nuisance as I had already seen the parts of Macau I’d intended to. I walked back to the ferry wharf past the modern harbour-side developments of spectacularly peculiar tourist attractions. First there was a scale model of the Coliseum with shops nestled around its circumference. Alongside was some berserk Aztec-style theme park, which must have been aiming for an Indiana Jones vibe. Further on there was an intricate replica of the sheer-walled towers of Lhasa and an imposing Chinese fortress surrounded by a moat heaving with well-fed koi carp. Lastly, not to be out-done, there was a volcano. A bloody volcano! Imagine the planning permission application for that one.