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Thoughts on Macau, and Hong Kong/China Tensions

Sitting on the ferry on my way back to Hong Kong, I'm relieved to be leaving Macau. Now the gambling capital of the world - gambling revenue in Macau in 2011 was double Las Vegas's (my photographs of that city collected in this set) - Macau has none of Vegas's panache, but all of its seediness and more. While there are areas of the city which retain the character and history of its Portugese colonial past, and interesting side streets buzzing with the life of small independent shops and restaurants, it is for the most part a collection of monstrously flamboyant hotels and casinos - each more extravagant and vulgar than the last - connected by free bus services which run between them along huge, depressed, viewless roads. Dotted around are hyperreal yet slightly dilapidated tourist attractions such as Fisherman's Wharf: a series of streets by the sea that looks as though Disneyland has spilled out into the real world and nobody has bothered to maintain it. I gather that it was constructed only recently: either it is unfinished, the project ran out of money and has been halted, or nobody is leasing the units and they are falling into disrepair.


I stayed for one night in a hotel called The Landmark, and for one night in one of the most flamboyant hotels, a 'resort' called The Venetian (pictured). Like the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, it feels as big as a small town (a total floor space of over 1,000,000m2 makes it the second largest building in the world, the first - of course - being the Abraj Al-Bait Towers in Dubai), but much more garish. The mall of luxury shops - Montblanc, Piaget, Jaeger LeCoultre - was located within a recreation of Venice, a giant theatrical set through which ran a canal complete with gondolas and gondoliers. Most incredible of all was the ceiling of this mall: painted like a sky, it was lit from behind the set to create the impression that it was a real sky. While not entirely convincing, it was remarkably affecting and made me feel very strange indeed. My suite in The Venetian had more floor space than any flat I've ever lived in and, while far from tasteful, I enjoyed being there. Perhaps it is because I was alone - looking out over the city from high above it - because the only things more offensive than the decor at the Venetian were the people staying there.


I am not so foolish as to think that a country of 1.3 billion people has one culture, or that the tourists I encountered in Macau are representative of any single culture, but among them - 95% of them from mainland China - all I saw was bad manners: rather than shout to get the attention of a friend twenty metres away and then go over to them to talk, entire conversations would just be shouted loudly over the distance; people would bump into me, accidentally but forcefully, and not even look to acknowledge that it (or my "hey!") had happened, let alone apologise; men would jump in front of me in queues and then loudly hawk the phlegm from the back of their throats. When the door of an elevator would open and I would move to exit, I was always blocked by people trying to get in and not budging: the second time this happened I said "I have to get out before you can get in, so will you get out of the way please!" This was met with no eye contact and only the slightest turn of the body so that I had to do the same and squeeze past; as though rudeness towards people and their consequent frustration was completely ordinary. When walking with my sister I often lagged behind, which gave me plenty of opportunity to see men unashamedly perving on her, turning their heads to look her up and down.


The behaviour of the tourists may be the main reason I consider Macau to be so different from Vegas. Although I've only spent one week in Las Vegas, and there working long hours, the impression I got is that those who go to Vegas go to gamble and to have fun: that those who go to Macau go only to gamble and to buy bling. In Vegas I saw people laugh and shout with joy when they won, and saw them exclaim in dismay when they lost; in Macau, the tables were occupied mostly by hardened gamblers who sat stony faced while they watched huge amounts of money slip away from them in a single bet, and come towards them in the next.


Our only respite from this world in Macau was the day we went to see some panda bears at a nature reserve. Save for a school trip of adorable children, and one or two tourist couples, the place was dead. Admission is free, though we were charged the equivalent of about 80p to go and see the pandas (had we gone to the see the recently acquired pandas at Edinburgh Zoo, we'd have paid far more for a far less pleasant experience) one of whom was scratching its ass by rubbing it back and forth against the corner of a tree stump: the teachers told the children it was dancing. On leaving the park we were met at the foot of a hill by one of the city's many free buses, and we boarded to see where it would take us. It climbed the winding mountain road and I gasped as I saw at the top of the hill a beautiful surprise: above a mass of trees stood a huge monastery and the statue of a Goddess. After looking around, we descended the hill ourselves by way of a hillside path and hundreds of steps, as beautiful as something from a Studio Ghibli film. They led us eventually to the roaring sea and a beach of black sand. From there we took a taxi back to the flashing golden towers of several dozen casinos, so near and yet so far.


For all that the glitzy hotels and their rude visitors drained the energy from my soul, they are incredible: fascinating, stimulating, and I'm so glad I've seen them. But once is enough (actually it was my second time, but the first time I did not understand). If I ever go back to Macau, it will probably be with friends: to drink, to gamble and to laugh incredulously at the tasteless ostentation. Otherwise, I'll have to be paid to be there.


PS Since writing this, I have read in The South China Morning Post that tensions between Hong Kongers and mainlanders are rife and intense. I have noticed the encroachment of China into Hong Kong through the decline of the beautiful Cantonese dialect in favour of Mandarin which, at least to my ears, is a harsh and ugly lanuage. My basic understanding of these current tensions, though, is that they stem from three roots: the first, an unchecked influx of pregnant women from mainland China travelling to Hong Kong to give birth so that their child is automatically entitled to Hong Kong citizenship. Secondly, the number of cars allowed into Hong Kong from mainland China, bringing with them congestion, air pollution and a less cautious style of driving. The third issue is the one that I observed while in Macau: manners. Cheng Yiu-tong, a deputy of the National People's Congress, has said "Does the central government know that mainland tourists need more behavioural education? Can the HK administration launch a publicity campaign teaching visitors about our culture?"


Macau, 2012.


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Taken on February 21, 2012