Macau – notes from an overcrowded city

To the ends of the earth with Nick Smith

One of the greatest night-time skylines on earth. Macau is blatant, overstated and loud. But most of all, it’s great fun

Despite its image as the sleazy gambling den of the Orient, there’s more to the former Portuguese colonial trading post of Macau than meets the eye. It’s a great place to see the Far East at its most fast, frenzied and financially flashy. Bay’s Nick Smith takes a deep breath, packs his notebooks and cameras and venture forth to one of the most surreal places on earth…

Top: The Senado (or ‘Senate’) Square in central Macau, which is in fact a triangle, with its European-style architecture and ‘Two-tone Portuguese pavement’ Bottom: Not all of the Portuguese colonial architecture is in mint condition

Ferraris and gambling. That’s how most people who have never been there would sum it up. Indeed, that’s how most people who have been to Macau would put it, if pushed for time. But that doesn’t get to the heart of the contradictions that define the place. As I wander around this tiny autonomous Chinese city-state that is the most densely populated place on earth, I’m left with more questions than answers. Why, when there are so few roads on which you’ll never get out of second gear, are there so many supercars? And a Formula 3 race circuit? And why, if the place is built on gambling, are there no casinos to be seen, anywhere?

Left: A tray of pastel del nata, or Portuguese custard tarts. Dusted with cinnamon, they are a delicacy in Macau. Right: For all the luxury retail outlets in Macau there are still traditional food markets, where fruit, veg and flowers are the order of the day.

Within hours of arriving I realise something quite important. And that is, as Winston Churchill once said of Russia, Macau is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. On the one hand, it’s a continually spinning kaleidoscope of uncontrolled consumerism, while on the other, it is a sedate and genteel history book crammed with Portuguese colonial culture, fusion cuisine and oriental charm. Even in the darkest of back alleys, amongst the bamboo scaffolding and food stalls, there are luxury watch boutiques in such number that the sheer incongruity of it all soon becomes commonplace. Rolex, Omega and Blancpain rub shoulders with trolleys of beef jerky, almond cookies and custard tarts. As you saunter along the backwaters of Macau, if you have a mind to (and the cash) you can lash out on any of the most hideously over-indulgent luxury goods as easily as picking apples from a tree, while dispensing of your small change on street food, fortune cookies or cheap plastic bags full of fruit and veg.

A trio of violinists entertain shoppers in the Venetian Mall in Macau. They are playing in an area modelled on the Piazza San Marco

Top: Canals and gondolas in the Piazza San Marco area Bottom: The classic racing hairpin in Macau

These days Macau is perhaps best-known for its motor racing. And there’s a hairpin bend on the street circuit that’s so tight that even the very best of racing drivers have to grind to a virtual halt to negotiate it. I’m on full lock and I’m not sure I’m going to get around it in one go. It should be easy because I’m driving a Mercedes-Benz saloon. But it’s not. My passenger, a Portuguese guide by the name of Estevao (with his slicked-back hair and Marlboro cigarettes a ‘Portu-geezer’, if you like), is practically begging me to slow down. We’ve borrowed a car for a tour of the city, and he wants to return it in one piece. But, I explain to ‘Steve’, if you don’t indulge in the fantasy of cruising around Macau’s Monaco-style racetrack you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.

Nick at the Grand Prix Museum, which is also a wine museum. Perhaps the people of Macau can’t see the drink-drive connection.

Although not qualified to drive Formula 3, I do hold a licence to race Formula Ford and have thundered around Silverstone in a single-seater enough times to know a bit (though admittedly not that much) about how to drive quickly. But I don’t know as much as Steve, who tells me the only reason Macau isn’t on the F1 calendar is that today’s cars don’t have the turning circle to get around the circuit. Which is a shame because, with its cobbled surfaces, needle-threading narrowness, adverse cambers and convoluted bends, Macau’s track is about as good as it gets. And in November, when the Formula 3 circus roars into town, there’s nowhere better to be. The air is thick with helicopters and the Pearl River is choked with jetfoils bringing in the famous, the flunkies and the unfeasibly rich to be a part of one of the greatest shows on earth. Nearby Shanghai’s F1 meeting has nothing on it. And for F3 aficionados, the racing is miles better too.

These flashy hotels conceal a literally underground culture of gambling. Every hotel has a basement casino where gamblers play for high stakes

With Steve’s hair becoming almost as white as his knuckles, we eventually switch seats and he drives me to his favourite restaurant. My fascination with Macau’s cuisine started the moment I sat down for lunch with Ken Hom in A Wong’s Chinese restaurant in London’s Victoria. The TV chef had created a Macanese tasting menu that ranged from the sort of thing you might expect, such as grilled chili tiger prawns, to the distinctly unexpected, such as European-style pastries, macaroons and, of course, custard tarts, all of which are authentic and genuine fare of Macau. Hom’s oriental feast was sloshed down with Portuguese beer and Amoretto, and by the time lunch was over I was determined to follow his advice. “Go to Macau and see it for yourself,” he told me. “Macau is a crazy place that you can only really understand by exploring and getting to know it for yourself.”

Hom was right. It is crazy. As I sped over the Pearl River from Hong Kong in a jetfoil, Macau’s famous gaudy neon-light skyline greeted me like an opulent, flashing welcome sign. My first impression of the 44.5 square miles that was to be my home for the next few days was that it’s just as if an eccentric billionaire city planner had casually dropped Dubai on some remote Chinese island. Which is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The only real difference is that while Dubai’s is built on oil, Macau’s wealth – despite all the official denials – is largely created by gambling’s fast-circulating money machine. A third of the city’s tax revenues are directly skimmed off the activity itself, while a further third is generated from the industry’s incidentals, such as land rents. The rest comes from retail.

Gambling in Macau is neither for the lily-livered nor the poor. Although we Brits may dabble in games of chance, we’re far too conservative to get involved Big Time. That’s left to the mushrooming upper classes of Russia and China, who flock to Macau with the wealth of Croesus, all seemingly willing to blow tens of thousands of dollars at a sitting. This fiscal muscle-flexing takes place in casinos in the basements of the big hotels (which is why you never see them, unless you’re looking for them) and is a cultural staple of the new social stratum of these emerging economic superpowers. It’s not enough for the Chinese and the Russians to be sufficiently wealthy to sit at the high-rollers’ table with mountains of chips – you’ve got to be seen to be able to lose it all without blinking.

Macau on a clear day, with the magnificent Macau Tower the centre of attraction. In the distance, mainland China

If the rattle of the roulette wheel doesn’t get your blood pumping, then the extreme sports at the Macau Tower certainly will. I found that it’s best to get this out of the way before lunch, because even the elevator ride to the top is a stomach-churning event. At first glance, the city’s tallest building bears more than a passing family resemblance to Auckland’s Sky Tower. Not a coincidence: when Macau’s richest man, casino billionaire Stanley Ho first saw New Zealand’s highest edifice, he wanted one of his own to grace his home-town’s skyline. So, Ho commissioned the Tower (which was to be, naturally, 10m taller than the antipodean original) and it was completed at the end of 2001 to coincide with Portugal’s return of Macau to China in a restorative diplomatic move similar to Britain’s handing back of Hong Kong in 1997.

The ruins of St Paul’s under a doom-laden sky. Because Macau is on the Pearl River, it’s cloudy there more often than not

When you get to the observation deck (which is often above the clouds), on a clear day you can see for forty miles, as far as Hong Kong itself and deep into mainland China on the other side of the Pearl River delta. Sections of the platform’s floor are fitted with reinforced glass to allow a distinctly vertiginous view straight down, which is, as I can personally guarantee, not for the faint-hearted. But, undeterred, there’s a queue of adrenaline junkies waiting to throw themselves off the tower in a five-second free-fall bungee jump that will take them towards the centre of the earth at about 160 miles per hour. If that’s not enough, you can climb to the very top of the building, which involves scrambling a further 100 metres up the mast’s vertical ladders to reach the summit. The round trip takes about three hours, and only a brave few attempt it.

Back with my feet firmly planted on terra firma, it’s time to take stock of some of Macau’s history. You can bet that most visitors won’t have come here for the colonial civic architecture, baroque churches and military fortifications, or even the spectacular ruins of St Paul’s or the 15th century temple of A-ma from which Macau gets its name. But these buildings are worth so much more than a second glance to even the most uncultured tourist, as they provide – in the same way that Churchill said there was a way to unlock Russia’s mysteries – the skeleton key that picks the lock of Macau’s opulent mystery. These buildings tell the tale of how wealth, luxury and good old-fashioned cash were this tiny city-state’s engine room long before the gambling industry made its sleazy mark.

It may sound like one of those terrible travel writer’s clichés, but to understand the present, you’ve got to know a little about the past. Never more so than in Macau.

At the temple of A-ma, incense comes in all shapes and sizes. These spirals offer burning prayers to the ancient deities of the region

There’s nothing new in commerce here. Only back in the day, it wasn’t watches and cars. What the traders on the old Silk Road were concerned with was shipping tons of silver, indigo, spice, incense and (of course) silk to their European counterparts, who in exchange for the exotic and the esoteric, were prepared to bankroll the building of one of the most important entrepôts of the Orient. In order to resist opposition from the Chinese, Spanish and the Dutch, the colonial Portuguese landlords were forced to turn Macau into a fortress.

Again, this is only part of the story, because for every reminder of its colonial past there is a deeper level of history. As I light incense in one of the many Taoist and Buddhist temples, I can detect the presence of the roots of a more tranquil era of history that goes beyond the world of wealth. Well, at least, I would do, if I weren’t also literally burning sheaves of paper money (admittedly imitation), as an offering to the deities that once presided over Macau in much quieter times.

Portuguese colonial architecture is all around, reminding the visitor of Macau’s European history as a ‘free port’

All too soon it’s time to head home. But there are no regrets: even if it’s a place where you can’t seem to spend enough money, it’s not the place to spend too much time. A long weekend is plenty to become waterlogged by a metropolis that drips with over-indulgence. Before long, you recognise the same Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Aston Martins as they circulate the tiny road system looking for new admirers, while the beautiful people promenading the malls in Prada and Gucci, like 21st-century haute couture peacocks, have become familiar too.

As I check out of the sumptuous Hotel Sofitel, in the cathedral-like atrium of marble and mirrors, I seem to recognise a guy in his mid-twenties waiting for his minders to check him in. Estevao tells me that it’s Daniel Radcliffe – “you know, the guy from the Harry Potter movies…” – who appears to be doing little more than reclining on a rattan sofa flipping through a fancy magazine, reading an article I’d written about the world’s most expensive watches. It’s all very surreal and definitely one of those moments that could only happen in Macau.

In every hotel and mall there are coloured neon lights both inside and out. Macau is not a place where people are afraid to display their wealth

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