By most accounts, in 10 years Macau will no longer be Macau. The taxi driver, the gambling man, the restaurateur, the bungee jump operator, all agree: The sleepy little Portuguese fishing village just off the Hong Kong harbour will soon be a distant memory.
Macau, ruled by the Portuguese until 1999, has always attracted mainlanders and the “Hong Kong people”. They dabbled in the gambling games of Mahjong, Fan-Tan and Pak Kop Piu. Till 2002, a government-granted monopoly gave the run of the islands to one man: Hong Kong-born entrepreneur Stanley Ho. His authority kept the casinos downtown and allowed the rest of the Macau Special Administrative Region to continue on its quiet path.
Fair bet: Cranes still loom over a booming Macau. Zackary Canepari
However, as soon as his 35-year-old control over the gaming industry ended, Las Vegas bigwigs invested billions in new hotels, giant resorts and flashier casinos. Despite the downturn and reports that the casinos are losing money, construction still booms. All of which means one thing to locals: Peaceful Macau will soon be overshadowed by bright fluorescent lights.
By daylight, the casinos seem like costumed showgirls stripped of their make-up. So we hail a cab to the farthest of the three islands that make up Macau.
On the road out of town, dubbed the Cotai Strip, looms The Venetian, sister to the Vegas hotel of the same name. Inaugurated in 2007, this monolith is the future of Macau, with seven more casinos on the same strip of road, either newly opened or in the works. The Venetian and the other casinos will be islands unto themselves: They could be in Macau, or anywhere else in the world.
Unlike its soul-sister city Las Vegas, which arose spectre-like in the middle of a desert, Macau has a rich past—it became a centre of Portuguese trading in Asia from the 16th century. Old Macau still has beautiful colonial homes that invoke a more genteel era. But modern encroachments are obvious: Many homes have been bulldozed to make way for apartment complexes for the swarms of staff required to man the pleasure palaces. Our taxi driver, of Chinese-Portuguese descent, bemoans the loss of his childhood home and laments the fact that all his friends have left for Portugal, finding no solace in the new Macau.
On the far-flung side of Macau, Fernando’s, a famous old Portuguese restaurant, holds on to the lazy days. In the low-slung wooden building, under slowly spinning fans, stuffing ourselves with char-grilled cod, roasted suckling pig and sangria, it is possible to imagine a Macau that subscribed to a single way of life.
Roasted suckling pig at Fernando’s. Zackary Canepari
At a nearby table, a lone patron wakes up from his postprandial nap and starts to sing a plaintive tune. Up front, the owner orders rounds of sangria for his friends and regales us with stories of the notorious Ho and his uncompromising hold on the gambling business.
We stumble back into the bright sun, drunk off the bonhomie, where a stroll down the coast-to-downtown main road Avenida da Doutor Stanley Ho epitomizes the walk between modernity and tradition. To the left, old churches cling to seaside cliffs above a tiny harbour and red-tiled roofs covered in plants hang over cobblestoned streets. To the right, the massive casinos are just turning on their neon lights in the late afternoon light.
The disconnect doesn’t end there. In the heady rush to recreate Las Vegas, the new casinos failed to consider the decidedly different approaches to gambling in Macau and Nevada. Here, Chinese men sip tea and intently concentrate on the numbers of spinning wheels. There, drunk, boisterous crowds pull levers and roll dice and shout and constantly prowl for the bigger, the brighter, the newer.
Steve Wynn’s casino mirrors its Western cousins. Crystals drip from the ceiling and pink lights create a rosy hue. But there is an eerie silence. The hotel is determined to create a more jovial atmosphere: Upstairs, a live Can-Can show is being staged conveniently in front of the floor’s largest bar. Want to get a close-up of the Russian beauty’s high kick? Order a drink, please. But businessmen stand slack-jawed and silent around the bar, no backslapping or hooting here.
Which is a shame. To me, casinos should never be about the gambling, especially for notorious losers such as myself. Instead, it is about sitting around a table, jawing with strangers, and enjoying the carnival around you.
At 4am, we find ourselves in a packed ferry terminal. The casinos, while not the most exciting in the world, are entertaining for their totally over-the-top worship at the altar of the almighty buck. But Macau’s real charm lies in the quiet corners that may not be there in a few years. Or perhaps I’m just bitter: I lost all my money at the Black Jack tables.