A Gentrified Macau

My recollection of Macau had always carried a romantic hue, until the past weekend when I revisited the former Portuguese enclave, during which reality struck right in my face. To my awestruck eyes, she appeared totally transformed from a once peaceful getaway resort town with a distinct European taste into a noisy, crowded and crass tourist/gaming destination, one that smells of nothing but concrete and hard cash.

Unquestionably Macau has been a source of pride and joy for mainland China ever since her sovereignty was handed back in 1999, being ranked one of the world’s top tourist spots as well as raking in gambling revenues surpassing those of the Las Vegas Strip and pulling in tons of investment dollars from gaming gurus like Sheldon Adelson, Steve Wynn and Kirk Kerkorian. In terms of recent economic success, Macau has managed to raise the eyebrows of most observers, even those of Hong Kong, her once proud and condescending neighbor.

Macau today is a far cry from her humble colonial days. The vicinity of the Macau Ferry Terminal and the city centre are strewn with blocks and blocks of high rise towers, many of which house the glitzy new casinos and hotels. None is more eye-catching than Stanley Ho’s new Lisboa complex, which is supposed to look like a golden lotus, resembling Macau’s emblem. The new massive MGM casino-cum-hotel building is getting ready for a grand opening on December 18. The money-making Sands and Wynn complexes would look a lot better without their names in big, bright red Chinese characters hanging incongruously on the sleek building exterior, meant to let mainland gamblers know which is which. In the matter of making casino guests more at home, Sands seems to score a notch higher than Wynn as its gold and red décor and smoky ambience remind people of old Lisboa, which is well-known to most mainlanders. The Star World, decorated with purple and gold, movie-prop-like Christmas ornaments, is another operator that knows its customers well. Good taste is a waste on jaded gamblers and uncouth tourists.

Almost without exception, the shopping arcades of all the prominent hotels and casinos are filled with glamorous pricey designer brand retailers, while the main street shops in the downtown area are mostly high-end retailers that have replaced many locally-run mom-and-pop shops. While the gentrification process in Hong Kong took decades to complete, the same process here in Macau seems to have only taken a few years.

After a brief tour of the major casinos, I had to take refuge outside to catch a breath of fresh air. To my dismay, my hope to stroll along my beloved Nam Van (南灣) promenade was dashed as my companion told me that that part of Macau was undergoing massive reclamation works. We decided to head instead for Senado Square (議事庭前地) and Ruins of St. Paul’s (大三巴牌坊) in the city centre.

The Senado Square and the nearby winding streets and lanes (one leading directly to the Ruins of St. Paul’s) are a favorite tourist spot. As it was a Saturday, the area was literally flooded with visitors. Along both sides of the cobblestone streets were unending rows of retail shops, many selling brand fashion clothes with prices not easily affordable for locals or ordinary mainland tourists or even Hong Kong tourists. What attracted most tourists were, however, the shops that sold local snacks like egg rolls, almond biscuits, pork and beef jerkies, and cooked food like curry fish balls and squids. As we were nearing the end of the climb uphill, I caught sight of one of the things in Macau that hadn’t changed – the remnant church façade of St. Paul’s. Thanks to the church choir that was rehearsing in front of the façade for a performance later that evening, the place looked almost saintly despite the noisy crowds that gathered there for photo-taking.

We then proceeded to the Camoes Garden (白鴿巢花園), which was named after the Portuguese poet Luiz Vaz de Camoes, who was said to have lived in exile in the grotto at the foot of the hill. This was another landmark in Macau that had thankfully remained unchanged with its old shady trees, wooden benches and precious tranquility.

After searching laboriously for a decent and inexpensive local eatery for dinner, we were pleased to find a small Taiwanese-food joint on a main street downtown. To our pleasant surprise, the food was exquisite. Luckily we arrived there early and got a table without problem. By the time we left, customers had to wait in line for tables.

Our Sunday program kicked off with a dim sum lunch at the famous 丹桂軒 in the Star World Hotel & Casino. It was one of the best dim sum meals I had ever had. The restaurant was one of the few that served plain congee (白粥) and it did it superbly. The congee went particularly well with deep-fried dumplings, pan-fried rice rolls and pan-fried radish and taro cakes. We had our hearty fill before hitting the road. We went to the Ferry Terminal by hotel bus to catch the Venetian shuttle, which swept us across the bridge to Taipa.

My companion who had been to The Venetian before was my guide for the grand tour throughout the maze-like complex. The Italian-style palatial architecture was as impressive as the mega interior which was meticulously finished with superb taste. The delicate chandeliers and the four different pastel color backgrounds of the four main halls were especially to my liking. The internal and external grand canals complete with gondolas and handsome gondoliers were the highlights of the complex and were beautifully appointed.

The climax of the day was reached when we tried our luck at the gaming machines. After a few dozens of rounds, we found ourselves a few hundred dollars richer and decided it was time to leave for dinner. However, the anti-climax came when I visited one of the ladies’ washrooms. Some of the cubicle metal door handles had been ripped off; some toilets had been plugged up; in general the washrooms were not as sparkling clean as they should have been for a five-star resort. It is apparently not due to the hotel management’s fault that this happened. The problem lies with the clientele.

We left the place with the sad realization that Macau of the good old days is gone forever, of which I only have my piecemeal memory to cherish from now on.