macanese mystique.

As my plane descended into Macau, an island off the coast of China, a mere seven square miles and with a population of 500,000, I thought of conversations I’d recently had with a friend about TCKs – Third-Culture Kids, the term describing how children of one culture raised in another country form a third culture based on their unique upbringing. Having a general understanding of Macau’s history – how the Portuguese arrived in the 1550s and governed until 1999 when the island went the way of Hong Kong and became a part of China again – I imagine Macau has a TCK. Now termed Macau SAR, or Special Administrative Region, the city rules itself largely autonomous from China, apart from issues of defense and foreign affairs. I’d also read several travel articles on Macau, both official and not, writing that extolled the “fusion of East and West” to be found in the city. This idea of magical fusion was alluring to me and I couldn’t wait to spend two nights on the island.

The first sight to greet me upon landing, my face pressed against the window of the plane, was a bright red fire truck with “International Airport of Macau” written in Portuguese and Chinese on its side. Here was my first glimpse of the “fusion” and I began to think about what I’ve read and to formulate my own thoughts on this city.

In the passport control line, I look around and laugh to myself at how different I look, at how I must stand out, being the only white female in the terminal, heads above the other women, and blonde at that – and young, as the few other white men were old enough to be my father. But just then, a man walks up to me and says in a Portuguese accent, “Hello, miss, I’m with the police. May I see your passport?” As I eye him incredulously, he flashes a badge – what do I know? I instantly have visions of sitting in a sterile back room in the airport, still unsure of my infraction. The man stares at my passport after I hand it over, flipping through pages, studying each visa. “You here on holiday, miss?” He reaches the book’s end and returns to my visa for Egypt, looking at it even longer. Do I look like I’m linked to some Egyptian crime ring or terrorist cell? Is tall and blonde the new suspect description circulating through airport security across the world? “Thank you, miss. Welcome to Macau.” I watch him as he patrols the terminal. He stops no one else.

My passport stamped, I make my way to the airport’s bus stand. As I board a bus and ask the driver if he goes to the center of town, he throws his hands in the air. He turns around and motions to a young girl in a school uniform to help me. She knows English, I’m relieved to discover. She writes the name of my street in Chinese characters in my book. “Use this to help you,” she says. I switch buses at the Ferry Terminal, dead and determined to not use a taxi. After two weeks in Bangkok with people who knew the language, knew the city, had drivers or could drive themselves, I was ready to be an active traveler again, not just some passive guest – as grateful as I was for their help. I was ready, in fact, I needed to find my own way, I tell myself, keeping all my bags close to my feet like an overprotective mother. Furthermore, I want to be a graceful traveler, but already feel myself fumbling my way through this country. I know nothing, I know no one – this is culture shock if I’ve ever felt it.

By several strokes of luck – a sudden realization that the bus was barreling down the street I needed to stop on, a man on the streets able to read the characters my Chinese friend wrote and point me along – I stumble through the doorway of my hotel, the San Va Hospedaria, located on the Rua da Felicidade. Ironically, however, happiness was not my immediate emotion upon walking into my room. To put it crudely, the place is a dump, but it manages to cross the line from bad to comical. There are two glasses sitting upside down on a plate in my room, and when I go to fill them from the water cooler in the lobby, the grey-haired woman at reception points to the red switch and says, “Hot,” the first English she’s spoken. As if I need it, though, in the boiling, un-air-conditioned room. I then ask for a map, she points to the toilet. I ask again, and she points to a chart of English phrases and their Chinese translations kept under glass in the front counter. “Please speak slower,” her finger rests on. I find the map on my own, on a shelf near the water cooler.

Back in my room, water glasses full and already lukewarm, I collapse on the bed and attempt to collect myself. I finally venture outside again a little after four in the afternoon. I’m amazed at the humidity here, at how sticky the air is. After Thailand, land of eternal sweat, I was ready for a change, but it looks like I won’t have that until my return to New Zealand in three days. I start walking with no particular end in mind. Green signs point the way to the Ruins of St. Paul’s, a major landmark in Macau, and soon I find myself winding through Old Macau. The ruins appear and I see a visitors’ center to the side offering free guided tours until mid-November.

I walk into the center and enquire about the tour. “For how many?” a woman named Christina asks. “Just one,” I say and she hands me a tour sticker before leading me out the door. I’d been expecting some sort of a wait, either being told to come back tomorrow or at least in an hour, so the promptness catches me off guard. The tour consists mainly of a walk around the ruins, all that’s left of what was at the time the Church of Mater Dei and St. Paul’s College, the first Western-style university in the Far East. The wooden structure burned down three times, leaving only the stone façade behind. When fire struck for the last time in 1835, no one bothered rebuilding – it seemed they never got the picture and tried another building material.  Christina points out several features carved into the façade, comprising what’s referred to as a “sermon in stone:” four saints, the Virgin Mary, six angels, a dove, and even Chinese characters.

I thank Christina for my short tour and make my way to the Macau Museum, at the top of Fortress Hill. It begins with a long narrow room, one side devoted to early Chinese history, the other to Western, leading to the point of “convergence” when the Portuguese came to Macau. An overly friendly security guard on the second floor, a Philippine man named Mark, begins to ask me questions; where I’m from, how long I’m here, and so on. He tells me he came to Macau two years ago but doesn’t expect to be here forever. “I’m still waiting for what I’m meant to do.” It’s a familiar feeling, I assure him.

After struggling to decipher menus of Chinese characters and decidedly unappetizing photographs, I dine at McDonald’s for dinner, in desperate need of a dose of familiarity. But what does attract me to the place thus far are the streetscapes; the neon, the people, the pace, the red lanterns strung in rows everywhere. I arrive back in my room, though, wrestling with the idea of a Third-Culture City, much like the TCKs. Has a fusion, a so-called “convergence,” really taken place? Has there been an intersection or just a parallel existence? Macau is 97% Chinese, and Premier Taste in Queenstown, with all its Brazilians, certainly felt more Portuguese than this place appears to be. Any nod to Portugal – whether tourism brochures citing Portuguese as an official language or signs reading old Portuguese street names – seems more of a formality than an actual part of daily Macanese life.

I sit in bed the first night feeling unsettled and distinctly isolated. No TV, no internet, not even service for my mobile phone if I did feel like splurging on the international fees to text a friend back in New Zealand. It’s just me and a book tonight. A three-bladed fan spins furiously above me, causing a caustic fluorescent rod, suspended by two thin wires, to sway somewhat concerningly. The rooms are not completely contained. There is about a meter between the top of the walls and the ceiling, so voices carry. A man down the hall sings Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and I’m tempted to sing along. The parquet floor, two shades of wood paneling, has been laid unevenly, the walls are a chipped, peeling shade of kelly green, the double mattress is hard, the only towel they have to offer me is the size of a tea towel. That should make the morning’s shower interesting. But, I keep reminding myself, I am in China. This isn’t some major city’s Chinatown…this is the real thing and all these little nuances aren’t crazy, they’re character, right? The man in the room next to mine (I imagine him to be a man, that is) takes a sip of water. A gulp, rather, then two. He drops his cell phone and I hear the Nokia tone that plays when you turn on your phone. His light clicks off and I am alone.

I wake up the second morning after a fitful night’s sleep on a hard mattress. At least the sky is blue and the air cool. First stop is Lou Lim Leoc Garden, where I learn of the garden model of Soochow, the most well-known Chinese classical garden. As I follow the twisting paths, I note the distinct difference between this and the gardens I frequented in London – gone are the simple layouts, the elegant stretches of straight paths, the wide expanses of green lawn – and I stumble upon groups of rocks shaped into stairs, caves, and dramatic overhangs. Supposedly, a brochure reads, the garden is a miniature landscape and my new-found rocks are molded concrete “mountains.” I climb to the top of such a peak for a look at the gardens as a whole, at the classical pavilion overlooking the pond, at the bamboo groves, and the nine-turn bridges, moving in a zigzag to deter the straight-moving evil spirits.

Already I feel more at ease in this city. The tour I plan to do in the afternoon departs from the ferry terminal. I find a bus stop near the garden just as Bus No. 32 pulls up and opens its door. I glance at its schedule on the bus stand, at the top reads “Terminal” in Portuguese. I jump on just as it pulls away. Success. In one seemingly fluid motion, I am where I need to be, something I will no longer take for granted in a city.

At the terminal, I am told the English version of the tour will not be running that afternoon. Fantastic. Paying fifteen-odd dollars for a tour in Mandarin or Cantonese wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I found myself left with little choice. When I find the meeting point for the tour’s departure, there is the expected crowd of Asian faces, but among them was a guy who looked Indian but was dressed suspiciously American in an orange North Face polar fleece, jeans, and trainers. Sure enough, as we walked towards the bus, he introduced himself as Alak, a native New Yorker, graduate of Rutgers University, and derivatives trader for an investment bank – whatever that was supposed to mean. He had come over for the day on a ferry from Hong Kong, where he was visiting his sister and niece. So I wouldn’t be alone in my English-ness after all.

Indeed, I’d expected to learn far less on the top, going along mainly for the ride and easy transport around the city’s major landmarks. Soon after I meet Alak, another couple introduce themselves to me. Chang and Ah, originally from Malaysia, have been living in Melbourne, Australia, for the last twenty-five years and were blessedly proficient in English- as well as Malay, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Hellllo, translators! We quickly agreed they would let me know if anything truly important or noteworthy was said. And then there was the middle-aged Asian woman from Boston, who had coordinated a trip for her six siblings and their mother, originally from Hong Kong. “We speak another dialect of Cantonese,” she tells me, “So we catch maybe one out of ten sentences.” And then, of course, the family of five chattering away to each other in a tongue not distinguishable to my ears.

Our tour guide, Kate, dressed in a simple navy blue cardigan set and khaki pants, takes a microphone and begins the tour as we leave the ferry terminal. She goes on for a while in what I assume to be Cantonese, before a quick “Good afternoon” and nod in the direction of myself and Alak, seated behind me. I had a feeling we got an abbreviated introduction. I turned around and smiled at my American compatriot, “This is hilarious.” It proved to be a pattern on Kate’s part – extended Chinese dialogue followed by one or two words of English. “Here A-Ma Temple,” she might say, or “Have forty minutes.” Here, the most basic of vocabularies and sentences gave way to mere fragments of key nouns – a verb thrown in if we were lucky. But half the time on this kind of thing, you tune the tour guide out anyways. It was nice not to feel bad for it for once. So I turned to my Malaysian-turned-Aussie friends for a few more details. As we crammed the entire group into an elevator in the Macau Tower, Ah tells me we’re going to the observation deck on the 61st floor for ten minutes before going to another deck on the 58th. He’s not sure why there are two separate viewing areas, but Chang cuts in, “There’s glass floor on the 58th!”

So far in my stay in Macau, I’d seen a few remnants of the Western world I felt so far removed from – McDonald’s, Starbucks, Haagen-Daaz kiosks, and even pairs of clean-cut Mormon missionaries roaming the streets – they weren’t difficult to spot, as you can imagine. But at the top of the 338-meter tower, I came across something else – the world’s tallest commercial bungy jump of 233 meters, run by none other than my friends at the A.J. Hackett company – the same company I’d bungeed with in Queenstown. As if a Kiwi myself, I swelled with pride and told Alak about the company’s history and my own bungy experience.

But while having another American around was fine at first, being able to speak English as fast as I wanted and share a laugh over our beloved tour guide, it soon became more like being on a bad first date once you’ve reached the point of having nothing else to say to each other yet still obligated to be together. When told the tour wouldn’t be in English – after my initial moment of “What-do-I-do-now?” panic – I actually began to look forward to the afternoon and the chance to be free to wander around sites on my own, taking pictures as I liked. Instead, just as I’d move to another corner of a temple, I could see the orange of Alak’s fleece in my periphery, moving in my direction. There were definitely interesting aspects of our conversations, especially learning about his family’s history in Kashmir, an area caught in a dangerous tug-of-war between India and Pakistan. Sometimes, though, a girl just wants to be alone – a fact Alak unfortunately didn’t pick up on.

As the tour drew to a close and the bus made its way back to the terminal, Kate asked (or so Chang and Ah relayed) if anyone would like to be dropped off at the Macau Fishmerman’s Wharf instead. It was an area I’d yet to explore, so I let them know. As I gathered my things and shook hands with Kate, Chang, and Ah, exchanging well-wishes, I turned around to say goodbye to Alak, only to see him standing up to follow me off the bus. Oh, boy, was all I thought. We ambled through the wharf and all its many faces. This was no typical pier, teeming with ships and the fishy smell of the ocean. There was neither a single boat docked for the night – “You’d think they put at least one out for show,” Alak mused – nor a lone fisherman hauling in the day’s catch. Instead, this stretch of waterfront property seemed more to me like the abandoned back lot of a Hollywood film company, with the range of movie sets including a row of Victorian brownstones, Shakespearean-style English flats, Italian villas, a Roman amphitheater, a large Babylonian-looking palace that housed a war game arena, and – last but not least – a volcano. They all seemed perfectly authentic and perfectly built to specification and size – except for maybe the volcano – yet all perfectly empty. Despite the restaurants and shops housed in the first floor of each, I felt like I was walking through the shell of a town; that if too strong a breeze blew, the whole thing might topple over. It seemed wrong and out of place, especially as it sat in the shadow of a mammoth Sands casino.

Once back in the terminal, it was time to leave Alak to catch his return ferry to Hong Kong and carry on with the evening. I’d seen the Portuguese aspects of the city, I’d seen the Chinese, now it was time to discover MacVegas, or as Macau is also known, the “Monte Carlo of the Orient.” Gambling had been around for centuries on the island, with Chinese fantan houses opening after the legalization of gambling in 1847, but it wasn’t until the Portuguese handover of Macau back to China in 1999 that Western-style casinos sprung up all over the island – MGM Grand, Hotel Lisboa, Wynn Macau, Galaxy, the works. So much so, in fact, that in 2006, gambling revenues from Macau’s casinos actually exceeded those of Las Vegas, making Macau the highest-volume gambling center in the world.

On the ground floor of the ferry terminal, a three-sided counter houses representatives from casinos all over the city, all offering hotel packages and free shuttle rides from the city. Curious to have a look for myself, I approached, reputedly, the grandest of them all – the Venetian. After a fifteen-minute ride, I enter the lobby of the hotel, not awestruck like I thought I might be – no oversized chandelier hanging precariously above, no sweeping marble staircase. But I suppose that’s only a stereotype, eh? Much like the image I had kept in my mind about casinos, my imagination fed from movies like 21 and Casino Royale, I thought I’d be underdressed in my summer dress, leggings, and flip-flops, surrounded by flash and glamour enhanced by low lightning, servers swinging around trays of expensive, brightly colored cocktails. What I found was that I fit right in. Middle-aged men in blue jeans and tan wind breaker jackets sat at five, ten, and twenty cent machines, pressing buttons a little too mechanically for my liking. Ordinary-looking waiters carried trays holding ordinary glasses of water and soda. Macau was shattering every romantic illusion I’d ever held…about everything.

I decided to try my luck, for the pure heck of it, of course. Discovering the machinery only took paper money, not coins, I joined the queue at the cashier’s counter. The woman in front of me hands over two simple black chips. The cashier flashes a fraud-detecting black-light wand over them and whips out a thick wad of bills. One, two, three, twenty $1000 bills. I glanced down at the paltry $50 bill I clutched close, my intention to break it into $10 Hong Kong notes and gamble with just one suddenly seeming incredibly ridiculous.

As I walked up row after row of computer games – a total of 2,130 of these machines in the Venetian alone – with names like “King of the Wild” and “Diamonds in the Rough,” I slowly realized gone were the days of slot machines and a lucky line of three cherries in a row. Gone were the days of pulling one lever and watching as a cascade of quarters spilled out into your open hands. This was the 21st century, people, and even if a machine had a lever to pull, it also came with an entire panel of different-colored buttons to push as your fate spun in front of you. I finally settle on a game called “Easy Money” – it’s what we all hope for, isn’t it? – and fed in my ten-dollar note – equivalent to about US$1.25. I pulled the lever a few times, quickly using 4 of my 10 credits already, before experimenting with the buttons. They had something to do with placing bets on certain images that would appear, although I ever got the hang of it. I was clearly out of my league.

Even if I had struck it rich, no shower of coins would have greeted me in this coinless casino. Rather, a simple white ticket with a barcode would have printed out for me to take to the money counter and cash in. Talk about anticlimactic. After a quick look at the high-limits area, which – with its 620 tables games – at least looked a little more familiar with its roulette and craps tables, I set off to explore the shoppes of the Grand Canal – this was Venice, after all.

A tall-ceilinged lobby area, complete with dome and Italian murals, soon led to the food hall. Here, the ceiling was painted like a bright blue sky, cumulus clouds and all. And for a split-second, I forgot it was well past sunset and I’d stumbled upon an outdoor eating area. Each food vendor was housed in a different Italian villa, making up this pseud0-Venetian scene. The rest of the hotel was built in this manner – all the ceilings looking like the sky, all the shops in their own house, and where the walkway of a regular mall would have normally been there were canals, stone bridges, street lamps, and even gondolas moored in water so clear and shallow you could see the coins people had thrown in shimmering at the bottom. It was at once magnificent – impressive in its design – and underwhelming – it felt as empty as Fisherman’s Wharf. What was the point of a place like this in a place like Macau? What was the point of a casino like this at all, if only to be some sort of alternate universe where fortunes are won and lost, where stores like Tiffany and Co., Swarovski, Lacoste, and Mont Blanc are yet another black hole for money. This was as close to Vegas as I ever hope to be.

I had one thing left on my agenda for the day when I got off the bus at Senado Square: souvenirs. In addition to the usual tacky magnet for my grandmother’s fridge and a postcard to send home, whenever I visit a new country I always keep a lookout for something small for myself. This kind of accumulation isn’t always practical as a backpacker with a  budget, and I fully expect to be the crazy old lady next door with a bunch of junky knick-knacks gathering dust on her bookshelves, but for right now, I still like to have something tangible to remember the place by, something with which to mark my journey.

From Estonia, it was a set of Russian nesting dolls; from Amsterdam, a tiny pair of wooden yellow clogs; from Egypt, a small limestone carving of Nefertiti. I didn’t know what I’d find in Macau – I had even Googled quintessential Macanese souvenirs before my arrival. But as I saw more of the place for myself and felt more Chinese influence than any real kind of fusion, I began to wonder what little object would capture Macau in such a way as to make me want to take it home. In a souvenir shop that night, I settled on a Chinese drama character, a doll about four inches high and wearing a festive red costume. “What the heck,” I thought, it was getting late and I needed to get some sleep. It wasn’t until I started to walk out of the store, though, feeling just a little unsatisfied with my purchase, not believing that I had truly found what I was looking for, that I spotted a lucky Portuguese rooster, about the same size of my Chinese figure, with “Portugal” written on the side, standing in a far corner of a display shelf. For sixty more Macanese dollars, the lucky rooster joined its new Chinese friend in my bag.

A souvenir from China and a souvenir from Portugal – maybe no great Macanese fusion of an object even exists. When I finally set them on my desk in Wellington, side-by-side, the rooster turned so as to hide the “Portugal” label, I’ll always think of this strange city, where signs painted with Chinese characters hang from buildings with Portuguese façades, remnants of its days as a European colony. I’ll think of the colors, the vibrant red of the Chinese lanterns, the yellow of the incense spirals slowly burning in Buddhist temples, and the lighthearted mint green of the houses where Portuguese officials used to reside. I’ll think of the dichotomy of this place that’s not just “one country, two systems,” as the Chinese government proclaims, but even one city, two worlds – two worlds perhaps not as fused as many seem to believe, yet offering an air of mystique that keeps you coming back for more.


1 Comment

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One response to “macanese mystique.

  1. Anonymous

    Out of curiosity, why would you assume a bus driver in Macau would be able to speak English with you?

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