The casinos come calling and the mega-resorts put on a glittering show but Sarah Maguire discovers the historic side of this maritime city is the biggest winner.
IT'S a hot, steamy day in Macau and, during a walk along the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Taipa, past colonial-era buildings in pretty pastel hues, we've stopped under a pavilion in a village square. Preoccupied by sucking back water and the relief of being in the shade, it's just as well there is a guide to point out the pavilion's notable features; it has neoclassical columns and a Chinese-style terracotta-tiled roof. A stunningly unique piece of East-meets-West architecture, the guide says, rediscovered and restored just six years ago after languishing for decades as a municipal warehouse.
Earlier, we stood outside the Taipa Houses Museum, a row of mint-green mansions built early last century to house colonial administrators and their families. The wetland they overlook was Macau's first international airport, when Pan Am shuttled gold and passengers between Hong Kong and Macau for four years until 1941. And across the wetland, impossible to miss, the four gleaming towers of City of Dreams, James Packer's two-year-old, joint-venture gambling resort.
Old meets new, East meets West: wherever you look, it is the story of Macau. It is not an unusual tale. From Vietnam to Malaysia, India to Colombia, colonial heritage endures as countries move on. Where Macau stands alone is in the multibillion-dollar juggernaut that threatens to eclipse the whole damned lot. Until you visit Macau – walk the streets of the World Heritage-listed historic centre, climb the four levels of the ancient A-Ma Temple, eat warm, creamy egg tarts in the former pirate's lair of Coloane, peek inside Catholic churches that are full again because of the large Filipino workforce in town to build casinos – you might think there was nothing to it but gambling.
Since 2002, when the deregulation of Macau's 150-year-old legal gaming industry brought international operators and their steroidal developments to town, it's just about the only terms in which the former Portuguese colony has been mentioned.
Half an hour out of Hong Kong, on an evening fast ferry service to Macau 64 kilometres away, the first text message lands from casinos that have had wind of our arrival: "Hop on City of Dreams Lucky Express . . . for $HK8 million [$962,000] worth of prizes!" Ten minutes later, the Grand Lisboa is in touch: "Join Fortune Spin for a chance to win attractive prices . . . over $HK4,000,000!" Another bleep: this time, the Sands offers prizes of more than $HK1,000,000! to celebrate its seventh anniversary.
As a non-gambler, I'm unmoved, and far more interested in what comes next. Off the ferry, we head to a traditional Portuguese restaurant in the old village of Taipa, one of two outlying islands connected to the Macau Peninsula by three bridges. Codfish cakes, salty pork spare ribs, clams in white wine and grilled sea bass are served in rapid succession, with the conversation veering to local World War II folklore involving spies and Japanese soldiers on R&R.
There are pictures of Portuguese football teams and displays of wine bottles from the mother country on the white stucco walls and, somehow, we discover a racing celebrity – the Australian Macau-based champion jockey and now trainer, Gary Moore – is dining at the neighbouring table.
He comes over to chat and, as he leaves, Moore congratulates Manuel, the restaurateur, for holding his own in the face of so much new competition. He means the casinos, and we are headed into that heartland right now, to check into the Grand Hyatt Macau.
It ain't 1999 any more, the year the Portuguese handed Macau back to China. From the cubby hole of a restaurant we have just left, we walk into a vast lobby of travertine and marble, with soaring 22-metre-high ceilings and fragrant flower arrangements stretching into the distance. The Grand Hyatt is one of three hotels at the $US2.4 billion City of Dreams, a so-called "integrated urban entertainment resort" – that is, a casino with accoutrements: restaurants, hotels, pools, shops, spas and shows of a gargantuan scale.
It is on the Cotai Strip, a reclaimed isthmus taking its name from the islands of Coloane and Taipa, which it now connects, a glittering showoff between two reminders of an older, more gracious Macau.
The window of my 15th-floor suite looks across the Pearl River to the modern international airport. From the other side of the building, the view is of the 3000-suite Venetian, the world's largest casino. It sprawls so comprehensively that the bus ride to get there takes more than five minutes, despite it being just across the road.
The City of Dreams shuttle pulls up amid a sea of buses. They have come from the border with mainland China, from the ferry pier, from other casinos. Inside the Venetian, tour guides with flags and microphones lead Chinese groups dressed in T-shirts and slacks, tracksuits and bomber jackets. A gondolier serenades his passengers as they glide along the grand canal; the sky is permanently blue; St Mark's Square comes without the threat of a pigeon pooing on your head.
Our government tourist office guide, Joao, tells us the majority of Macau's 550,000 population is not allowed to gamble in the casinos, except on Chinese New Year, when a win on the gaming floor will ensure a lucky year. Which raises the question about the prospects of the poor buggers who lose. There's clearly a lot of them. Last year, gaming revenue increased nearly 60 per cent to $US23.5 billion, about four times that of the Las Vegas Strip.
"I think everyone can win in Macau easily," Joao says. "But are you happy with $HK100? Can you battle yourself to stop? Walk away? Gaming is very much against yourself."
Spin aside, Macau has so much to offer beyond its 33 casinos that the tourism office can put out a 150-page guide with scant reference to gaming (the locals call slot machines "hungry tigers", it informs).
In the historical centre alone, on the Macau Peninsula, there are more than 20 monuments. Wander the cobblestone streets and piazzas and you'll find temples, cathedrals, gardens, fortresses and cemeteries. The most famous is the Ruins of St Paul's, the stone facade of a 17th-century cathedral that looks as though, with some serious grunt, you could push it over. The neighbouring Mount Fortress has panoramic views of the world's most densely populated city. Both were built by Jesuit priests who made an excellent fist of defending Macau from the Dutch as well as spreading the word.
From the ruins we walk past shops in which Portuguese tarts press against glass cabinets and sheets of beef and pork jerky, hot and spicy or roasted with honey, are stacked in the open air. There are antique shops, boutiques and street stalls, tea houses and cafes and a multinational collection of restaurants offering cut-price lunch menus. There is no pestering from hawkers and no fakes, Joao says. The Louis Vuitton handbags in the one shop I visit are real.
At the historical centre's southern limit is the A-Ma Temple, on the peninsula's inner harbour. The first of its pavilions and halls was built by fishermen 800 years ago in dedication to the Taoist goddess of seafarers.
Portuguese traders saw the temple halfway up the slope of a hill as they made landfall in this spot 450 years ago, when Macau was a fishing port with a population in the hundreds. The Maritime Museum on the same square as the temple tells the story of Macau's relationship to the sea, of the traditions of its fishermen – until the 1980s, entire families lived and worked on boats – and of its critical place in the 17th-century trade of Chinese silk and Japanese silver.
Lunch is at the nearby A Lorcha restaurant, where the Macanese cuisine reflects the peninsula's crossroads heritage, merging styles and flavours from Europe, Africa, India, China and Latin America. The beef samosas and African chicken, for instance, are legacies of Goa and Mozambique respectively, other Portuguese colonies that sent manpower to Macau for police and military postings.
Returning to City of Dreams, where we have tickets to the casino's centrepiece show, The House of Dancing Water, we are thrust back with a bang into the other, brasher Macau. Created and directed by Franco Dragone of Cirque du Soleil fame, the show is as much an engineering spectacular as it is gobsmacking circus entertainment. The stage of the purpose-built theatre is sometimes solid and sometimes water so deep that a tall ship emerges and acrobats launch themselves from high in its masts.
The cast of acrobats, contortionists, motorcycle stuntmen, dancers and makers of human pyramids perform amid a riot of gushing water and special effects. Story-wise I don't have a clue what's going, but it doesn't matter. City of Dreams wanted to stage the most extravagant live show ever seen in Asia. They might have done it.
It seems churlish to leave City of Dreams without having a flutter at one of its 400 tables and 1300 machines.
With high-end shops spilling right onto the gaming floor, the casually dressed gamblers need not look far to see the Gucci handbags and Omega watches on which they might spend their winnings.
I put $HK100 worth of chips on a roulette wheel. In four spins I've lost it all. The croupier, Alen, acknowledges my departure with a slight but friendly smile. The other two women at the table, more glamorous than most in their sparkly earrings and ostentatiously dyed hair, are having more luck than me.
Down the road, on the Cotai Strip, as we drive to the ferry terminal for our return to Hong Kong, workers are buzzing about the Galaxy Macau, putting finishing touches on the $HK14.9 billion gambling resort. It has 2200 rooms across three hotels and on its rooftop is a white-sand beach and a 4000-square-metre sky wave pool. It will open two days after we leave and welcome more than 20,000 guests in its first 90 minutes.
Later this year, after major setbacks, Sands China is due to open the first phase of another massive, $US4.2 billion casino and resort. After stumbling through the global financial crisis, Macau's casino-driven growth is apparently back on track.
For my money, though, the No. 1 draw of Macau lies in its heritage. What the Cotai Strip brings is the opportunity to mix up the history and culture with five-star opulence: swish rooms, fancy restaurants and lovely massages in decadent spas. And if you can't bear the thought of all that gambling going on, lie back, shut your eyes and think of Portugal.
Cathay Pacific flies four times a day from Sydney to Hong Kong. 131 747, cathaypacific.com.au. Most flights connect to the Turbo Jetfoil service to Macau at Hong Kong Airport's Sky Pier, with through-check baggage service in each direction, +852 2859 3333, turbojet.com.hk.
Grand Hyatt Macau, City of Dreams, has 791 guest rooms, priced from $HK1190 ($142) on weeknights, more on weekends. It has an outdoor pool, a gym and the Isala Spa. Beijing Kitchen serves Chinese cuisine. Mezza9 serves Western and Asian cuisine. macau.grand.hyatt.com.
A Lorcha, 289 Rua do Almirante Sergio, Macau Peninsula. +853 2831 3195.
O-Manel, 90 Rua de Fernao Mendes Pinto, Taipa Island. +853 2882 7571.
See + do
Maritime Museum, 1 Largo do Pagode da Barra, Macau Peninsula. +853 2859 5481, museumaritimo.gov.mo.
Tickets for The House of Dancing Water start at $HK380. thehouseofdancingwater.com/en.
The writer was a guest of the Macau Government Tourist Office.