An expanding tourism powerhouse opens a new window to China, writes Paul Sheehan.
The Pearl River Delta is home to an emerging megalopolis of 55 million people, soon to be 60 million. It may surprise but this powerhouse is linked to Australia by more than 120 flights a week. An arc of eight big cities stretches around the delta, from Hong Kong to Macau. In the middle is Guangzhou, population 13 million, which China is about to open to visa-free travel by Australians making a stopover of 72 hours or less. It is the new window to China.
Of the eight cities in this arc, Hong Kong is the most beautiful and familiar. Macau is the most hallucinatory; it is a city-state where China has channelled the gambling gene in the Chinese psyche. So strong is that urge among so many Chinese, and so great the scale of gambling, that the revenue turned over annually by Macau's 33 casinos is five times greater than the gambling turnover in Las Vegas. This torrent of cash is funnelled into an enclave with its own border security, customs and legal system, with borders marked by barbed wire and watch posts.
By channelling China's gambling urge into Macau, Beijing contains the vice that attaches itself to gambling. There is vice, but it is controlled and mostly invisible. I did not see a single police car on patrol while in Macau, nor a single violent incident. The government rakes 42 per cent of the casinos' take. Even the prostitutes operate within conventions. At the Casino Lisboa, the seed sown 50 years ago that has spawned 32 other casinos, there is a tradition that the police will generally allow prostitutes to ply their trade, providing they do not stand still.
The result is a bizarre ritual: young women in micro-skirts walk around and around the indoor coffee shop by night. They don't stop because if they do they could be arrested for consorting. If they keep moving, they are merely promenading. My travel group was taken to see this ritual within hours of arriving, and, sure enough, there was a line of about 20 young women teetering around on high heels. They seemed almost identical in height, age and shape.
We went back the second night to get this on camera and video - better than any floor show - but arrived in time only to see a young woman being escorted away by plain-clothes police. There were no promenading girls that night. It did not mean the Casino Lisboa was bereft of this kind of vice. We watched the floor show in the main gambling room - four tall, blonde, sinewy women contorting themselves on ropes. The women looked blankly into the cavernous room, where the Chinese gambled away. When the show ended, there was no applause.
At this point, I noticed the seat beside me had become occupied by a good-looking but scary-looking woman. She gave me the slightest wink. "Are these girls Russian?" I asked, referring to the dangling blondes.
"No, English," she replied.
"How long do they keep doing this?"
"Where are you from?"
"You're a brave woman a long way from home."
"Where are you staying?" she asked.
"I can't remember."
This was an evasion but it was also true. She handed me her card. It said simply, Bella, with a phone number.
"I will give you an amazing time," she said.
I thanked her and departed, minus Bella. It was raining. And I could not remember the name of my hotel. Fortunately, it was written on my room key. The Grand Emperor Hotel. This hotel has 88 one-kilogram gold bars embedded in the lobby floor, visible under glass. About $44,000 a kilogram, that's $3.87 million worth of bullion in the floor.
The lobby is guarded by men in facsimile uniforms of the British Guards, complete with fake bearskin hats, standing rigid at the front entrance. A changing of the guard ceremony takes place every 30 minutes. (The guards are from Romania.) Nobody has ever accused the new Macau of subtlety.
The hotel is close to the old city, which meant I was able to avail myself of the sort of tarts I do like - warm, fresh, sweet and classic. These Portuguese tarts are available from several traditional bakeries on the lovely, traffic-free cobblestone passage between the ruins of St Paul's and Senado Square. It is a beautiful homage to Lisbon in the old Macau centre.
A grander, more garish, ultra-modern homage to Europe can be found in the new Macau across the bridge, in Cotai, where James Packer has his three properties next to the area's most spectacular casino, and perhaps the world, the Venetian. I don't gamble but I was mesmerised by this place.
The Venetian complex is vast, packed, seething with energy, and this was in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Afternoons are known as "ladies' time". In the fake canal going through the fake palaces, fake gondoliers steer fake gondolas (with a hidden propeller) while singing Italian classics. Again, a hallucinatory experience.
My group travelled to Macau from Hong Kong by ferry, then to Guangzhou by coach. The line at customs to get from Macau back into China was long.
Also tedious is the process of acquiring a visa at Chinese consulates in Australia. Australians do not need visas to travel to Hong Kong or Macau, but anyone wanting to travel to Hong Kong and/or Macau via Guangzhou must apply for a two-entry visa, which costs $90. A single-entry visa cost $60. Visas take about a week.
Australians travelling to Beijing and Shanghai, and stopping over for 72 hours or less, do not need a visa. From this week, this convenience has been extended to Guangzhou - a handy development as the old city of Canton is a great window into China. It is also home to the biggest airline in China and third-biggest in the world, China Southern Airlines, which flies the Canton route between Australia and China, via Guangzhou, offering very competitive fares.
Guangzhou is a bargain destination. Taxis are cheap but make sure the meter is running. I'll be stopping over again to enjoy five-star luxury at a three-star price at the Mandarin Oriental and Jianguo Hotel.
I generally avoid dining at my hotel, apart from breakfast, but I breached this guideline at the Jianguo when I heard its dim-sum lunch banquet was superb. It was. It's the best I have ever had. Perhaps not surprising as dim sum was invented in Canton.
One final word about the enormous energy of this region, the emerging mega-city. The ring of cities around the delta, from east to west, is Hong Kong (7 million people), Shenzhen (11 million), Dongguan (8 million), Guangzhou (13 million), Foshan (7 million), Jiangmen (4.5 million), Zhongshan (3 million), Zhuhai (2 million) and Macau (550,000). These cities are linking up, eating the farmland between them. The bridge being built to link Macau and Zhuhai will be the longest in the world. Of course.
The writer travelled to the Pearl River Delta as a guest of China Southern Airways, Randall Marketing and PC Tours & Travel.
FIVE BARGAINS IN THE DELTA
The Pearl River Delta region has some of the cheapest travel spectaculars in the world for a pittance, not much or free.
HONG KONG, No.11 BUS
A double-decker travels between the Central Ferry Piers and the lookout at the Peak. Sit on the upper deck and watch yawning views. Cost $HK6 (83¢). Use the Octopus card.
HONG KONG, THE STAR FERRY
Travels between the Star Ferry Piers on Victoria Island and Kowloon, departing every seven or eight minutes. It plies the magnificent Hong Kong Harbour between 6.30am and 11.30pm. Cost $HK2.50 (35¢).
GUANGZHOU, CANTON TOWER
The quickest way to understand Guangzhou. It's the tallest structure in China, the fourth-highest in the world, and glows at night. Cost 150 yuan ($26).
MACAU, THE VENETIAN
Promenade through the vast replica of Venice. No need to bet. Free.
MACAU, SENADO SQUARE
Save the cost of a trip to Portugal via this faithful homage to Lisbon in the old city. Free.
China Southern flies non-stop to Guangzhou from $1030 economy and $3870 business class (low-season fares until October 26), from Sydney (twice daily), Melbourne (daily), Brisbane and Perth. Phone 1300 889 628 during business hours.)
Guangzhou: Jianguo Hotel, four stars, great value, central location. The first-floor restaurant offers an exceptional dim-sum luncheon. See jianguohotelgz.com/en-us/index.html.
Macau: Grand Emperor Hotel, four stars, high value, good food, friendly service, near the historic Portuguese quarter. grandemperor.com/en/home/index.php.
Hong Kong: Harbour Plaza Metropolis Hotel, four stars, high value, walking distance from trains to Guangzhou. Excellent breakfast buffet. harbour-plaza.com/metropolis/index-en.htm.
Randall Marketing offers eight-day tours exploring the Pearl River Delta including Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau, for $1300 a person, twin share, low season. Cost includes accommodation, transport, guided tours and some meals. randallmarketing.com.au.