Macau: City of Saints and Sinners

As you land in Macau, it feels as if the plane is going to touch down on water. The airport, like a lot of the newer developments on the tiny enclave is built on reclaimed land. The sight of hundreds of cranes topping buildings under construction suggest a booming economy, but may equally be a sign of a bubble about to pop once you get deeper into this city of contradictions.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn for the first two nights, perched a few streets away from the old city of Portuguese fame. The old city is a city of churches and seminaries: a city of saints. We walked through the historical district and visited churches constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Narrow lanes reminiscent of renaissance Europe led to holy sites with statues of the virgin Mary and catholic saints. The few worshipers sitting in quiet contemplation were outnumbered by tourists whose digital camera phones whirred and clicked in emulation of their analogue ancestors.

Tourists thronged through the bottleneck lanes between Lago de Senado (Senado Square) and the ruins of St Paul’s. The street was lined with hawkers each claiming to have the best, most original and authentic Portuguese egg tarts. Others sold treats of Chinese-Macanese origin like fishballs in curry sauce, and sticky sweet sheets of Chinese style cured pork. While visitors from mainland China provide the largest numbers of visitors to Macau, it was here I saw the most eclectic crowd drawn from all corners of the earth making a pilgrimage to the facade of a church that was destroyed by fire January 26 1835. Coincidentally, our visit was on January 26, 2016. The facade features a carving of the Blessed Virgin Mary stepping on the head of a seven-headed dragon with Chinese characters that read ‘Holy Mother tramples the heads of the dragon’. According to the historical record, the fire that destroyed the church occurred during a typhoon. A typhoon in January? I shivered in the drizzly winter rain.

The facade of St Paul's church in Macau photographed 26 January 2016
The Ruins of St Paul’s church in Macau. The church fathers included a message to the celestials “Holy Mother tramples on the head of dragons.”

Away from St Paul’s the old Macau is pleasantly quiet. Taking a rest in Lilau Square under ancient fig trees, a small group of nuns in traditional habits passed by from the direction of Our Lady of Penha, heading towards Igreja de Sao Laurenco. The streets are graced with Portuguese colonial style buildings on narrow, steeply undulating streets. There’s a tourist here and there taking pictures, but no crowds. A gaggle of hungry schoolgirls stop to buy snacks from a tiny bakery. An elderly lady drags her shopping cart up a steep alley. A mechanic wipes his hands outside his shop servicing Mercedes and BMW. The stores and restaurants here depend on locals for their business. The food is better, and half the price. This is where the best egg tarts are too.

Largo de Se Macau photographed 27 January 2016
Largo de Se, Macau. We found this special place quite by accident while looking for Rue de Formosa, thinking there’d be some good restaurants there, and there were.

Back at the hotel, we are in the city of sin. There’s a casino on the ground floor, and one on the third. One hotel, two casinos. The Grand Lisboa dominates the skyline like a Babylonian tower. Almost every store in the surrounding streets displays gold and silver watches, with every other store selling either gold jewelry, or designer clothes and accessories. Interspersed here and there is a pawn shop, and signs lure customers upstairs to saunas and spas most of which are thinly disguised brothels. Women stand on corners suggestively, and occasionally one aggressively approaches a man walking alone or two men walking together down the street. They are desperate for business. It’s like a ghost town: Many shops, few customers.

Between the hotel and St Paul’s we are looking for lunch. A restaurant on the 8th floor of a shopping mall beckons us and the food is good. It’s Chinese food like back home. Not chicken feet and gizzard soup, but sweet and sour pork without the bone and gristle. My daughter needs her nappy changed but alas, not only does the ladies bathroom lack a changing table, the toilet is full of shit and there is no running water. ‘Don’t worry’ says I, ‘there’s a Japanese-name shopping mall across the street;’ surely there must be a changing table there. But no: the information desk in B1 had been vacated, 9 out of ten stores closed down, and the toilets were locked. At the same time, construction cranes dominate the skyline in the distance on newly reclaimed land, and more shopping malls and casinos are being built.

A canon on Monte Fort with the Grand Lisboa in the background
An old Portuguese canon points towards the Grand Lisboa Hotel and Casino from Monte Fort, Macau, 2016

Macau’s gaming revenue has fallen 19 months in a row, with 4th quarter profits in 2015 reaching a 5-year low. Visitor numbers dropped 2.6% in 2015, yet new construction goes on at an unprecedented pace. It’s a place that sucks the money up.

Macau markets itself to mainland Chinese as a kind of quasi-European destination. It’s the Europe you can go to without going to Europe. For the Chinese, you can drive there, take a bus, or even walk across the border. Everything is built in some European style. On the third day of our stay we moved to the Casa Real Hotel. Closer to the Chinese border, it had a free shuttle bus to the border gate, and the line was always long. Like the Holiday Inn, it contained, and was surrounded by casinos, pawn shops, massage parlors, and shops selling gold watches, but the area was seedier, dirtier, and run-down in a way that belies it’s relatively recent development. The Hotel was impeccable, but the residential and commercial area between it and the ferry terminal and Fisherman’s Wharf was dirty and neglected. Dark, mostly empty shopping malls housed the occasional store selling odds and sods, a sex shop, a noodle ‘restaurant’ consisting of one table for customers, and one for the owner to perch his newspapers, snacks, tea-bottle, and plastic bags of knick-knacks and snacks on while he watches TV. It was Chinese more than European by far.

At Fisherman’s Wharf, a place described as a ‘Theme Park’ in tourist brochures, and featured as one of the top attractions in Macau, the visitor is greeted with a replica of the Roman Colosseum. Passing this one sees the ‘tastes of Taiwan’ pavilion before entering the faux European street where every building replicates some random period architectural style from Italian baroque to French Imperial. The buildings house stores selling the same designer brand products you see everywhere else in the new Macau. Gucci handbags, Vercace, Louis Vuitton, etc. Most of the stores were not open this Thursday afternoon, and those that were were advertising half-price and two-for-one specials. There were no buyers. The street was bereft of pedestrians. In a store selling ornate French Imperial clock replicas marketed as ‘antiques’, a shopkeeper dressed in a white fur coat sat gyrating and singing to herself with headphones on as I looked through the misty window.

At Fisherman’s Wharf, there was nothing to do. It’s not a theme park. There was no seafood to be had, nor other attractions one would normally find at a fisherman’s wharf. There was nothing to buy unless you want a new one-thousand-dollar-handbag. There were no snack vendors, buskers, or entertainment of any kind. There’s a casino called ‘Babylon’, to tempt bored visitors with nothing to do.

Overall, I found Macau to be an unfriendly place: a place that wants your money but doesn’t have much to offer in return. I quite liked the old quarter, but didn’t like the new.

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