Born of a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother (or the other way around depending on what gender Portugal and China are…), Macau is a place I once only knew as the home of sweatshops—not exactly the most desirable of professions. Admittedly, I had heard of Macau, but had no idea where it was. If you’re in the same boat, it’s an island located off the southern coast of China, about 45 minutes by ferry from Hong Kong. Macau, like Hong Kong, is part of China under a “one country, two systems” setup designed by the Beijing Government (meaning: though part of China, they are essentially different countries, really only sharing a military). Like Hong Kong, Macau was once colonized by foreign powers, most notably Portugal. Macau remained under Portuguese rule until it was returned to China in 1999 (Hong Kong rejoined China in 1997).
If you didn’t know about the sweatshops, you’ve probably, by now, heard of the casinos. After cleaning up the sweatshops (as far as I know) Macau’s government has set its sights on becoming Las Vegas East, and it’s succeeding quite well it seems. (Macau is the only place where its legal to gamble in China….a culture obsessed with luck…and gambling for that matter.). In August, The Venetian Macau opened as the largest casino resort in the world (and the world’s largest building by floorspace at 10.5 million sq ft) and the other ten or so casinos already in operation in Macau make the island’s gambling revenue now greater than The Las Vegas Strip (about 7 billion USD passes through Macau last year, 6 billion and change on The Strip). Macau is set to surpass up the State of Nevada (10.66 billion annual revenue) by early next year to become the largest gambling center in the world. (Nine more casinos are slated to open by 2009in Macau.) Across the island from the now gleaming strip of casinos and construction dust, sits the more Portuguese side of the island, left from days gone by of Portuguese colonization and Catholic missionaries, who once arrived here by the boat loads, hoping to cement Portugal’s strategic port in the Far East.
What the Portuguese colonizers and missionaries created is a fabulously interesting little city-state on an island of narrow streets, small cafés, and a few sandy beaches. Today, the ethnic Portuguese population is small, only a few thousand out of the 500,000 on the island, I’m told, but what still remains in many areas is a extremely interesting cross-bred culture of Mediterranean-infused architecture and Catholic churches between Buddhist Temples and Chinese high-rises, bi-lingual street signs (in Portuguese and Chinese) and restaurant serving paella (a Spanish rice dish) next to Chinese dumplings. (In one of the old Catholic church’s there’s century old murals depicting biblical scenes with what appear to be Jesus’ Chinese-faced disciples.) And, if you’re lucky enough, as I was, you may even meet some of the island’s half-Chinese, half-Portuguese, Cantonese and Portuguese speaking residents. (Thanks for the fun Andy, Guiomar, and Sonia O…and Sonia W, thanks for introducing me to your friends and stealing my cow.) On one end of the island, an old Portuguese Fort sits idle, high atop a hill over-looking the city. It once defended Macau from attacks originating on foreign shores, but today, the outdated cannons seem positioned, yet outgunned, to defend themselves against a more sophisticated attack that rises from Macau’s own shores. As planned, the Macau is rolling in huge piles of gold casino coins, and, for now, the island is still one of the most interesting bi-cultural places I’ve visited.
Now that the Portuguese merchant ships are long gone and the Catholic missionaries are proselytizing elsewhere, the island’s residents have developed a love-hate relationship with the growing gaming (and convention) industry. Presently, on one hand, high school graduates in Macau can make more as card dealers at the casinos than they would earn if they spent four years at one of the island’s six or so universities—which is causing a serious problem with maintaining an educated work force. Yet on the other hand, I’m told, Macau’s government generates 105% of its tax revenue solely from the casinos—-meaning, more than they need to run the place. The economics of it, to me, seem to indicate that they will continue to build casinos, which may somewhat ironically force the quaint, classic, and interesting Portuguese (and mixed Portuguese-Chinese) culture, that makes Macau unique, to jump on a ship and sail back to Portugal.)
Now, I wonder, who is colonizing who?
The Venetian Macau’s grand opening in August stressed that YOU should visit Macau, and I’d suggest you do visit before all the ships have left.
Click the photo below (or here) to see some of my photos from Macau.