Macau: A Tale of Two Cities

The Venetian Casino at Night

I spent an absorbing 5 days in Macau over the holiday, not only because of the International Baccalaureate education conference I attended, but also because of the city-state itself.

Let me explain the title of the blog post. The main part of Macau is a peninsula jutting out into the South China Sea. It is separated from mainland China by a river. I stayed on a hill that was a park amidst a sea of apartment buildings and traffic.I think the hotel was a former convent because its name, Posado de las Monjas (Lodging of the Nuns), which is today a hospitality and tourism university. The university runs a small hotel and nice restaurant, and I highly recommend both. I thought it funny that the Chinese taxi drivers only recognized it as Mung-ho and not the original Portuguese of monjas. Macau is the most densely populated country in the world and I really felt it, despite being in the middle of a park. As you can see from the view from the top of the hill, there is a lot of humanity packed into a small space. The peninsula is where most citizens live and it was generally run down, chaotic but people were friendly and no one bothered me. The historic center is quite nice, with typical Iberian main plaza, a cobblestone shopping street and beautiful facade of an old cathedral. The rest of the peninsula was old dingy apartment buildings and colonial buildings that have seen better days.

Macau also has two islands, now one island because of land reclamation. This is the casino tourism part of the city-state and totally different from the old city in the peninsula. I have not been to Las Vegas in 20 years but the size of the casinos and connected shopping malls, restaurants and night clubs reminded me of my time there. The size of the casinos are immense and it is hard to capture the scale. The conference was held at the Sheraton, the world’s biggest, and walking between the meeting and exhibition rooms took a long time. I went for a walk across the street via covered walkway and went into the Venetian casino’s shopping mall, which was a replica of Italy, with canals, gondolas and even St. Mark’s Square. There was also an events arena attached to the mall.

Tourists take a ride in the gondola in the mall

I sensed that the Chinese with their new found wealth really wanted to spend it. This part of Macau was a capitalism/consumerism amusement park. It had all of the brand name stores, Dolce & Gabbana, Rolex, etc. I didn’t see much of the reported slowdown of tourists, in fact, there were 4 massive construction projects. Thousands of workers and tens of huge cranes could be seen as I walked around the island between meetings. I don’t see the appeal of a casino vacation, and the idea of a family resort destination had not reached Macau yet. The vibe of the place is captured in this David Beckham ad for the Venetian casino. He does an incredible acting performance by the way!

This is one place I could never live. The opportunity for outdoor pursuits, like biking or jogging were extremely limited. There were some pathways along the water front and in the parks, but only short distances. I also was intrigued by the pollution. Although my app said the air quality of the city was fine, I never did see the sun or blue sky. It was a constant haze as seen from the window of the taxi I took across one of the three bridges to the casino island.

It will be interesting to see how Macau develops as the Chinese economy matures and takes over the city-state in 2049. I am also curious now to visit Hong Kong, and compare and contrast it to Macau. I talked to a taxi driver from Macau and he didn’t care about being taken over by China. He didn’t like the government trying to control the number of mainland tourists who were coming to the city, but he argued that the city was already Chinese and he was just concerned about making a living and providing for his two children.

The historical center of Macau

It would take an extremely generous salary and benefit package for me to work in China. I’ll wait to visit Shanghai and Beijing before making a firm judgment, but I was relieved leave Macau and come back to the quiet and refined system of Japan.

Arrival to Macau

We got in pretty late so not much time to get a feel for the place. Initial impressions are a lot of people packed in a small area. The photos are from the Parque de Mong Hu (Las Monjas – The Nuns) on the peninsula part of Macau. We are staying in the older part of the city, near the Chinese border. I am looking forward to seeing the place in the day.

I had a discussion this morning with my children. Is Macau a country or not? The stakes were somewhat high because we keep track of the number of countries we visit, so if we determine Macau to be a country, then it would add to my total. In favor of being a country were that Macau has its own currency, FIFA world cup soccer team, flag and most importantly, Chinese citizens need to have their passports stamped upon entry. Not in favor is that it is basically a Chinese port city. 95% of Macau’s population is ethnic Chinese, as the majority of its citizens have been throughout its history, even with a small cadre of Portuguese sailors and managers running the colony for 450 years. 2/3 of the 31.5 million visitor arrivals in 2014 were “mainlanders” or Chinese. So, basically it is a Chinese city, but until 2049, when it loses its “Special Administrative Region” status, it is regarded as its own country.

The most interesting thing about Macau is that it is Las Vegas on steroids! It is the gambling capital of the world, thanks to the fact that Chinese love casinos and gambling. In 2013 the gambling industry took in 45 billion dollars compared to the 6.5 billion of Las Vegas. I am looking forward to seeing the size of the casinos, although I am not a big gambler and do not see the appeal of gambling as a holiday destination. Macau’s gambling revenue has dropped recently due to the crackdown on corruption and money laundering by the Chinese leader, Xi Jingping. Rich mainlanders use yuan to buy chips and cash out in other currency. It is a good way of getting money out of the country. The Chinese government is making it harder for mainlanders to get visas and is going after casinos to control these “high rollers”. They also prohibited smoking, which is even a greater love to the Chinese than gambling. Other countries are moving in like Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia offering perks to these rich Chinese gamblers. I am curious to see if the casinos are empty.

The other interesting statistic is that Macau is the most densely populated country in the world. The 600,000 people are squeezed in a small peninsula and two former islands that are now connected through reclaiming the sea. I have been to number 7 and 8 on the list, Malta and Bahrain, so I will see if it feels crowded.

The city is named after the Chinese goddess Ma – tsu, the goddess of seafarers, because of a temple dedicated to her that is located there. Legend has it that as a young girl in the 900s, she saved her father and brothers who were at sea in a storm through the powers of her mind in a dream. Her mother is said to have woken her which caused the death of her father or a brother, it depends on who is telling the story. As with all pre-history historical figures, details are sketchy. The Portuguese took over the port around 1550 and used it as a trading port for Chinese silk, tea and porcelain. I read that in circa 1600 census, there were 2000 Portuguese, 20,000 Chinese, and 5,000 African slaves. The slaves must have been treated well as they repelled the Dutch when they tried to take it over. Amazing to think today that countries like Portugal and the Netherlands could take and run an port in such a big country as China. In World War II, the allies bombed it because despite its neutral status, they sold fuel to the Japanese. The Portuguese held it until it went to China in 1999 and eventually in 2049 it will become fully a part of China. I wonder why they drive on the left side, while mainland China is on the right and so is Portugal? There are few remnants of Portugal’s long control of the city-state, some buildings, including the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which burned down in 1835, some DNA and language bits which will soon be washed out by the demographics of China.

I love to discover new places and see how other people live. I always ask myself, could I live there?

On a postscript, in reading The Macau Post Daily Independent, the headlines showed the arrest of 36 “kingpins” of a gang of “pimps”. The young men, ranging in ages from 16-27, arranged prostitutes to visit clients in their hotel rooms. The article got into the economics of the system, the girl only got 50% of the money, the gang member who found the client got 30%, and 20% went to the “kingpin”. The girls also only got paid when they returned to the mainland. So sad that they need to do this to earn a decent living. The men are facing up to 8 years in prison, including the 16 year old, and if found part of organized crime gang, the prison term increases to 15 years. The Macau police department office has both Chinese and Portuguese signs in the background. Other news were as follows:
• the arrest of thief from the mainland who is accused of stealing valuables from 14 cars – he drove around in a scooter looking for potential targets and sold or pawned the mobile phones, tablet computers using the victims’ ID cards – he came to Macau illegally by boat and lost all him money gambling, hence the crime spree on a stolen scooter
• Wynn Resort’s chairman, Steve Wynn is fighting his ex-wife in court over voting control of her 9.4% shares in the company. She is trying to stay on the board, but at the last board meeting, members wanted her out because of a conflict of interest and for creating a negative atmosphere and hurting the board’s effectiveness. Wynn has a large casino in Macau.
• The smoking ban will be increased to include all areas of the casino, including the VIP rooms. A PSA on the front page reminded people of the smoking ban in massage parlors that started this year.
• The governing body of Macau, the “Legislative Assembly” is discussing education law in Macau and is reaffirming the freedom of teachers to deal with sensitive Chinese history topics like the Cultural Revolution and the June 4 protests in Hong Kong. They are also trying to create a mandatory minimum wage bill within 3 years for all sectors of Macau, including doormen and janitors. They are proposing 30 patacas (a little over $3). It is the only jurisdiction in China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, that does not have a minimum wage law.
• There a page of articles describing Chinese control of Macau, including one government official making a statement control of the number of tourist visas, another denying the movie Selma was banned in Macau and the LA would seek more input from civic associations, professional groups and individuals when making decisions.