Sunday, September 16, 2007

One Day in Macau (many days later...)

While Greg was here to visit, Eric and I had to leave the country briefly in order to validate our multiple entry visas. We all wanted to go on a daytrip, and since Greg had already visited Hong Kong, we decided to head to Macau.

Macau is an island that was colonized by the Portuguese and the resulting culture on the island is an odd hybrid of Chinese and Roman, Spanish, and Portuguese customs. In 1999, it was handed back to China shortly after the British returned Hong Kong. In its current incarnation, developers are keen to make Macau the Las Vegas of China, opening it to the coming hordes of newly minted middle class Chinese tourists. Billions of dollars are being spent here trying to make that a reality. Wynn Casinos are reportedly spending big bucks and Macau recently opened the largest casino in the world.

We took a one hour ferry ride across the horribly dirty looking bay from Shenzhen to Macau. Upon stepping out onto the black and white cobbled streets, we were greeted by a bald man in shabby clothes who seemed to be in serious agony defecating in a corner. Not the most welcoming first impression.

We boldly pressed on and came to a jewelry district of sorts. The windows were filled with glittering gold figurines made from the intensely yellow high karat gold that Chinese people favor. Some were boats, some dragons, some pigs (this is the year of the pig, also an especially fortunate year in which to be born, which explains the unusually high proportion of pregnant women we have seen since arriving). These figures are thought to bring luck and wealth into your home when placed in accordance with the rules of feng shui. We’ve also seen elaborate boats fashioned out of currency, which I’ve been told have the same properties, lending new meaning to the phrase “Your ship has come in.”

We wandered around admiring the black and white mosaics in the cobbled streets and the colonial buildings painted in delicate gelato inspired pastels. There was the usual throng of world wide chains, we stopped for a Hagan Daas and noted the Body Shop and Levi jeans outlet. Because Macau is notably lacking in skyscrapers, the streets have a much more European flavor than either Hong Kong or Shenzhen.

We made our way to the Ruins of Saint Paul’s cathedral, which was once the largest Catholic Church in Asia. Only the façade remains, the rest was destroyed in a fire in the late 1800’s. But even the façade paid homage to the strange confluence of influences on this little island. It boasts a lotus flower, the Virgin Mary and an eight headed hydra. Talk about fusion.

We also visited the Macau Museum which was really well done, a gift from the Portuguese to the Chinese before the island was returned. It was filled with objects from Macau’s colonial history and complete with a street recreated from the 20’s.

We had a long lovely lunch at La Lorca, an excellent Macanese restaurant where we had a pitcher of sangria, seafood paella, chicken curry and garlic roasted whitefish and some samosas to really ensure that we would leave with our bellies hanging over our belts. We decided to walk off our lunch a bit, and just across the street was a little temple bustling with visitors.

One thing that strikes me about the temples we’ve visited so far is the carnival atmosphere inside. There is none of that hallowed reverence we reserve for religious spaces in the west. Inside the gates, salesmen bellow at you to buy their incense and lucky charms for your dashboard or shrine. Fortune tellers sit in lines with signs describing their specialties. People clog the entry ways waving incense and kowtowing.

My impression is that most people don’t visit the temple regularly, there don’t seem to be “services” per say. Instead, you visit the temple when in need of good luck or on auspicious occasions. Overall, it is a different relationship with god in general. I couldn’t help but think of that passage in the bible where Jesus throws all the hawkers out of the temple in disgust (one of the few times in the bible where he gets truly angry) Yet another example of how many things are cultural rather than archetypal.

From there, we hopped in a taxi to see the casinos, and what a sight they were. Inside the new Lisboa casino, we were greeted by miles of marble, a massive chandelier and rows upon rows of glittering crystals strung from the ceiling. It was all very glamorous, and way too much. It reminded me of that scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes when a doddering old millionaire lasciviously points out to Marilyn Monroe that the piece of jewelry she is wearing as a necklace is actually a tiara. Unflustered, she places it atop her head and coos “Oh, I just love finding new places to put diamonds!”

It will be interesting to see how this little island reinvents itself in the next ten and twenty years. I know we had a lovely visit and I’m looking forward to another day trip sometime soon.

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