I was in Hong Kong recently, for the marathon. A stay in the former British colony would normally afford an opportunity to visit Macau, which used to be administered by the Portuguese. But after a love affair with the tiny state that lasted close to 30 years, I wouldn’t, as they say, cross the road to go there nowadays.
The principal reason has been the explosion of super-casinos in Macau, which have upstaged even Las Vegas as the last word in the vulgar art of fleecing the punters. They may have been the major contribution to the economic growth of over 10% per year since the turn of the century. But these monuments to making money have helped ruin Macau, and turn what used to be one of the pearls of the Orient into one of the blunders of the world.
Macau and Hong Kong lie on the south-east coast of mainland China. Both ‘colonies’ reverted to China before the turn of the century, albeit with certain self-governing caveats. In the case of Hong Kong, it has meant a rowdy and critical (even of the mainland) local press, but even more investment in the burgeoning stock market, resulting in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) becoming the most expensive property market in the world.
In the case of Macau, it has meant filling in the sea (literally) which separated the two offshore islands of Taipa and Coloane, from Macau itself; and the construction of those gigantic casinos, which dwarf (and hide) the previous sole gambling hall, in the bowels of the Lisboa Hotel, whose primrose paint and roulette wheel roof were already at odds with the blue-tiled Portuguese architecture and drowsy lifestyle which helped make Macau such an odd and inviting place.
I may have been in thrall to Graham Greene when I first visited in the mid-1980s, but Macau’s aura of faded empire, which so accurately reflected that of Lisbon, indeed Portugal itself, but with Oriental overtones just captivated me. And the light, soft rain when I landed, allaying the enervating humidity, made it even more attractive. It took maybe ten minutes for me to decide that here was a place I could stay for the rest of my life.
I didn’t, of course; there was copy to file a couple of days later from Hong Kong, and another hundred and one places thereafter. But whenever anyone, knowing my extensive travels as a sports journo, asked me for my favourite place, I immediately replied Macau. My 36 hours there were an extended epiphany.
I stumbled off the early morning hovercraft from Hong Kong on a Sunday morning (after an late-night skinful in Lockhart Road), flashed my fool-proof British passport, and strolling out of the makeshift terminal onto what was basically a country road, whose sole building on the way into town was a tumbledown Jai Alai court (fronton). Even before midday on a Sunday, they were playing the alternative to the Basque game of Pelota.
A fronton is a rectangular space, almost as big as an aircraft hangar, with the playing area occupying about a quarter of the area, but lengthwise, and netted off from the steeply raked stands for spectators. The players use similar baskets (to Pelota) lashed to their hands, in which they catch the small hard rubber ball, and catapult it back to the far side wall, whence it barrels back towards their opponent(s), who slingshot it again to the wall.
But almost as intriguing was the action down beside net which divides (and protects) the spectators from the players and their missiles. The bookies ‘runners’ collect the bets on the next point from the spectators in the front, stuff the betting slips into a half tennis ball, and simply throw them up the stands to the bookies at the back. A minute or two later, the winnings are delivered in a similar fashion. I ended up watching this interaction more than the game.
The Chinese penchant for gambling was as evident here as it would be an hour later, when I strolled the kilometre or so into town, to explore the subterranean corridors of the Lisboa. It was the first time I’d ever encountered a major casino, a playground as big as the fronton, without a vestige of daylight or time intruding (no clocks); and the shops outside in the corridors, including a display window for girls, with large numbers on their chests. A case of ‘come in number 4,’I presumed, while making my time-honoured excuses, and leaving. Well, that’s my story…
After a wander through the narrow streets and alleys up to the ruins of the early 17th century Sao Paulo Cathedral, with just one vast wall left standing (following a fire in the mid-19th century), I hit the mother lode – an indoor market! I’ve always loved markets; the folks milling around, the overflowing produce, the gaudy trinkets, and carolling stallholders, eager to outshout and outsell their neighbour. All human life is there.
But here was something I’d never seen in Brierley Hill market. Outsize dustbins, where the livestock stallholders would cast the chickens, whose throats they had just cut, to thresh themselves to death in a flurry of feathers and furious, fruitless scratching against the bin-sides. It reminded me of the holiday job I once had, making deliveries to abattoirs. Despite my revulsion, I was drawn, fascinated to the killing floor, where the pigs would be stunned with bolt guns and have their throats sliced open, and hauled aloft onto chains which swung the porkers along the production line, with their life sluicing down the drains below. Back in Macau, the threshing would gradually die down, and the dead, though still twitching bird would have its feet tied, and handed over to the buyer, to be carried home for lunch.
Speaking of which, an Old China Hand at the press club in Hong Kong had recommended Pinocchio’s on Taipa Island. I took a superannuated London bus, an open-top double decker over the bridge, and sought out Cozhina Pinocchio, which was little more than an outdoor square of concrete in an alleyway, with a corrugated plastic roof, on which the rain hammered atmospherically throughout a superb sea-food meal, supplemented by copies drafts of vinho verde.
Back in Macau town, I decided to stay the night, and found a perfect Greeneland location, a rundown, flyblown hotel, with ceiling fans and antimacassars, equally superb grilled fish (to Pinocchio’s) and more lashings of vinho verde. The hovercraft back to Hong Kong, under lowering skies, the next day completed the reverie.
That dream lasted for close to 30 years. I went to Hong Kong in the interim, but never with sufficient time to revisit Macau. And maybe I was afraid that, like all ‘firsts’, the second time wouldn’t quite measure up. I finally took the plunge recently, when a long weekend in Hong Kong afforded me enough time to visit my Greeneland dreamland. A nightmare awaited me.
As the hovercraft sank from its cushion of turbo-charged air into the swell of the port of Macau, to glide into the gleaming terminal, resembling nothing so much as a brand new airport arrivals hall, I stared aghast at the 20-storey high, half-mile long gold and black frontage of the Sands Casino, blighting the immediate view to the left. The fronton had long gone, replaced by a car-park, a taxi rank, and a flyover. The tower blocks began within 50 metres of the terminal exit. Of the Lisboa Hotel, which had once dominated the skyline, there was no sign. I found it soon enough, dwarfed and hidden among the skyscrapers and other casinos. I wondered if No 4 was equally shrunk and wizened, and ignored.
The old town centre, with the blue tiles and motifs, and the ruined esplanade of the cathedral were still there, overrun with tourists, ignorant of the wonder that was once Macau. If the market was still there, I couldn’t find it. I escaped into an air-conditioned cab, and directed the driver to Pinocchio’s. The old road bridge to Taipa Island has been replaced by an enormous skybridge, and Pinocchio’s has moved out of the alleyway, into new premises in the middle of a row of shops.
It was little more than a cafeteria, with food to match, the result of which was that, whereas the old place had been packed for lunch, there were perhaps two dozen folks in an echo-chamber that could cater for a hundred or more. But the slow trade meant that Pinocchio himself joined me for lunch. He had suffered a mild haemorrhage in my lengthy absence, and had difficulty speaking clearly, but he too mourned the old alleyway, and mused that he should reopen it. That was clearly never going to happen.
After that disappointment, I pondered whether it was going to be worth carrying on to Coloane, for coffee and dessert at Fernando’s. Thankfully, it was the sole success of the day trip. It had barely changed at all, still overlooked the beach, and best of all, wasn’t air-conditioned. The lunch-time crowd had gone, leaving me and one or two others beneath the flock of ceiling fans gently whirring their wings over a languid late afternoon in the tropics. Here was the last outpost of old Macau. I retired to a deckchair on the beach with another glass of verde to prompt the memories. As for the rest of it, super-casinos and all, they might as well rename it Mammon.