Down the cobblestone alley, a block from the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a heavy-set British woman is being served a Portuguese egg tart by a Chinese street vendor. The air perfumes of pork cutlets that transcend slowly up towards the yellow- and white-trimmed colonial building at the base of a manicured hillside. It is neither a scene from a painting, nor an anecdote from a tall tale – it is in fact a rare reality from the south of China. Before globalization began making its mark with every McDonald’s franchise it could muster, colonization was the face of Asia – a face that can be seen everywhere from the British Bund in Shanghai to Phnom Penh’s old French quarters. However, the elements of old colonial society and modern globalization have never met in any place quite like they have in the small Chinese municipality of Macau.
The contrasting cultures that infuse Macau portray a palette of color rarely seen in Asia. Yet, the colors most often associated with Macau aren’t those of the white-trimmed colonial buildings of Largo do Senado (Senate Square), but instead those of the florescent and intoxicating bulbs fueled by endless rows of casinos filled to the brim by Chinese tourists dressed in black suits, donning sunglasses indoors. It is a country that is as contrasting to itself as it is to the rest of the world: a world where Hunter Thompson himself would have found a surplus amount of ‘fear and loathing’ between every eccentric and exotic causeway. I find it intriguing to wonder whether or not the absurdity of a ‘Fear and Loathing in Macau’ would have made Thompson’s visions that much more obtuse, or if he would have succumbed to a vision a world away from the Vegas strip.
Macau is often compared to the glitter of Las Vegas; recently attracting an exponential amount of chip-wielding tourists from across Asia and across the world. In fact, as of 2007, Macau overtook Las Vegas’ gambling revenues. As if it wasn’t a secret before, now it is for certain. Chinese people really love to gamble.
In the center of Macau, the monolithic spire of the Grand Lisboa stands proudly like the fanning-flame of the Olympic torch – representing all the ferocity of Macau’s revenue. As soon as the sun sets, this torch-like spire flickers to life with a set of vivid lights that make this casino a prominent beacon in the night sky.
Though it seems to be the heart of Macau to many tourists, the seedy casino underbelly of this Portuguese colony paints a dark image over a country full of colonial colors. Just before my departure from Hong Kong, a man took a quick look at the contents of my wallet, which revealed several large bills in four different currencies, and said to me, “Hey, be careful in Macau.”
Churches and egg tarts
There is no doubt that the vibe in Macau shifts as quickly as the sun sets, and that its nightlife overshadows a much more exquisite beauty. The heart of Macau takes its form in a pure blend of Chinese characters accented by colorful and ornate Portuguese buildings. A walk up the white and black trimmed alleys towards the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral is like moving through a piece of modern art where the brush strokes take the form of old churches dotted with a hint of cinnamon covered egg tarts.
Adjacent to the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, upon a vast hilltop, rests a dormant Portuguese fortress. On top of this fortress are the remains of tarnished cannons used to defend the once vulnerable colony. Today, the corsairs of the cannons overlook a much more modern picture of contemporary China: bamboo scaffolding and high rises that conceal the hidden treasures below. Yet, a peak down one of the palm tree lined alleys off of Largo do Senado will reveal a number of well-hidden Portuguese style restaurants, churches, and even a small fountain of the Virgin Mary.
Beyond these small serenities the spire of the Grand Lisboa looms in the distance. Macau is a world that clashes like few others on this planet and has a look and feel all its own. The contrast merits such intrigue that countless artists have begun setting up galleries along these alleys. It is their hope to paint and to reveal to the world the beauty and color that Macau truly imbibes.