Letters From the Pearl Delta: The Macau Affair

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Macau

Note: This is the ninth in a multi-part series about my year spent working and living in Guangdong, China. It’s not the series for a definitive and authoritative account of Sino-US relations and cultural differences. It’s mostly a lot of rambling and inaccessible humor.

All the signs are in Portuguese, but nobody in the city speaks Portuguese. That’s the strange contradiction of Macau.

Macau is the other port city of China that enjoys a special status, next to Hong Kong. Unlike Hong Kong, though, Macau is tiny. Really, really tiny. It’s difficult to convey how confusing it is to walk through Macau and realize it’s not nearly as big as its reputation might convey — it’s only around 30 square kilometers. Hong Kong’s area, for comparison, is about 1000 square kilometers. Macau is thus a cramped city, and every bit of space seems to be in use. Massive apartment blocks are put so close together that the people living in them can probably reach out and touch the window of the tower right next door. It’s got to be some kind of lesson in city planning.

Macau, being a former colonial possession, has an awkward sort of identity to it. An identity that leads to every sign and official document accommodating Portuguese, yet out of everyone I spoke with nobody actually knew the language. It might be an expression of independence from the rest of China, similar to how Hong Kong vigorously defends its use of the Cantonese language. But with Macau’s situation, it feels somewhat futile. Much of the border crossing was packed with expats passing back and forth between Macau and the rest of the People’s Republic, stocking up on cheap things only Macau could provide. Chinese citizens, in contrast, face a byzantine visa procedure that limits their ability to stay in Macau and move so fluidly in and out of it. It’s not hard to see why the People’s Republic might want to make sure no legalized smuggling occurs, but on the flip side it’s turned tiny Macau into more of an oddity than a separate system equal to its mainland counterparts, like how I’d describe Hong Kong.

The entirety of Macau.

To those who don’t know, Macau was a Portuguese colony until 1999. The Portuguese did not imbue the city with the robustness that Hong Kong received from the British, namely because Macau does not have a deep water port and, as I previously mentioned, it is tiny. However, the Portuguese did leave behind something to its benefit. Along with its fascinating feitoria and the ruins of St. Paul’s cathedral, Macau is the gambling mecca of China.

Its status as a place for legalized gambling goes back to the late 1800s, encouraged by its Portuguese governors who (smartly) realized it would take off amid the Qing Dynasty’s confused crackdown on gaming, and later exploded as the People’s Republic of China was founded and banned gambling outright. In 1999, the PRC kept its status as a haven for chance games, keeping it the only place on mainland China where someone can gamble (legally). It’s somewhat over-compared to Las Vegas, but after visiting the city this label feels somewhat analogous to the St. Paul Cathedral in the city square: it’s just a façade.

I’m not a big gambler. I don’t really understand gambling. But the Vegas experience, conveyed to me through friends, media, and vigorous research, at least involves more than video poker and slots. Macau appears to cram as much gambling as it can into a small area, and has figured out video games and slot machines are the most size-efficient for this. It creates a bizarre experience where I can wander around a casino floor and find no actual games I’d want to play, surrounded by throngs of Chinese silently watching slots and collecting (virtually no) payouts. There’s no roulette wheels, or card tables. I didn’t even spot a mahjong table (not that I could play it!)

It was somewhat disappointing, but I wasn’t posh enough to go to any of the upscale floors on the casinos. And that’s the side of Macau not many people think about.

Right next to the grand Lis Boa, a beautiful casino, are yet more slums packed together. Macau is not just the designated gambling den for the PRC, it illustrates the inequality that a lot of China suffers from and seems to have it out in the open, making it a haven for the ultra-rich, too. There’s some cynical benefit to be gathered from turning Macau into an Amsterdam for decadent and overtly illegal activity, though. The PRC can carefully monitor it, and make sure any crime stays contained. This lends Macau a unique character, just not the one it seems to want with its Portuguese signs.

In front of the seedier side, Macau is still stunning in its beauty, especially at night. There’s just a lot of expectation it seems to fail to meet. Much like Portugal’s imperial days, its light was bright, pioneering, and then vanishes in the enormity of another being’s shadow. It’s a familiar feeling to be awed by each city I’ve seen in the Pearl Delta, but Macau was the first one that took my preconceived notions and turned them around. It is, and I cannot stress this enough, a very tiny city. The push for a separate identity from the rest of China feels different, if not non-existent. Yet with this resigned enclave status, the people of Macau still face odd issues in getting across the border, and are set to be swamped in tourists monthly.

Letters From the Pearl Delta: The Macau Affair was originally published in Mob-Rule on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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