Lufthansa Highlights Macau: "Punters’ paradise"
You see the sign long before you reach the harbor entrance. It shimmers through the early-morning mist shrouding the city. The word “SANDS” stands out in giant, blood-red neon letters above the Chinese characters for “Golden Sand,” spelling out for many an enticing promise of gaming and glitter, of triumph and luck at the world’s biggest casino.
But is it real? The closer the hydrofoil draws, the more certain it seems that the city must be a mirage. A volcano looms in front of the golden casino, and to one side, you glimpse a Tang Dynasty stronghold. A Roman amphitheater and an Italian palazzo, a rather comical juxtaposition of buildings from Miami, Amsterdam and Havanna – surely no such place can really exist? Oh yes it does, at the Fisherman’s Wharf amusement park in Macau.
Welcome to the city of illusions! A tiny gem in the Pearl River Delta in South China, Macau covers only 28 square kilometers and has a mere half million inhabitants. And yet it occupies a unique place in the Middle Kingdom. Huge variety and huge contradictions exist side by side in a very small space that can be fully explored on foot in a matter of one or two days. Macau is an ideal place for a boat trip from Hong Kong, 70 kilometers away.
Yin-Yang is the name of Macau’s “national” drink, a mixture of Chinese tea and Mediterranean espresso that follows the Taoist principle of the unity of opposites. Macau is yin-yang built in stone, its guiding principle: one country, two systems. A Portuguese colony for more than 450 years, Macau joined the People’s Republic of China in 1999 to become a Special Chinese Administrative Region (SAR) like Hong Kong. As such, Macau is permitted far-reaching autonomy in its economic policies and internal affairs. What this means above all is that it can issue casino licenses.
Macau is a dream destination for millions of Chinese and for billionaire investors from the United States. It’s the only place in China that has legalized gambling. In 2009, almost 22 million visitors came, mostly from China and Hong Kong, driven by a single desire: to get rich quick.
They flock to the Sands Casino in their thousands every day, riding the steep escalators up to vast halls where 740 gaming tables and 1,254 slot machines await them. On a stage, a troupe of Russian revue dancers kick up a storm but scarcely anybody pays them any notice: the punters are fully focused on pushing their stakes across the green felt and sipping their complimentary cup of tea. The most popular game in Macau is baccarat because the rules are easy and it only takes two or three minutes to find out whether you have won. Or lost.
High stakes and maximum risk are what it’s all about at the Grand Lisboa and the Wynn Resort, the Star World and the Golden Dragon. Revenues from Macau’s casinos have overtaken those in Las Vegas already. And on Cotai Strip, a man-made, 202-hectare site between the tiny islands of Taipa and Coloane, an amusement district of mammoth proportions and modeled on Las Vegas is now taking shape. The first milestone in the development was the opening of the Venetian Macau Resort Hotel in 2007. Like its namesake in the US casino city, it has a Rialto bridge and a St. Mark’s Square, replicated canals and palaces plus a 39-story hotel with 3000 rooms and a theater that seats 2,000.
The casinos’ garish neon lights and advertising signs are the paint on the face of the provincial beauty-turned-glamour-girl Macau. Yet how marvelous, how wonderful, in fact: A part of that face remains in shadow. Take half an hour’s stroll in the future world capital of gambling and you will discover world heri- tage sites, historical locations now under UNESCO protection. Thousands upon thousands of black and white mosaic pieces create wave patterns on the sidewalks, encircle Baroque churches like St. Dominic’s and pour into the Largo do Senado, the main square lined by majestic palaces.
The waves are just like those that decorate the Copacabana in Rio and the Praça Dom Pedro IV (Rossio) in Lisbon; they are the waves of the one-time world seafaring power Portugal. Leased from the Chinese Emperor in 1557, Macau was Europe’s first commercial outpost in China, a hub for goods, money and missionaries. The mosaic waves surround the temple of A-Ma,
the goddess of fisherfolk and the patron saint of Macau. Here, of all places, people have preserved their ancient Chinese traditions like nowhere else. The Taoist temples and shrines are numerous and visitors pray there for heavenly aid with bundles of smoking joss sticks.
An air of nostalgia pervades Macau, but not like that in a museum. The residential areas in the Penha district seem to be taking a siesta as in the old colonial days. Washing hangs from balcony railings and street traders sell everything from fruit and roast duck to shoes. Sunshine and rain have lent the houses a patina that to some might seem romantic – to others, merely squalid. Drab prefabricated blocks were all the rage in Macau in the sixties and seventies, but take a close look and you will also discover buildings from around 1930 with elegant Art Deco ornamentation.
The streets still have their blue-and-white azulejo signs bearing names no local taxi driver can pronounce, like: Avenida do Conselheiro Ferreira de Almeida. Portuguese is the second official language in Macau alongside Chinese and can be seen on notices in buses and over every little grocery store. The region’s bilingualism is only a politically driven fiction, however, since the great majority of Macauans speak neither Portuguese nor even Mandarin Chinese, but a Cantonese dialect.
So what? Macau has a long tradition of living with opposites and contradictions. The mostly Chinese diners at Fernando’s Portuguese res- taurant on the tiny island of Coloana’s Hác Sá beach drink vinho verde and feast on feijoada stew and African chicken. Adventurous youngsters from Hong Kong walk along the no-handrail outer platform of Macau Tower, a safety rope attached to their back. An elderly gentleman feeds koi carp in the lake of the classical Chinese Lou Lim Ieoc Garden. And the volcano in Fisherman’s Wharf erupts in propane-fed flames. Fata morgana? No, Fata Macau!