Archive for June 2nd, 2008

After an intense 3 days of shopping and touring in Hong Kong, I boarded the busy ferry to the island of Macau. Macau was a Portuguese trading outpost from the 1500’s, and the stepping off point for the Jesuit missionaries working in Asia. Hence the unique blend of Asian and Portuguese food, culture and architecture. It is now a “Special Administrative Region” like Hong Kong, but there is a special tension here that Hong Kong does not suffer from. Hong Kong, whatever the pace of development and growth, will always be confident in its core identity as a global center of commerce that pays unapologetic homage every day to the power of trade and the glory of affluence. I have never seen so much money so grandly and proudly displayed: New York seems modest in comparison.
As the only place in China with legalized gambling, Macau has been under aggressive pressure from real estate and gambling consortiums. There is now some dissonance being expressed with the pace and intensity of development: at the time of writing, the local government apparently wanted to put a moratorium on new gambling licenses and land reclamation. (“Land reclamation” is simply a positive spin on “sea destruction “) As you can imagine, pro and con editorials and accusations are flying fast and furious in the local morning papers. As a first time visitor, I can only say, please hold the line.
Don’t get me wrong: despite not being interested in slots or table games, I have visited Las Vegas with family and friends and on business on a regular basis for over 15 years. The attraction for me now is a 5 star luxury long weekend with the girls and some of the best dining in North America. Seriously. take a look as this sample of fine restaurants from Frommers; ” multi-Michelin-starred chef Joël Robuchon opened two restaurants in the MGM Grand; deservedly famed chef Julian Serrano reigns at Bellagio’s Picasso; Thomas Keller, the brains behind Napa Valley’s French Laundry — considered by many to be the best restaurant in the United States — has a branch of his Bouchon bistro; legendary chef Alain Ducasse is behind Mix at THEhotel; …2006 James Beard Awards featured several Vegas nominees, while Robuchon’s L’Atelier won Best New Restaurant in 2007.” Of course, you have to be prepared to spend $30 on a starter and upwards of $75 on a main, but hey, that’s what’s winnings are for. Or at least, that’s what I tell my mom when she scores at the slot machine! Otherwise, it’s off to the “all you can eat before 5pm” $12 buffet.
So while Vegas is styled as a place for adult fun, however you define it, the gambling face of Macau is not fun at all. Not because the branches of the Wynn or the Venetian are any grand or luxurious than they are in Vegas; it’s because gambling in China is not meant to be fun. At least not that I could see. As I walked through the ill kept, dingy underground passage between the original Casino Lisboa, over to new Wynn , I saw only sad, dejected faces. In the casino, there was no laughter, no shouts of excitement, not even a lot of that annoying ding ding ding from the slots. There are not as many slot machines in Macau which certainly keeps the din to a minimum: I imagine that table games are considered to be more “lucky” or perhaps requiring more skill than simply pushing a button. And no alcohol is consumed while gambling: this is a serious business.
I watched one baccarat table where a young woman appeared to have a streak of good luck, judging from the crowd pressed around her, urging her on. As she was dealt her cards, the women standing behind her started to blow air from their mouths, and waving one hand towards the dealer, as if to wish away bad luck from the player. (Or perhaps bad luck on the house) The Chinese are very superstitious, and never more so than when gambling. And betting is done aggressively: one possible reason for all those disappointed faces I saw earlier was that they bet the whole bankroll on one play and lost. That’s normal. It’s not about extending out the play for its own sake, seeing how long your money can last, as my friends and I do in Vegas. It’s about the chance, the win, the roll, putting everything on the line. And when it’s done, it’s over.
So why do I think that enough is likely enough. Well, when I travelled over the bridge to the smaller island of Taipa, I passed the massive Venetian complex and 3 equally massive holes in the ground which will shortly become the Hard Rock Cafe, the Sheraton, and a Hyatt. Getting past these works in progress required traversing 4 very large roundabouts. Not a sidewalk to be seen. So what I envision will happen will be a transformation very much like Vegas: huge retail, hotel and casino complexes, connected by above and underground people movers, dominating the skyline and extending ever further out into the harbour until Macau and Taipa are one land mass. The format and intention are very much in line with Vegas: keep in the punters in the complex, away from the outdoors, and always in front of a table or a store. But how much more of it does one or two small islands really need?
And what is at risk? Well you can already feel the impact of the new gambling complexes: I was staying in a charming Portuguese style pousada and I could not get a cab at a casino hotel to take me there at night. Too much easier money to be made shuffling the players from casino to casino. The architecture of Macau is lovely and best appreciated while strolling or sitting at a local coffee shop (did I mention that the egg tarts here are wonderful, as is most of the Portuguese food?)But if the tourists are simply bused from ferry to casino, and then shuffled from one gaming table to another, never to see the light of day, who will support these restaurants, museums and cultural attractions? Macua may be at risk of being a city that simply exists to support the casinos, instead of the other way around.
My advice is to see it soon before it disappears. Have dinner at the well known local culinary school, where you can have an excellent 4 course meal accompanied by very good Portuguese wine for about $50. Stay in a pousada, and admire the lotus flowers growing in ponds with stone fountains and orchids displayed against traditional blue and white tiles. Wander the narrow cobblestone streets and enjoy this special Asian urban experience while you can.

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