So how much did you make tonight, love?” she asked, edging closer, whispering into my ear. I felt the warmth of her skin on my shoulders. A hint of lavender rose langorously from herbody. “Hmm...not very much at all,” I bluffed hastily, trying hard to take my eyes off her. “Just bad luck—too damn crowded at the poker tables,” I added for good measure, not quite sure how to play this hand. “You’re lying, take me with you tomorrow,” she murmured, putting her arms around me. “Waiter,” I sighed, “Another Tsingtao beer please.”
It was four in the morning and the girls had started leaving, draped over Chinese businessmen in various states of inebriation. The few who hadn’t found business wandered off, glasses of vodka in hand. As the peals of laughter and the stray voices faded away, a mouldy tropical stillness descended on the alleyways, pierced here and there by the lonely light of a few street lamps. The hip-hop changed to Chinese. And I felt myself being lulled into a pleasant, sensuous torpor. “Shouldn’t be doing this,” I reminded myself feebly. Under the assault of an unfairly pretty Russian girl, a very long day, two nights of gambling, a bottle of ‘green’ wine, two pegs of whisky and many bottles of Tsingtao beer, my finely calibrated gambler’s sense of larceny and restrained turpitude was fast deserting me. Just then an unusually cool breeze lifted off the choppy waters of the South China sea, and wafted past the concrete blocks and cobble stone streets of the Rua de Xangai. “No,” I said wanly to myself, coming back to life, “really shouldn’t be here.”
It had started innocuously enough—an all-expenses-paid gambling trip to Macau—a tiny Portuguese enclave tagged on to the end of a peninsula in the Pearl river delta, 60 miles west of Hong Kong and 150 miles downstream of Canton. The ominous grey clouds shrouding the Hong Kong skyline had started coming down in vast grey sheets of rain, as the jetfoil streaked over the choppy waters. Sprays of water thirty feet high flew past, as we pitched in and out of the waves. Tiny islands of green appeared mysteriously through the mist, like strings of emeralds scattered across the dark waters. Inside the jetfoil you could barely hear the hum of the engines. Rows of empty aircraft seats stretched all the way to the helm. Canned Chinese pop emanated softly from the speakers. I threw myself over three empty seats—slurping a cup of noodles and reading my way to Macau.
“For the Portuguese, Macau was a valuable foothold—a strategically located entrepôt, and the staging post for missionary forays into the Chinese empire,” said my book. And for over two hundred years after the decline of Portugal as a major trading power, the tiny enclave was variously the point of entry for gold and opium into China, shipping port for slaves destined for American plantations, haven for World War II refugees and criminals of all nationalities, gambling den for the Cantonese, and the ‘wickedest city in the far East’ for almost everyone else. And of gambling disrepute it said, “The Chinaman is a born gambler, and a good one. The gambling houses are situated in the Street of Happiness and are dingy affairs. Fan tan is played...the tables are open for play day and night, meals are provided for the hungry, opium for the depressed, beds for the weary, singsong damsels for the—let us say—musically inclined.” And I silently hoped that Macau hadn’t changed
In the hot July sun Macau seemed like a curiously innocent Mediterranean town, a thousand miles from home. Villas of flaking pink, white, blue and yellow plaster stood set away from patterned corbelled streets, shaded by canopies of banyan trees and flame-of-the-forests. The crumbling ramparts of the Guia fort brooded over the habour. Beautifully stuccoed churches stood at every corner—their high ceilings alive with mural miscegenations of dragons and saints looking down benignly on me and the weathered wooden floorboards. It was only eleven in the morning but I was bathed in sweat. Hordes of Chinese day-trippers lay sprawled under every tree, fanning themselves furiously with cheap dancing fans that were being sold for 10 patacas. I weaved my way past a glass and concrete pastiche of nondescript office buildings, past corner stores displaying sliced beef and pork, and eating joints nestled under the wrought iron intricacies of 19th-century balconies. Past the Gucci stores, to the imposing façade of St Paul’s Church. A stone’s throw away from it I found a tiny bakery selling nata or Portugese egg-custard tarts. Four of these delightfully crusty buttery tarts, followed by a glass of cold coffee, and I was ready for a siesta and a night of gambling.
There are 33 casinos scattered over all of Macau’s 23.5 sq km. Of these the Sands is one of the largest and newest. Its squat frame of steel and glinting gold is blinding in daylight, and an invitation to a promised land at night. A three-storey-high LCD screen showers gold and paper millions on those who enter. The carpeted corridors that lead to the cavernous central hall echo with the frenetic clinks of ‘hungry tigers’ (slot machines) and the occasional grunt.
Over a hundred tables stacked three to four deep dominate the hall—where the games range from the usual blackjack, poker, baccarat, roulette to the more Chinese like fan tan and dai-siu. The decor is modified Star Trek—lots of white rounded pillars and chrome lighting stands, several huge rotating orbs, and a gigantic video screen flashing sunsets and waves. Light reflecting off mirrors in every corner completes the Alice-in-a-giantchandelier effect. There must have been close to 10,000 Chinese in there—talking, cursing, smoking, chatting on cell phones, and each and every one of them betting.
The stakes on most tables started at HK $50, and apparently went up to HK $1,000,000 in the private rooms. “What’s the game?” I asked a croupier stationed behind a stack of dominoes. No response. Some muttered Cantonese. “Where’s the bar?” A flick of the wrist, followed by irritated looks. A man standing behind me shoved me aside. “This is not going to be easy,” I said to myself, surveying the smoke-shrouded bedlam.
The game of Pai-Gow Poker demands a crowd. The table is large and the betting raucous—those who sit and are dealt cards can play, but so can anyone passing by, betting with them, against them, with the ‘banker’ or against, splitting bets, placing partial bets etc. The game in fact is deceptively simple (and given my knowledge of Cantonese the only game I could play safely)—the only element of skill being in the way you arrange your hands. Everyone is dealt seven cards, and you make two hands, a ‘back’ hand of five cards and a ‘fore hand’ of two. As long as your back hand is a better poker hand than your fore, you’re sitting pretty. There are more subtleties but if you’re better than the banker in either the fore or back hand, you can’t lose. If you’re better on both you double your money etc.
After a round of polite can-I-join-ins, and hellos which elicited muted grunts, and what sounded like curses in Cantonese, I decided to elbow my way to the front of what seemed to be a HK$50 table. I crushed toes, mine were crushed, I shoved and was shoved in return, but finally managed to make it to the table. “Fifty,” I said slapping down the money on the table before anyone could push me aside. Suspicious looks. A haggard Chinese businessman sitting across the table tapped the felt before every deal. The guy standing to my left jabbed me in the ribs, cleared his throat and muttered shiftily.
A hush fell as the cards were dealt. Full house and a pair—I had a chance. The banker exposed his cards, and a cacophony of groans and hai’s erupted. Stale smoke and sweat mingled as everyone tried to get close to the table. The guys to my left folded. And as I lingered over my last card, I felt a draught blowing my cards off the table—soon ten people were thumping me on the back, hollering, and urging me to pick up my last card. It was then that I realised that the man behind me had HK$1,000 wagered on me. A jack of spades, and a full house. That gave me double. A cheer went up. And then we moved on to the next game. Four more games, and I was at HK $800. As I made to leave, I felt the crowd pressing down on me—now they didn’t want me to leave. After all, they had money to make.
On my way out I tried my hand at the slots. I’d been told that they were notoriously tight. I played a dollar to start with and quickly lost about seventy. Good gambling sense kicked in. I still had HK $700 in my pocket—it was sweet revenge that I intended to keep. Outside, the night air seemed surprisingly cool and fresh. The lights of Taipa and Coloane islands glittered across the waters. Ambling along the Avenida de Amizada, I entered what looked like a café. Turned out to be a strip club. Shouldn’t have had so many drinks. Half an hour later, I staggered out. Around the corner I came across a real pavement café. “Maybe,” I thought to myself, “I’ll finally get something to eat.” And then get to sleep. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw this pretty girl slip onto the chair next to mine. “So how much did you make tonight, love,” she asked edging closer.