At the intersection of the two great culinary traditions of Portugal and China, at the end of 400 years of colonialism and the beginning of 50 years of the anomaly of ‘one government, two administrative systems”, dwarfed by the glitter of casinos and deafened by the roar of an economy growing in double digits, is the portly pink figure of a pig. The Chinese saw it as a good luck charm, a cornucopia of plenty. The Portuguese just ate every bit they could and taught their colonized subjects the joys of pig ear salad and sausage.
But the hundreds of thousands of visitors who cross from Mainland China, Taiwan and the other Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, it’s not the delectable peanut candy or the elegance of hundreds of years of careful calibration that have produced the fusion cuisine of the feijoado (pork with beans) and the caldo verde (a thick soup made with potato and cabbage).
It’s the call of the casinos that is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied. It begins even as Macau slowly appears, shining through the slow greys of an evening on the waters. A huge three-storey red neon sign reads Sands, one of the biggest gaming houses there is.
The Grand Emperor Hotel, in which Macau Tourism has placed us, has gold biscuits set into the floor so that your steps will be blessed. The hotel itself does not have a 13th floor. That’s straightforward. But it doesn’t have a fourth floor, or a 14th floor.
“Because four sounds like ‘fou’ which is death,” says Raymond, 48, a tea broker from China. He always stays on the eighth floor, because the number eight sounds like “to get rich”. If he can’t get that, he will take the sixth floor, because that sounds like “to flow smoothly”, but since he comes almost every month, the hotel makes sure he gets his room.
“This year,” Raymond says. “I get lucky.” There’s an eight in his age.
In the Sands casino later, the concierge tells me about the high rollers and their superstitions. “If they have won big once, they want everything the same. We keep records of what they want, what they ate, who served them, everything.”
At O Porto Interior, one of the many great Portuguese restaurants on the three islands of Coloane, Macau and Taipa, we are served what might be a winner’s meal. We begin with a seafood soup supreme, served inside a crusty loaf of bread, proceed to a pig ear’s salad, and then work our way through a beautiful eight-inch prawn spiced with herbs and butter, before addressing curried chicken and wild rice, lamb in a wine sauce and rounding everything off with serra dura, which is condensed milk and cream whipped together and topped with crumbled biscuit. (This latter tastes a lot better than it sounds).
And on a weekend night, you can see what Macau means. It isn’t a city; it’s an illusion. There are pole dancers at one of the hippest young clubs, MP3, pole dancers from East Europe and the remains of the late USSR. At Jaloco, close by, an Elvis impersonator is singing later Elvis in a syrupy Portuguese accent. But these are the sideshows, just as the hip hop boy and his two ladies at the Sands casino are sideshows. The main event is money.
Here money isn’t just about symbolic value; it takes on the quality of metaphor. It has power to purchase but that is secondary; here it is only about the rush of adrenaline that marks the turn of the next card. In a city that uses glass lavishly and in parallel to create reflections looking into reflections, everything is transmuted so gambling is not about money.
When I ask Raymond how much he expects to make in the 48th year of his life, he is perplexed. Suddenly a chasm opens between us, between those who are willing to take a chance and those who are only here to watch.
“How much?” his face creases.
He tries valiantly to explain and despite the language barrier, I begin to get it. This is not about the amount you take home but how you take it home. If you make lots of easy money, that’s not the point. But a beautiful bluff at poker in which you only earn a few dollars? That’s a thrill.
This is about beating the odds. Each gambler sees himself as a maverick confronting the exquisite boredom on the face of the croupier, the odds that will ensure that the house sleeps well on its take, the very notion of the universe which does not favour the little man and his dreams.
The act of gambling in itself is not about winning or losing but about the moment in between. Just before the card turns or the ball stops rolling or the little fruits and flowers stop their shimmy, life is suspended. The world may change completely or it may go on its way.
Once upon a time, a poor girl sat by the edge of the water and dreamed of crossing. She asked a bunch of rich people on a boat if they would allow her to cross for free.
“No money, no talk,” they replied and sailed forth.
But an old fisherman in a listing junk agreed to give the girl free passage. It was the typhoon season and soon the water was choppy and the winds began to scream. In front of them, they could see the sturdy ship carrying the rich was already in trouble. When things got worse, the poor began to despair but suddenly the girl stood up in the prow. She seemed to be radiant and at a gesture, the waters calmed and the junk sailed to safety even as the sea swallowed the rich.
When the boat touched land, the girl was the first to disembark. She then, and here you must take your pick, vanished into a mist, turned into a ball of fire and vanished or simply disappeared.
But the people on the junk realised that A-Ma had been with them, and they built a shrine to her on the spot.
Many centuries later when the Portuguese arrived and asked what the name of the area was, they were told that it was ‘A-Ma-Gao’ or the Bay of A-Ma.
Almost every story has to do with the sea. The Penha Church, up on a hill, was built by traders who thought that the Dutch had done for them. When PortuÃ‚guese reinforcements arrived just in time, they promised to build a church to the Virgin Mary with one percent of their profits.
At the elegant Museum of Macau, which has been built into the excavations of a fortress which yielded a substantial number of the artefacts of the museum, there’s the story of the wives of the Portuguese who would climb to the hill and watch for the boats to return.
Uhm, and one didn’t return and then the woman wailed and threw herself down and returned to haunt the place?
The wives climbed the hill. They looked for their husbands. If you want a tragedy, try the Mong Hà couple who were denied the right of conjugality (not my words, not my words) and became a pair of intertwined trees.
In the Lo Lim Yok, which is a garden in the Suchow style (whatever that is), you might chance upon an impromptu display of Tai Chi or a man taking his caged songbird for a walk. Or a Chinese opera performance about a man who was lost at sea and aah, here it comes, the woman who turned into a carp.
On Taipa, there are five houses that once faced the sea. Now they face a strip of water that is being eyed by everyone who wants a piece of the double-figure action. In the last 25 years, Macau has been redrawn endlessly, reclaiming land from the sea.
“The dragon boat races started here,” someone will tell you, pointing to a patch of concrete.
“And that was the breakwater there,” someone will tell you.
In the night, the city glitters. SomeÃ‚where out in the bay, workers continue to struggle to put up 77,000 more hotel rooms (the city has 11,000 right now) to bring to birth a new Las Vegas in Asia. You are reminded that Sheldon Adelman, the man who built the Venetian in Vegas and who seems to be the prime mover behind the Cotai Strip, saw his vision in a dream. This is indeed a city of dreams. For luxury, as a term, redefines itself endlessly. As an idea or a process or a thing becomes common, it ceases to be luxury. If luxury is an illusion defined only by scarcity and effort, no one in the luxury business can ever sleep.
Good night, Macau.
There are no direct flights from India to Macau. Air India flies Delhi to Hong Kong return for Rs.24,190. Buses take you to the Shun Tak centre from where TurboJet and First Ferry run ferry services that start at HK $137. The trip to Macau takes a little more than an hour.
Where to stay
Five-star hotels include the Westin Resort (from $125; +853-871111, the Mandarin Oriental (from $245; 567888, Or try the four-star Beverly Plaza (from $110; 782288, . Rooms at the Sintra (710111) and at the Metropole (388166) can be had for under $50.
Most hotels also have casinos, so you don’t need to go far to gamble. The Casino and Hotel Lisboa is the oldest and most established of these. Casinos like the Sands , Galaxy , Greek Mythology and Wynn have more games, and lower stakes.
What to see & do
Have a Macanese meal and Portuguese wine.
Eat a durian. And some mangosteens.
Go for a walk in the night among the fairy lights and the tight faces. (Macau is said to be a safe place even for unescorted women.)
Take a walking tour of the city’s historic centre which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Macau Government Tourist Office (+853-315-566, or the MGTO office in India (011-41669277.