Asia's Sin City:
A Travelogue of Macao
[1: Perhaps better known by the old Wade-Giles transliteration Macau, with a U (same pronunciation), though the pinyin is fairly standard now. Both spellings were seen in the territory, at airports and in Hong Kong and the Mainland.]
Date: Friday, October 7th – Monday, October 10th, 2016
In the gambling capital of the world, I made one bet. It was the last night I was there, after I’d returned from a rather unerotic ‘burlesque’ show (more on this later), while chilling in the hotel room. My brother was drinking Korean soju, while I was sipping a New Zealand chocolate vodka mudslide cocktail (about four percent alcohol). I had a small bottle of Zhengzongxiaoping flavoured baijiu (a more recognizable brand might be Moutai). Scotch was everywhere in Macao, as was cognac. We cracked open our Hennessy sampler bottles – a little sweet, maybe it’s an acquired taste, like oppressing political dissidents – when my brother convinced me to head back out to Cotai and see all that that strip of land had to offer. I’d come to this city-state for the casinos, the glitz and glamour and gaudiness, and thus far I’d seen giant pandas, the historic district, museums, and few casinos. I wasn’t staying in Cotai, the Las Vegas Strip of Asia, but rather on the Macao Peninsula, not far from the Ferry Terminal. I had briefly walked through Cotai the night before, seeing the Venetian, the Parisian, the City of Dreams and the Sands Cotai Resort, which includes the Himalaya Casino, the Conrad Hotel, the Hilton and the 4,000-room Sheraton. However, I’d only briefly seen the inside of the Sands and the City of Dreams, and had missed out on the extensive shops, indoor canal system and labyrinthine casino of the Venetian, which, when measured by floor area, is the seventh largest building in the world.
[2: Thirty-nine percent alcohol. Goes down easier than pure baijiu, but the flavouring kind of makes it taste like medicine.]
[3: At close to a million square meters, it’s roughly fifty percent larger than the Pentagon.]
Moreover, I had completely missed the Galaxy, another major installation in Cotai. So, I was convinced to go out. There are high minimums in Macao, and I hadn’t bet anything since my arrival. The best baccarat minimums I’d seen were at the Jimei Casino, an ‘off-Strip’ two-room casino of about twenty tables (an no slots), comparable to the sort of joint you’d stop at thirty minutes outside of Vegas when that extra half hour is a bridge too far.
[4: And I didn’t even know how to play baccarat. I had looked it up briefly when I was writing One Night in Ikh Khulan, but I’d forgotten the details.]
We arrived, transferred from the Sands Macao (the older joint, on the Peninsula) via free shuttle bus to the Sands Cotai (newer, larger). We crossed the road, snapping pictures of the Eiffel Tower outside the Parisian, just down the way, and the massive bulk of the Venetian. Inside was a maze of high-end shops, set up just like the Venetian in Las Vegas. Up on the third floor was the canal system, lined by even more shops, old brick facades, with the fake domed ceiling to make it look like you were in Italy. Back down an escalator to the casino floor, which was packed at this evening hour, with people dressed in everything from designer suits and dresses to stained track suits, table games as far as the eye could see – baccarat here, blackjack there, some Caribbean poker off that way, craps around the other side of the escalator – and a bright red carpet with coiling, serpentine dragons dancing about on it. High minimums, as usual; at a casual glance, a low-end blackjack table had a minimum of HKD$300, with an upper limit of HKD$15 million.
[5: For some reason, this casino would only take Hong Kong dollars, not Macanese patacas (the currency of Macao), despite the fact that these two currencies are virtually interchangeable and they are always within three cents of each other. At the time of my writing this, one hundred Hong Kong dollars is valued at CAD$16.94, and 100 Macanese patacas is CAD$16.44]
How about roulette, I thought? That’s usually a cheap minimum. Where are the roulette tables, I had to ask. Ah, over that way, on the far side of this central escalator island. We head over. Most of the tables are packed, but one isn’t too busy. My brother asks if I want to place a bet. Why not? One bet. We each take a hundred dollars. The dealer gives my brother two chips. I always play the inside, so I ask for singles, which in North American casinos are usually valued at a dollar a piece. She likewise hands me two chips. Okay, so these are singles. HKD$50 a piece. Alright. 23 and... yes, I’ll go with 11. The wheel spins and... shouldn’t it come up on 11. Pays out thirty-six to one. HKD$1800. Have you ever seen a HKD$1000 bill?
[6: It works out to about $300 Canadian, off of a $17 bet.]
Somewhat overshadowed by its bigger, more business savvy, more developed sister, Macao exists on the west side of the Pearl River Delta, across the channel from Hong Kong. It has about one fourteenth the population, and a little over one percent of the land area. However, this old Portuguese gateway into the Orient is now the Las Vegas of Asia, and the gambling capital of the world, bringing in seven times the revenue annually of its Nevadan cousin. When counted as its own country, it has the highest population density in the world and is richer than Dubai.
I’m a gambler at heart. I like the flashy, gaudy nature of casinos. Before this trip, I had never left North America, and to go to Asia for the first time, Hong Kong was the target. It’s the most Westernized part of East Asia, with half the population speaking English and heavy cultural ties to its former colonial parent, Britain. And if I’m going to travel to Hong Kong, you can’t come that close to the Las Vegas of Asia and not stop by.
You arrive via TurboJet Ferry from Hong Kong. About sixty minutes. It’s an international border between the two Special Administrative Regions, though hassle is minimal; it’s similar to the Canada-US border pre-9/11. The Ferry Terminal is on the Peninsula, not far from the fifty-kilometre road link they’re building between the two. The Golden Dragon Hotel is only sixty hundred and fifty meters away, but with bridges going every which way and sidewalks terminating, perhaps walking isn’t the best option. There’s a lot across the road with dozens of shuttle buses. They’re all free here, operated by the casinos and running customers either between multiple casino properties, to the Ferry Terminal, or Border Gate, the connection with Zhuhai on the Mainland. I see Venetian, Galaxy, Hilton... no Golden Dragon. Very poor English with the first person I ask.
[7: Expected to cost more than US$10 billion, this project consists of a nearly thirty-kilometre bridge across the Pearl River Delta, returning to sea level at an artificial island, where it becomes a tunnel, then emerging on another artificial island. It’ll also connect to the Mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai. We could see one of the many artificial islands while crossing the Amizade (or Friendship) Bridge.]
One shouldn’t expect a lot of English in Macao. It’s a former Portuguese colony in the south of China. The dominant language is Cantonese. A certain percentage of the population will speak Mandarin, as well as Portuguese, but English is rare, even within parts of the tourist industry.
Ah, here’s a young woman calling out for her shuttle bus, and she’s asking if I need help in halfway decent English. “Golden Dragon? They don’t run a shuttle bus here anymore. You...” she struggles, “take the bus for Casa Real. Golden Dragon just around the corner. But...” and now here you can see the mental strain of her trying to translate this right, “don’t tell driver... don’t tell him Golden Dragon.”
I nod. “I understand,” I tell her. She smiles. The shuttle buses are meant for guests of that hotel, not any random traveller.
The bus arrives at Casa Real, not far away. Ask the bellhop. In broken English, he points to the intersection, then points left. Get to the corner. There’s the Golden Dragon. It’s across the road from a failing mall, and on the far side is Fisherman’s Wharf. Between Casa Real and the Dragon are about a half dozen watch shops, small little things in storefronts selling major brand name watches like Rolex – which I’m pretty sure weren’t knockoffs, as the prices on some of them were six figures (patacas). In fact, these watch shops, as well as jewelry shops of the same sort, were littered throughout Macao. Throw a stone from any location and you’ll hit three of them. The places all look rundown, in strip plazas next to pharmacies and convenience stores selling cheap flavoured baijiu and a half dozen different types of cognac, yet the prices are astronomical.
My guess is their business model is something like this: You’re a wealthy businessman, down to Macao for a little fun. You’re out at the casino. Remember that the ‘low-end’ tables have upper limits of HKD$15 million. Maybe you’ve got a sex worker sitting next to you at the craps table. She squeezes the dice in her cleavage before you play. Prostitution is legal here in Macao, much like it is in Nevada. You’re on a winning streak, win big. You walk down the block to your hotel. You’re bathed in euphoria. You pass three watch shops. Hey, a Rolex would look good on me, don’t you think? Maybe you buy one. As for the jewelry, well, doesn’t your good luck charm deserve a little something? She kissed the cards just before you won, after all. Maybe she even... prods you to this decision. Come on, baby, I really like that diamond necklace. Suddenly, it’s on her neck. Ah, what’s a win in Macao for if not blowing it on whores and frivolity? So what if there’s a ninety percent chance she’s pawning that necklace in twelve hours’ time? You’ve had enough cognac in the last few hours that you really aren’t aware of that possibility right now. You just want to get her back to the hotel room....
[8: Also like in Nevada, there are restrictions to this rule. Brothels are not legal here, and neither is any sort of pimping.]
The thing to understand about Macao is that it’s comprised of four districts (in Portuguese, freguesias), collectively about half the size of Manhattan. Old Macao, the original Portuguese settlement, dating back to 1557 when they bribed a local governor to set up a trading port, is the Peninsula, confusingly called Macao Peninsula, or sometimes just Macao, connected to Guangdong Province. Then there are ‘the Islands’, as they’re sometimes referred: Taipa (in the north) and Coloane (in the south). However, these islands (plural) have now become one island, with the land reclamation and creation of Cotai connecting the two. This is the major casino district, where all the big names like Venetian and Sands are located, though there are casinos elsewhere throughout the territory as well.
The history of gambling in Macao dates back to the 1850s, when the Portuguese legalized it as a way of generating revenue. Today, it’s the only place in China where gambling is legal. Initially the trade was small, largely non-commercialized betting houses, until 1961 when a Hong Kong-born business magnate named Stanley Ho (and some associates) promised to boost Macanese tourism and thus won a government monopoly. In the 1940s, at just twenty-two, Ho made partner at a Japanese import/export firm. Portuguese sovereignty over Macao was nominally respected by the Japanese during the war, as Portugal was officially neutral, however by the late stages of the war, the Japanese virtually dominated the territory through a protectorate. Ho made his first fortune during these years, smuggling goods into Mainland China.
Today, there are thirty casinos in Macao, and the monopoly first negotiated between Ho and government has been broken, though Ho still owns nearly half the casinos in the territory, including the Grand Lisboa, the crown jewel of Macao.
The Golden Dragon is across the road from a failed mall, home to rundown pharmacies, a ‘Funny Sex Shop’, and a lot of empty businesses. On the other side is from Lotus Square, a large open square with the Macanese and Chinese flags in the centre. On the one side of the square is the Grand Prix museum and the wine museum, which provides tastings of a couple different vintages. The other side of the square is an underpass crossing the road, littered with hooker calling cards, or ‘tart cards’, which leads to the Sands Macao. From here you can get lunch at Gourmet 888, an Asian restaurant on the third floor, or you can gamble at baccarat or blackjack tables, none of which are less than HKD$300. Or you can catch the free tour bus across Amizade Bridge and into Cotai, where you’re deposited at the Sands Cotai Resort (but only if, wink wink, you’re staying at that hotel). The Jimei Casino, that cheap, dumpy joint I mentioned earlier, is next door, and across the way is the Waldo Casino and Hotel (aha, I found him! He’s been hiding in Macao this whole time!), and of course about a dozen more watch and jewelry shops.
China’s National Day – their Independence Day or Canada Day – is October 1st, and in honour of this, a week-long food festival was taking place at Fisherman’s Wharf, just on the other side of Avenida da Amizade. I discovered this entirely by accident, taking a walk the first night. A hundred booths were set up, selling everything from lamb on a stick to grilled squid, coconut milk ice cream, Tsingtao beer, Japanese beef, and a sort of Taiwanese poutine. There’s a half-built Roman coliseum in the background, where it looks like concerts are held, and in the other direction are a bunch of waterfront restaurants and a few shops. Barbed wire and hired guards surround expensive yachts, and the Amizade Bridge connecting the Peninsula to Taipa is across the water. In the heart of the festival, vendors are shouting advertisements, pretty girls are dressed up in cupcake dresses and posing for photos, and a stage is set up where singers perform some sort of Chinese pop.
“There’s an accent I recognize,” exclaims a white guy as my brother an I are getting frozen yogurt. This was on the third night, as we went back to this festival each day. He’s from Florida, it turns out. This is his froyo shack. His employee hands me my yogurt cup with crushed Oreo and sprinkles on it. How does a Floridian wind up in Macao? “I came over to Shanghai for business, bounced around a bit and wound up here. One day I had a craving for frozen yogurt and realized they don’t sell it here, and now here I am.”
On the second day, the Saturday, was a tour of the historic district. You start out in Largo do Senado, or Senate Square, old European-style buildings around a fountain, with walking streets all tiled with swirling black and white. Nowadays there are designer shops all throughout, but it still has that Old World look to it. Signposts are erected throughout, pointing you towards various other parts of the historic district.
Less than a half kilometre away are the Ruins of St. Paul’s, a Jesuit church built in the early 1600s, of which only the front stone facade survives today due to a fire in the nineteenth century. Along the way to this postcard image of Macao, you find winding walking streets of finely laid tile and endless shops hocking the things Macao is famous for: slabs of jerky meat the size of sheets of paper in various flavours, and the infamous Macanese egg tart. Take a pastry crust and fill it with an egg custard, then bake until caramelized. It’s... an interesting taste.
Across the road from St. Paul’s is the Fortaleza do Monte, the old Portuguese fort used to defend the Peninsula. The gardens are manicured, and you climb a series of old stone steps until you find the peak and the entrance.
China was first opened to the West at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and then only in limited capacity. The dynasty had turned inward, and wasn’t interested in what the outside world had to offer. As a rule, they refused to trade with Europeans when they showed up. The Portuguese were the exception to this, as they managed to pay a lease, an arrangement worked out with a local official, not the court in Beijing. The Portuguese had trading ports all down the west coast of Africa, back up the east, in India, Malacca, Ternate (Maluku Islands of Indonesia), and they’d arranged a trade deal in Nagasaki. A Catholic power, their main rival was the Dutch.
Fortaleza do Monte was necessary to defend the small territory from Dutch attacks, which would occur with some regularity. (The Dutch would eventually get their hands on Taiwan, which they called Formosa, but this was inadequate to compete with the Portuguese because of its much greater distance from the mainland, and because at the end of the Ming, a loyalist general seized it from them to create a Ming stronghold.) At the entrance to the fort, you can see the cannons pointing out of the battlements above. There’s an advertisement at the doorway for a concert being held here tonight: Voice from the Mongolian Steppe, a morin khuur ensemble for the 30th Macao International Music Festival. Through the doorway and up a stone ramp, you find the peak of the fortress, where you can walk all the way around and get a view of the city. In the immediate area you can see slums, rundown neighbourhoods and squat block hospitals. In the far distance to the northwest are construction projects for massive apartment blocks, but that may be in Zhuhai. The cannons that they still have here face south, what would have been a clear shot to the water a few centuries ago. Now, however, they would only manage to demolish the Grand Lisboa, the giant, fountain-shaped hotel and casino owned by Stanley Ho. In the centre they’re setting up for the Mongolian concert that night, and slightly to the north of that is the entrance to the Macao Museum, where impatient Chinese women are forcing open the opaque sliding door looking for the hours of operation, only to be rebuffed by a security guard pushing them back out.
At the southern tip of the Peninsula, not far from the Macao Tower, which sports the highest commercial bungee jump in the world, is a small temple. You can walk here from Fortaleza do Monte, through up and down, thin, winding streets that look like they belong in old Amsterdam, only lined with Asian restaurants selling everything from pork knuckles to eel. You arrive at the temple, and there’s a refreshment cart selling ice cream in the baking heat in the area out front, as well as people selling overpriced little magnets in the shape of Macanese poker chips. Spirals of incense are slowly burning all around the temple, creating a haze of smoke that gives it an almost mystical feel, despite the heavy crowds and now commercialized nature of the place.
Fans are set up at shrines, and incense in being sold. Groups of Chinese women bow multiple times and then place their incense in the sand. It’s built into the hillside, as are all the winding streets running though this district. You climb. Within only one or two sets of stairs, the tourism of the place drops away and it’s more peaceful, more serene.
The A-Ma Temple is Daoist, specifically built for the worship of Mazu, the goddess of seafarers and fisherman. Mazu, as legend has it, was a real person, a young woman named Lin Mo that lived during the Song Dynasty. She had a natural ability to read the weather above and beyond your average person (perhaps in the same way arthritis sufferers can predict a storm?), and would warn fisherman of approaching typhoons. She died at the age of twenty-eight and was deified thereafter. The Ming built this temple in 1488. The Portuguese first landed in Macao at Lintin Island (now Nei Lingdong Island, Guangdong) in 1513. On one of many successive trips, they landed near A-Ma, and are said to have asked the locals the name of the place. The locals, assuming they were talking about the temple, replied A-Ma-Gau, meaning ‘Bay of A-Ma’ – and thus, the Portuguese named the place Ma-Cau, or Macao, ever after.
Down in Coloane there’s a small zoo, the Giant Panda Pavilion (the hotel had to write out ‘panda’ in Chinese characters to hand to the taxi driver). Departing from Cotai (because why take a taxi all the way down from the Peninsula when there’s a free bus that gets you most of the way, to Cotai?) you drive around the Crown and the City of Dreams, and turn onto Estrada do Istmo, the main drag running between the Sands Cotai Resort on the one side and the Venetian on the other. It’s a divided highway, with overpasses leading from one casino to the next, and the animals of the Chinese zodiac lining the gardens in the median. There’s the Parisian, and Studio City in the shape of a giant speaker. To the left, next to the Sands Cotai is an empty lot, which I’m sure will one day be another colossal casino resort. Crosswalks largely work on an honour system here; there’s few signals stopping traffic. Yamaha scooters dominate the roads, young women in business dresses straddling the passenger seat. There are half-finished bridges everywhere in Macao, terminating randomly where construction stopped. A stray dog crosses the road to find a fence preventing him from going any further. A cyclist has smashed his face into the rear windshield of a hatchback; he and the driver wait for an ambulance as he sits dazed, blood on his face and a pool of glass on the road.
You come around a corner next to some expensive-looking condos and the driver abruptly stops. He’s pointing at the small sign for Seac Pai Van Park with a cartoon panda on it. The panda (they only had one in a public exhibit), slept and barely moved, as is consistent with my experience with pandas. The rest of the park has a few monkeys, some flamingos, a lone caribou and a panda information centre, which goes over the history of the two panda cubs born there.
If you’re going to see a show in Macao, the show everyone recommends is House of Dancing Water, an aquatic acrobatics show that’s been playing at City of Dreams for six years. So back to the casino for tickets. Elaborate fountains and lion statues outside City of Dreams lead you to a tremendous revolving door, and you’re hit with the overwhelming stench of perfume. The entire interior of the place is bathed in it. The baccarat tables here are at HKD$2000, though there were some Caribbean poker tables at HKD$300. The show is sold out. How about tomorrow? No, the flight’s in the morning. It seemed for a Sunday night there wasn’t much else available to see. Back at the Golden Dragon, the internet was slow and the concierge, with limited English, kept coming back to House of Dancing Water.
It’s here now that I return to the unerotic ‘burlesque’ show, for the Golden Dragon had a poster up for something that looked like a burlesque show in the front entrance. I asked the concierge about it. Limited English, he said it was playing every hour starting at six. Just upstairs.
It turned out to be one part strip club and one part live sex show – which is about as erotic as watching the most vanilla porn you can imagine in a theatre with other patrons.
I bring this up because it’s just one part of Macao’s sex industry. I’ve already mentioned the tart cards at underpasses. Like Vegas, prostitution is a big part of the allure of Macao. But whereas in Vegas teams of people hand out stacks of five or six cards on each corner all down the Strip, advertising wildly varying prices on semi-naked women whose nipples sometimes poke out from behind the star censor marks, the situation in Macao is much less overt. Tart cards are not seen in Cotai; I saw them with regularity at the underpass leading to the Sands Macao, and one night I walked around the Golden Dragon building (also home to convenience shops and restaurants and residences) just after someone had gone through littering them about. The women are much more modest than their Nevadan sistren; they’re dressed like Sunday school teachers.
Brothels are not technically legal here, but you can go nine tenths of the way towards being a brothel and get away with it. For example, ‘saunas’ are quite popular – in fact, one was operating out of the Golden Dragon, advertisements plastered across the elevator. On the way up to the Crazy Happy Show (that was the name of it), I shared an elevator with a Russian or eastern European woman with a full tattoo sleeve that I’m certain was a ‘masseuse’ there.
The Macanese government, it seems, tolerates a certain sidestepping of exact legal definitions, because tourism is necessary to the Macanese economy. Every now and then there will be a crackdown, but businesses merely relocate. Poking around, it seems one of the best saunas, Darling 1, has relocated several times.
[9: Google and the NSA have got to love picking apart my browser history.]
One of the most infamous elements of the Macanese sex industry is the so-nicknamed ‘Racetrack’. The Hotel Lisboa, a cylindrical building across the road from the newer, more glamourous Grand Lisboa, and also owned by the Ho family, has a shopping area on the ground level, full of designer shops in a doughnut layout. It used to be common practice for sex workers, apparently in coordination with officials at the hotel, to have a room on standby, and troll for customers in this ring of shops. Most hotels and casinos bar prostitutes from working on the premises, and will remove anyone they suspect of being a sex worker, but not the Hotel Lisboa. The catch was, they couldn’t just stand there, amongst these designer shops, like it was a street corner. Security is there, and will tell them to keep moving. But as long as they keep walking, around and around and around in circles, they’re fine – hence why they call it the Racetrack. So the end result is dozens of scantily-clad Asian women with eyes for wealthy men, crammed into this small plaza, and they just so happen to have a room ready upstairs.
Even if you wanted to stick with a very rigid definition of brothel, doesn’t that still sound like one? Well, the Macanese authorities thought so too, and despite the fact that this thing operated for years, even making it into the novel Rain Storm by Barry Eisler, it was eventually busted, resulting in the arrests of ninety-six women and a nephew of Stanley Ho – which is a little like arresting a nephew from the Kennedy or Rockefeller family. I walked through the Racetrack at eight o’clock on a Saturday night, and it was deserted.
[10: John Rain, Book 3. Eisler (or maybe his publishers) has changed the names of every book in the John Rain series more times than I can count. This one also goes by the names Winner Take All and Choke Point.]
Another thing Macao is famous for are ‘fishbowls’, a brothel-like enterprise wherein a customer can choose a woman from behind a pane of glass, as if the women were on display at a zoo – the sort of thing you might find more common in Thailand than in Nevada.
So it really is the Sin City of China. There’s no desert – in fact, there’s oppressive humidity – and it needs some work, a decade or so for its infrastructure to match its profit margins. The underpasses are kind if seedy (and not because of the tart cards), the roads need work, the slums are present everywhere. The failed mall across from the Golden Dragon had more vacant businesses than full ones and is a popular hangout for smoking teenagers. There are half-finished bridges everywhere, the overpasses are rundown and the vacant lots and flare-obstructing construction in Cotai somewhat distract from the glamour of the place.
But it has that Vegas glitz – outlandish casinos, Rolexes and jewelry everywhere, Rolls-Royces, pubic amenities, live sex shows, fishbowls and saunas and outcalls advertised at underpasses everywhere. Macao is perhaps eighty percent there. It’ll be really nice to see in perhaps fifteen years’ time. Maybe next time, instead of the ferry, I’ll take a bus across the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge.
Botas, João. “Legend of A-Ma: How Macau got its name” South China Morning Post, September 1, 2016, Acc. Nov 9, 2016.
Brook, Timothy. The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2013.
Clements, Jonathan. Coxinga: And the Fall of the Ming Dynasty. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2005.
Lai Ying-kit. “Stanley Ho’s nephew, 96 ‘prostitutes’ and five hotel staff held in Macau hotel vice bust” South China Morning Post, January 13, 2015, Acc. Nov 8, 2016.