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Macau: The City of Blinding Lights

MacauFerraris and gambling. That’s how most people who have never been to Macau would sum it up. (In fact, that’s how most people who have been to Macau would sum it up.) But is that really the full picture? Nick Smith jets to the Chinese super-island to find out for himself. And, after experiencing the adrenaline-fueled thrills of modern Macau, he explores the relics of the old colonial days of Portuguese rule and slips back to a more tranquil time.

It’s a Saturday and I am sitting down to lunch with the renowned TV chef, Ken Hom, at his London restaurant. Laid before us is an eclectic spread of dishes that are all typical of Macau: grilled chili tiger prawns, European-style pastries, macaroons, custard tarts… Talk turns to Macau itself, a former Portuguese colony on the southern coast of China. Hom knows it well. “Macau is a crazy place that you can only really understand by exploring and getting to know it for yourself,” he tells me, swigging a Portuguese beer. “Go and see it for yourself.” So I do. My first impression of Macau, as I speed over the Pearl River from Hong Kong in a jetfoil, is the neon-lit skyline. It appears as if a billionaire city planner has dropped Dubai on some remote Chinese island. Which is not as far-fetched as it sounds.

The only real difference between Dubai and Macau is that the former is built on oil wealth while the latter, despite its protests, is created by gambling’s fast-circulating money machine. A third of the city’s tax revenues come from gambling, while a further third is generated from the incidentals such as land rents. The rest comes from retail.

What is also immediately obvious is that Macau is a city of contradictions. It is built on gambling, yet I can see no casinos. It is the most densely populated place on earth, where roads are so busy you’ll never get out of second gear – yet it is populated by supercars. But even that doesn’t get to the heart of the contradictions that define the place.

macau2Dig deeper and you’ll find that, on one hand, it’s an epicenter of ultraconsumerism, while on the other it’s a history book crammed with Portuguese colonial culture, fusion cuisine and oriental charm. Even in the darkest back alleys, among the bamboo scaffolding and food stalls, there are luxury watch boutiques. Rolex, Omega and Breitling rub shoulders with trolleys of beef jerky, almond cookies and custard tarts. You can buy any of the world’s finest luxury goods as easily as picking apples, while getting rid of your small change on a dazzling smorgasbord of street cooking.

I begin my cultural immersion by checking out the island’s second favorite activity: driving. Or to put it more accurately, racing. There’s a hairpin bend on the street circuit in Macau that is so tight, even the best racing drivers have to grind to a virtual halt to negotiate it. I’m on full lock and I’m not sure I’m going to get around it in one go.

It should be easy because I’m driving a Mercedes-Benz sedan – but it’s not.

My passenger, a local guide, is almost begging me to slow down. We’ve borrowed a car for a tour of the city and he wants to return it in one piece. But if you don’t indulge in the fantasy of cruising around Macau’s Monaco-style racetrack you’ve missed out.

Although not qualified to drive Formula 3, I do hold a Formula Ford license and have thundered around Silverstone enough times to know a bit about motor racing. The only reason that Macau isn’t on the F1 calendar is because today’s cars don’t have the turning radius to get around the circuit. But for aficionados of the much more exciting (in my view) world of Formula 3, where the cars are sportier and more compact, this track is the racing equivalent of the Elysian Fields.

With its cobbled surfaces, needlethreading narrowness, adverse cambers and convoluted bends, it’s about as good as it gets. The air is thick with helicopters and the Pearl River is choked with jetfoils bringing in the great, the good and the very rich to be a part of one of the greatest shows on earth.

Driving aside, gambling is another industry that will never go away so I check it out myself. Surprisingly this fiscal muscle-flexing takes place in casinos hidden away in the lower-ground floors of the big hotels. This is why you never see them – unless you’re looking for them. Not only is it important that you’re perceived to have the wherewithal to take part on a grand scale, but you need to have so much of it that you can be seen to lose tens of thousands of dollars without blinking.

Adrenaline pumping from the dual thrills of racing and rattling the roulette wheel, my third stop is to check out one of Macau’s other extreme sports: bungee jumping. It’s hardly a national sport but throwing yourself off the Macau Tower has become akin to one. I’m glad I do this before lunch because even the elevator ride to the top of the tower is stomach-churning.

macau3At first glance, the city’s tallest building bears more than a passing resemblance to Auckland’s Sky Tower. Not a coincidence: when Macau’s richest man, casino billionaire Stanley Ho, first saw New Zealand’s highest edifice, he wanted one to grace his hometown’s skyline. Ho commissioned the Tower, which was to be, naturally, 33ft taller than the antipodean original. It was completed at the end of 2001.

Even if you don’t have the stomach for throwing yourself off, it’s worth taking a trip to the tower for the views alone. The observation deck is often above the clouds but on a clear day you can see for 40 miles – as far as Hong Kong itself and deep into mainland China on the other side of the Pearl River Delta. Sections of the platform’s floor are fitted with reinforced glass to allow a vertiginous view straight down, which is not for the faint-hearted. But, undeterred, there is a queue of adrenaline junkies waiting to throw themselves off in a five-second, free-fall bungee jump that will propel them towards ground at roughly 160mph.

If that’s not enough, you can climb to the summit, a further 330ft up vertical ladders. The round trip takes about three hours and only a brave few attempt it. I change my mind and decide I’m not going to be one of them…

Back on terra firma, my final stop is to take stock of Macau’s history. Most visitors don’t come for the colonial civic architecture, baroque churches and military fortifications, which is a shame. They are certainly worth a glance as even to the most casual observer, they provide the skeleton key that picks the lock of Macau’s opulent history.

It is also clear from these buildings that – even before gambling became the town’s economic powerhouse – wealth, luxury and good old-fashioned cash were the building blocks of the island. In those days, traders on the old Silk Road were more concerned with silver, indigo, spice, incense and, of course, silk. To ensure their safe passage, the colonial Portuguese landlords bankrolled the building of one of the most important free ports of the Orient in order to resist opposition from the Chinese, Spanish and Dutch. This is why Macau became, essentially, a fortress. But even this is only part of the story because, for every reminder of its colonial past, there is a deeper level of Macau’s history. And, as I light incense in one of the many Taoist and Buddhist temples, I can feel the roots of a deeper and more tranquil era of history that goes beyond the fast, furious and – as Hom put it, “crazy” world of glamour and wealth.