On either side, the ocean, inky blue in the gathering twilight rises up as the plane noses downwards straight into the hungry, open mouth of the water. When we touch down on solid earth its miraculous, as though Moses himself had returned to part the ocean. In fact we have landed on a narrow strip of reclaimed land that comprises the runway for Macau’s airport, a cheeky man-made exclamation mark, surrounded by the gentle lapping of waves.
From the airport it’s a twenty minute taxi drive into the down town area of the Macau peninsula. We zip along an undulating bridge, one of three that ribbons across the expanse of water separating the peninsula from the outlying Taipa Island. The peninsula’s harbour is a constellation of neon, home to Asia’s busiest and largest casino district. This is China’s answer to Las Vegas and given the fact that Macau outstripped the Vegas strip itself on gambling revenue last year, it’s a pretty resounding answer.
As we drive past the Wynn casino, developed by Vegas magnate Steve Wynn at a weighty price tag of over a billion dollars, a flourish of backlit fountains dances up and down to classical melodies at the casino’s front porch. To the Wynn’s north, a gigantic artichoke-like structure rests on a mirrored egg of light-bending intensity. This is the Grand Lisboa, the latest creation of the Hong Kong casino mogul Stanley Ho, who until 2002 had a monopoly on Macau’s casino business.
The Grand Lisboa is replete with diaphanous egg motifs, somewhat puzzling to us until we discover that the egg is considered a lucky symbol for gamblers in China. The golden yolk it holds within represents the golden treasure the lucky and skilful may end up with after a night at a casino.
I smile and think of how much is transformed in translation across the Himalayas. Back in India, to end up with an egg, anda, is to come away empty handed, which is precisely what I get for my brief stint at the slot machine: an anda.
Macau began life as a sleepy fishing village but given its strategic location it wasn’t long before a colonial power, the Portuguese in this case, cast a covetous eye on it. By mid-sixteenth century Macau was a Portuguese colony and the fulcrum of a profitable trade between the spice and tea rich East and a West that was rapidly developing a taste for a dash of pepper and hot cuppa.
Macau’s architecture reflects its melting-pot legacy. Away from the waterfront with its rash of high-spec gambling dens, the grey brick walls of traditional Chinese houses rub up against mango and cream coloured colonial confections straight out of the cobbled streets of old Lisbon.
Seventy percent of Macau’s budget comes from taxes the casinos pay and this has been put to good use, sprucing up the historic city-centre of the peninsula. In 2005 several of the churches, squares and temples that dot this part of the city were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
We visit the ruins of St Paul’s, the centre-piece of historic Macau. The church was built back in 1602 but a kitchen fire in 1835 all but destroyed it. What’s left is a magnificent stone façade that rears up, high into the sky. Through the glassless, gaping windows that punctuate the ruin, wispy white clouds drift lazily by.
Later we wander into the shaded calm of the Protestant cemetery, established by the British East India Company in 1821. Potted plants and flowering trees send up plumes of sweet scents but I feel a stab of sadness at this display of lives cut short, so far away from home. The average age of those buried here is around 25. They came from around the world, these early globalisers: seamen, members of the Bombay civil service and missionaries. They died of “painful and lingering illness”, falls from “aloft,” malaria and dysentery.
Back in Macau’s bustling streets we are in a happier present. The city is booming since having returned to the Chinese in 1999. The winding back lanes that thread the old town hum with activity. Dried fish carcasses line store fronts and pharmacies sell knotted ginseng roots and spiky deer antlers.
We find ourselves at the A Ma temple, the Chinese heart of Macau. A Ma was the legendary Goddess of seafarers and Macau is a Portuguese adaptation of the city’s original name A Ma Gao or “place of A Ma.” The temple is crammed with visitors, who light towering cones of incense which they then hang from the roofs of A Ma’s many pavilions. Incense is not all that’s on offer. Worshipers bring in gifts of wine, chocolate toffees, even roast suckling pig. The Goddess was obviously quite the epicure, a characteristic she shares with virtually all Macau folk.
The only activity to rival gambling in Macau is eating, predictable in a city that blends two of the world’s greatest gastronomic cultures: the Mediterranean and Chinese. From Dim Sum to the finest Portuguese, we are spoilt for a choice of restaurants. We decide to plum for Macanese, the local fusion that mixes Chinese, Indian, Malay and Portuguese elements.
We head to Coloane, the island that houses the well-spoken of Nga Tim Café. Sitting outdoors along a tree-lined square, we feast on garlic king prawns and salted sardines; spicy African chicken and chorizo sausage laced tomato rice. All is washed down with a few glassfuls of Portuguese Vinho Verde, green wine. A Ma would have approved.