“There is no night life here,” Mikayla said with a frown.
I was having a hard time believing her; the tour guide in my hand was open to the entertainment section. “But it says that Macau’s nightlife is famous for its variety, frantic pace, and constant change,” I quickly pointed out. “What about Avenida Sun Yat-Sen? Have you been there?”
Mikayla shot me a deadpan look. “They’re lying.”
For the last eight years she’d been alternating between visiting and living in Macau. If anyone was familiar with the city, it would be her. So whether or not I was ready to accept it, Mikayla was right- Las Vegas’ biggest competition doesn’t let its hair down.
If Hong Kong is the life of the party, then Macau would be the parents who are out of town. Of course there are the luxurious hotels, restaurants, cocktail bars, and couture shops; but the focus remains undeniably and explicitly on gambling. And you know what? You can’t gamble if you’re dancing.
At the Venetian Macau, the casino floor is inside a large hall that’s enclosed behind a partition. It has the visual appeal of a heavily guarded convention and only the most determined of gamblers would want to be there (unlike the packs of roving ‘bros’ in Vegas that wear untucked dress shirts and keep one eye on their cards and the other on the women).
Obviously the casinos know their market though; according to Bloomberg, as of October 2013, gambling revenue in Macau jumped to $4.57 billion USD.
However, unlike Las Vegas, Macau is a former Portuguese colony rich in heritage and UNESCO listed. Senado Square, the historic heart of city, is just one of many places where the curious mixture of Chinese and Portuguese culture is apparent. The beautiful black and white stone tiles (that also famously pattern the beaches of Rio) are fringed with knee-high altars for good luck and prosperity.
Overlooking Senado Square, Mount Fortress combines the rugged charm of a European fortress with the other-worldly twang of Chinese opera.
Across the harbor, pastel green colonial buildings are pasted with red and gold charms.
For outwardly being less sinful than Las Vegas (based only on the fact that Macau doesn’t have a night club which encourages women to compete for breast implants), there are a lot more religious shrines. Perhaps Vegas doesn’t feel the need to atone for much, but take a stroll in any direction in Macau and you will run into one shrine after another.
The moment you step inside the famous A-Ma temple, a dense cloud of incense will smack you in the face. Move too slowly and the burning hot ash from a 6ft joss stick will blow onto your shoulder. Move too quickly and you will miss the details: the quiet rituals, the bored gaze of the bald man behind the incense stall, the men in suits finalizing their business deals under a spray of pale gray ash.
About ten years ago, while working at McDonald’s, I was in the kitchen washing the breakfast cooking equipment. There were several steps, all of which I did too thoroughly, but the last one in particular was a pale pink disinfectant bath. The moment I caught a whiff of it, I knew it smelled like something familiar. I just couldn’t place it right away.
Then it hit me- it was the same scent as the well water of my childhood home in Florida. Not that I claim to be a water connoisseur, but it had a very specific scent because it was so hard and had so many minerals. All the white laundry slowly turned cream and my hair strawberry blond.
That’s kind of how I feel about Chinese incense now. As soon as I smell it, it reminds me of a small dark temple with incense coils hanging from the ceiling. The air is heavy, but cleansed, and behind the screen of smoke there glitters gold toned urns and paper charms.
St Dominic’s Church, in Senado Square, is one of the most famous examples of 17th century Baroque architecture in Macau. While it lacks the excitement of dodging hot ash and it feels much more touristy than the A-Ma Temple, it makes up for it with religious sculpture. In the Sacred Art Museum above the church is a box of oddly severed and disjointed body parts.
Macau was a Portuguese colony from the mid-16th century right up until 1999, which made it the last remaining European colony in Asia. Considering the longevity of the occupation, it’s interesting to note that only about 2% of the population is Portuguese. Despite that small percentage, Mikayla and I stumbled across the Lusofonia Festival on my first night.
It was a celebration of Portuguese-speaking culture from across the globe- from Brazil to East Timor to Sao Tome & Principe. Each country had its own booth and very different ways of introducing its culture. Brazil had creepy black mannequins and cachaça; another country had a sandy pond filled with drowning turtles (Mikayla advised the owner to put some rocks in the pool so the turtles could rest).
Strolling down the Avenida da Praia, on my left were the candy-colored Taipa Houses Museum and on my right, in the distance, was the Venetian Hotel. A high-stake future, a colonial past, one endearingly eclectic mix; I was really enjoying Macau.
How to get to Senado Square: Macau Island, Buses: 2, 3, 3A, 3X, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8A, 10, 10A, 11, 17, 18, 18A, 19, 21A, 26A, 33
How to get to A-Ma Temple: Macau Island, Buses: 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 10A, 11, 18, 21A, 26, 28B, MT4
How to get to the Taipa Houses Museum: Avenida da Praia, Old Taipa Village -Taipa Island. Buses: 11, 15, 22, 28A, 30, 33, 34