More than glitz and casinos define Macao

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/16 19:13:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

I didn't expect much of my trip to Macao last week. I've been to Las Vegas a few times. The glistening gambling machines, the clanking of coins rolling in and rolling out, the full-on entertainment provided by the grand hotels and the swarms of inebriated tourists, obsessive shopping and the illusion of getting rich overnight are too familiar to be alluring. And I didn't know what else Macao could offer other than these. I thought Macao would be just a smaller version of Vegas. But I was wrong.

First of all, despite similarities with Sin City, Macao is definitely not a "smaller version."

Las Vegas has basically grown out of a desert gradually since Nevada state legalized gambling in the 1930s. But the version of Vegas we know today where luxury, laxity, modernity and ugliness all mix together was mainly developed in the past 30 years with the mega casino resorts opening one after another in the area known as the Strip. Today 15 of the largest 25 hotels in the world are located on the 4.2-mile-long Strip.

In Macao, gambling has been legal since the 19th century, but the real boom times didn't start until 2001 when the government ended the 40-year-monopoly of Stanley Ho's Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau (STDM) and opened the market to other major casino owners and developers. Since then, mega hotels with more luxury resorts and gambling facilities have been shooting up. Since 2006, Macao has overtaken Vegas in gambling revenues.

But Macao has much more than gambling. The area located alongside the Pearl River Delta first became a sizeable fishing village in the mid-16th century when the Portuguese built a settlement for trade. The Portuguese then administered Macao right up until its 1999 handover to China, first as a leased port, then as a colony. All this means that Macao has a unique culture that is reflected in everything from the juxtaposed Portuguese church relics and Chinese temples to the dual language road signs and the fusion cuisine.

But what really surprised me is that it seems any shops you walk into and any street vendors you bump into here are very much family affairs.

Examples are the Lord Stow's Bakery in Coloane Village, which is across a bridge from the city, and the related Margaret's Café e Nata on the Macao peninsula, two go-to places largely because of their famous Portuguese egg tarts. Andrew Stow, the English chef, and his then wife Margaret Wong opened Lord Stow's in 1989, and they soon made the lovely desserts a synonym for Macao. Stow passed away in 2006 and the shop is run by their daughter Audrey and his sister Eileen. Margaret still works every day at the Margaret's Café e Nata, a shop she opened alone after the couple divorced in 1997. Margaret told me she doesn't worry about what happens when she eventually retires because Audrey will take care of the shop.

Another such shop is the NGA Tim Café in Coloane Village. The owner, 75-year-old Feeling Wong, told me he grew up in Coloane, went to work in the city when he was young, found it boring, and came back to open the restaurant more than 40 years ago. He hasn't left since then and his son manages the restaurant. He himself still comes to the café every day to chat with old friends who come to dine.

At Golden City, a street-side noodle soup stand with just three tables, I met the founder who everyone calls "Auntie Cheung." She told me she is over 80, and has been running the stand since 1973. Some students in the nearby primary school who patronized it in the early days have brought back their own children. Auntie Cheung's own daughter and son are also in the business, running two other noodle shops in different places in Macao.

In front of the A-Ma Temple, I met Mr. Wong, a 65-year-old selling homemade ice cream from a pushcart. He's been doing this for 35 years and the pushcart, started by his father, is 75 years old. He is a rarity in that he is worried about the sustainability of the business because his grown-up children have shown no interest in taking the pushcart over.

Traditional small businesses are disappearing everywhere in the world. But it seems the process is slower in Macao. Unlike Vegas where the population almost doubled with newcomers looking for opportunities during the casino boom between 1990 to 2000, Macao's labor market is more locally oriented, thanks to its special administrative region status where Chinese from the mainland cannot work legally without a special permit. A temporary basic income of $1,000 a year the government provides each citizen with also helps keep young people at home.

All of this may not only have helped retain traditional small businesses in Macao, but also attract tourists like me who are keen to walk along dilapidated narrow alleys to discover people and shops largely preserved as they were many years ago.

On the way to the airport, I realized I didn't step into the casinos even once in my three days in Macao. Well, that's fine. I can always go to Vegas to gamble. After all, all immigrants come to the US to try our luck, don't we?

The author is a New York-based journalist.


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