The 'mmm' in the title of this post is the kind of 'mmm' you make when you can't make up your mind what you think about something. I've just spent a couple of days in Macao and it has me a bit flummoxed. It was a most interesting visit - challenging and a bit confronting.I think it says something significant about the blending of local and global cultures - but I'm not sure what the 'something' it says, is.
I first visited Macao around forty years ago when it was a sleepy remnant of the once great Portuguese colonial empire. My vague memories are of a lovely walkway around the bay - shaded by ancient trees, a few rather decrepit colonial style buildings, and twisting streets of dark and crowded Chinese tenements. Rather daringly, we stayed in the then bran-new Lisboa hotel where Macao's first casino had recently opened. Forty years on most of the bay has been reclaimed for landfill, there are high-rise buildings everywhere and glitzy 'themed' casinos abound. I decided, partly for old times sake, to stay in the Lisboa hotel again. The other part of the reason was that the Lisboa is within easy walking distance of the old town centre, whereas many of the newer hotels, particularly those with casino attached, are out of town and seem to assume you will spend all your time within the hotel or resort itself.
So, even though I wasn't staying in a modern version of a Venetian Palace or the Eqyptian Sphinx, the Lisboa had lots of old-fashioned glitz. Every surface was gold-leafed or marbled or made up of glittery mosaics. There were ostentatious displays of monumental carved jade or precious wood statues and more money-changers, pawn shops and sellers of extremely high-end luxury goods than I could ever imagine to be assembled in one place.
This was the view from my hotel window during the day
and at night
It's clear that most visitors to today's Macao come for the gambling. There are frequent, packed ferries from Hong Kong and busloads of tourists from China. I discovered that the shortest route from my hotel to the old town centre was (very oddly) via one of the gambling halls of the Grand Lisboa casino. This is what it looked like at 9.00am.
And at lunch-time and in the evenings it was jam-packed. I think I'd imagined desperate, grim faces around the tables, but on the contrary, most people seemed to be enjoying themselves and were noisy and convivial. I'm sure there were dreadful, hard-luck stories (to which the prevalence of pawn-shops attest), but many of the people had more the appearance of groups of friends having a day out.
The casinos have been responsible for some truly dreadful architecture. Not only was my own hotel a masterpiece of wedding-cake design, but this was the Grand Lisboa across the street -
At night the whole edifice is outlined in neon and the globe at the front of the building has changing patterns of lights. I can't begin to imagine the electricity consumption of some of these buildings. The architecture is so garish and exuberant that I began to wonder whether there isn't a different aesthetic from the one I normally use to judge buildings that enables such structures to be designed.
But if you leave the casinos and hotels you can find the old town centre with its elegant colonial Portuguese buildings. These buildings, that were crumbling away on my visit forty years ago, have been restored and are now resplendent in their gelato colours. The public squares and footpaths have been paved with cobbles in wavy patterns and recurring maritime motifs. In the evenings the squares and pedestrian streets are crowded with people whom I assume are locals. It's all quite different from the casino and hotel scene.
Then there are the streets of twentieth century Chinese flats - crowded, human-scale, practical but not beautiful:
Macao jostles the everyday with the colonial past and the reckless glitz of modern gambling. You can see why I have difficulty deciding what to think and feel about it. I think this photo sums up all the contrasts - colonial buildings (housing McDonalds) leading to a narrow street of tenements and framing in the distance the bizarre architecture of the Grand Lisboa casino.
Finally - just because I have a photo - the iconic ruins of seventeenth century St Paul's church, which has become emblematic of Macao: