Monday, January 18, 2010

And on the fourth morning we split town.

We had scheduled an early flight out of Beijing to maximize time in Macau. Little did I know that I could or would need several visits to understand that small, quixotic city of dreams, casinos, slums, Portuguese colonial heritage, Macanese cuisine and PatĂșa language. The first good news was the weather, though overcast the temperature jumped from -10°C to about 16°. The traveling was initially stressful and ultimately circuitous. We arranged a cab with the help of one of the assistant concierges, leaving according to their suggestion. At the airport we were passed between three different attendants each one drawing long faces as they viewed our itinerary, hurriedly talking with their colleagues in hush tones, but not with us. Ultimately, they informed us that in their minds we were late arrivals and sent us to one then a third kiosk for boarding passes. I didn’t understand why the first set of folks couldn’t have printed out the paperwork and send us more quickly on our way, I had forgotten that in reality we were leaving the country and had to go through customs. We were able to board without much difficulty, fly into Hong Kong and transfer through to a hydrofoil for Macau, passing through several manned temperature control checkpoints that attempt to contain contagious diseases with plastic pistol like thermometers that instantaneously measure your temp, before passing customs at the ferry terminal before locating our hotel shuttle van.
This hotel was a dowager with fresh makeup in what appeared to be an older urban district reminiscent of old Times Square Hotels like the Edison. The managers seemed South Asian, though the clerks were clearly Chinese. Half of the elevators were glass rising up towards the sunroof, above the lobby garden and terraced floors. This room was not as smart and modern as the one in the Crown in Beijing. Still functional though its one modern pizzazz was a large control box, or super sized remote control for lighting, media and temperature. Stumbling into the bathroom late at night without the aid of this device was not easy.
We set out to change money and get lunch after quickly unpacking. Using our new concierge as a guide we found a Macanese restaurant, that was better for people watching, than dining. The garlic shrimp were decent, though the bolinhos de bacalhau, or cod fritters were not nearly as rich as a bunch of Chinese fellas that could be Triad wannabees or rejects among the gambling families and travelers. I found the seafood rice, somewhere between fried rice and paella to be competent and satisfying though not memorable. I hoped that this was not an indication of tastes to come. At least every corner had great old overblown neon that was lit day and night.
My research project is grounded in Macau and its distinct culture. As the first point of contact between Europeans and Chinese in the 16th century, parts of the city were designated World Heritage sites. Now home to an ever expanding casino empire, monopolized by Stanley Ho for 40 years and now home to the largest global casino enterprises this city is poised o make Vegas look like a pinball game arcade, cloning the western excess ontop of Chinese glitz and uber-bling. The visually orgasmic result is as abhorrent as it is seductive attracting a largely middle and working class Asian edgy gambler. That mixed with a spate of Japanese Christian tour groups centering their visits on iconic Christian shrines and reliquaries that are symbolic and reverential of prior persecutions for Catholic Japanese that had included crucifixtions and torture. The Westerner’s have been late to the party, with Atelier Joel Robuchon leading the charge, setting up shop in Macau for his ultra French open kitchen concept in Macau before opening in Manhattan. Money talks.

After lunch and comparative exchange rates we walked over to the Leal Senado or Legal Senate and center of the old Portuguese district. All through this area were large bandstands set up for performance and decorated with oversized Technicolor plastic and vinyl Santas, elves and reindeer. We walked through the old quarter, happening upon an old urban mansion, a myriad of food shops with sidewalk salespeople passing out samples of cured meat pastes, fish maws, (air bladders), medicinal and tea shops, video, book and clothing stores almost all with signs in 3 languages; English, Cantonese and Portuguese. Yet, most everyone spoke only Cantonese except for bye bye and hello.
Finally, after exploring the ruins of the cathedral, restored and excavated we found an older 50ish tour guide who purported to speak 7 languages, one being the Portuguese of his youth. That day wound down by getting lost on the bus system, ending up at the A-Ma temple and eating wonderful Macanese food at Littoral, before crashing for a bit and coming out later for another lovely Macanese early dinner at Alorcha.

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