I arrived in Hong Kong en route to Macau, China after a cramped, 15-½ hour flight from New York’s JFK Airport aboard a Cathay Pacific plane in which nearly every seat was taken.
After transferring to a ferry for the hour-long ride to Macau (pronounced Ma Cow), we were greeted with a skyline filled with hotel casinos rather than ancient Chinese temples. Macau was once a major player in the trading of silk, spices and other goods along the famous Silk Road, an historical trade route that dates as far back as 206 BC, and stretched more than 4,000 miles across Africa, Asia, and Europe. In the 1550s, Portuguese traders anchored off the coast of Macau, which was then called “A Ma Gao” by the locals and traded ashore during the day but were required to return to their ships at night, explained Joan Sales, an official with the Macau Tourist Office who guided our group of five Americans over four days here.
During the Opium Wars of the 1800s, millions of Chinese became addicted to the drug and the Portuguese took control of Macau and integrated Catholicism and European ways into the Chinese Culture.
Fast forward to the 20th century and the 1999 return of the “New Territories”—an area leased to the British for 99 years that included Hong Kong, and the Portuguese surrender of Macau back to Chinese rule.
“I am part Portuguese and part Chinese as you will find many people who live here on Macau,” Sales said. Many residents on Macau are fluent in English and Mandarin and attend English schools.
Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions (SARs) of the People’s Republic of China and operate under the principal of “one country, two systems.”
Centuries of European influence is seen in yellow, white and blue painted limestone Colonial architecture, as well as churches and a Cathedral that are often within walking distance of ancient Buddhists shrines.
Restored commercial buildings sit next to small, picturesque shops where shopkeepers sell hanging sausages, dried fish, and meats in traditional stalls. A Chinese doctor welcomes patients into an “office” filled with five-gallon glass jars of ancient herbal remedies.
Bright Lights, Big City
Macau is the Las Vegas of Asia, and represents approximately 40-percent of the economy of Macau. In 2012, there were 23 casinos on the Macau peninsula and 10 casinos on Tapai Island, which is a part of Macau. Construction is omnipresent as the infrastructure races to keep pace with the increasing number of visitors.
The Wynn Resorts and MGM also operate here and The Las Vegas Sands Corporation owns the Venetian Macau, a 42-story, 3000 room hotel with a 555,000 square foot casino, earning it the title of “The World’s Largest Casino.” That’s about two New York City blocks of various table games and slot machines, or as the Chinese call them, “hungry tigers.” There is also horse racing and grey hound racing on Macau, and each October a Grand Prix Race takes place.
Hotels, like the world-famous Mandarin Oriental Hotel cater to conventioneers, Hong Kong residents who ferry over for a weekend, and a growing number of international visitors. My stay at the 213 room and suite hotel was enhanced by a bathroom rain shower, soaking tub, nightly turned down service, and a magnificent view of the city through a wall of windows. At night the casinos lights cast such a glow over the hotel room, it was like sitting on the beach in summer.
Most of the hotels are part of mixed-used complexes of entertainment, dining and shopping featuring high-end stores like Hugo Boss, Michael Kors, and Yves St. Laurent and more Gucci stores than you’ll see anywhere. “Where are all of these shoppers coming from? And where are these young people getting so much money?” I asked our guide as we watched group after group of laughing young people in jeans with shopping bags on their arms.
“They are coming from all over Asia, but mostly they are coming from China,” Sales said. “Remember, China has a population of 1.3 billion people.” That means about one-in-five people in the world are Chinese. China also represents the world’s fastest growing economy. Hotels lure visitors with American entertainers ranging from Soul to Country. There is even a Michael Jackson exhibit featuring the sequined glove, and other memorabilia.
Every hotel features fabulous décor, and eateries which range from high-priced signature restaurants to casual bistros that operate until the wee morning hours. Some of the best meals though, are in 20-seat, family owned restaurants where Portuguese or Chinese food is reasonably priced.