December 11, 2009 — It has been exactly a month since my last blog entry; normally a sign that I have been busy, distracted, and on the road a lot. In that time I’ve become a regular passenger on the ferries that go back and forth across the Pearl River Delta. My first trip into mainland China began on Nov 16th when I took the ferry from the China Terminal in Hong Kong to Zhuhai just north of Macau. I went there with my Fulbright colleagues to attend a conference and to give a presentation at the United International College. UIC is something of an experiment; it is an undergraduate college founded four years ago as a joint enterprise between my host institution, the Hong Kong Baptist University, and the Beijing Normal University. It aspires to nothing less than becoming the first liberal arts college inside the PRC. The faculty and staff are dedicated to this mission but they face serious challenges. These range from fundraising (a concern of private colleges everywhere) to dealing with the PRC Ministry of Education and its demand that the curriculum conform to the Communist Party’s political ideology. I will be back there in the spring as a visiting lecturer and I’m eager to see how they meet these obstacles. If they overcome them, and if their example takes root in China, it will indeed be an extraordinary milestone in the history of higher education.

A week after my first visit I returned to Zhuhai to meet with UIC administrators and to give another presentation to the faculty. Afterward, I left the campus and was driven to the border crossing at Gong Bei where I cleared passport control and crossed into Macau. It is interesting that even though Hong Kong and Macau are now part of the PRC the process of moving back and forth between these two places and the mainland still feels like crossing an international border. Foreigners can visit these two “Special Administrative Regions” without getting a China visa but once there they must get such a visa to cross into the mainland. Visitors go through passport control and customs each way. This reality (inconvenience, more accurately) underscores the point that status as an SAR is not merely symbolism but has actually allowed Hong Kong and Macau (the former especially) to retain a substantial measure of autonomy and distinctiveness in East Asia apart from the mainland. For me, however, it has meant a lot of visas (and fees) and passport stamps for someone who has technically been within the borders of the same country for nearly three months.

I arrived in Macau to attend an international symposium on Jesuit education held at the Ricci Institute. The institute is named for the sixteenth-century Italian Jesuit who came to Macau, founded the Jesuit China mission, and then traveled to Beijing to present himself to Emperor Wanli of the Ming dynasty. Ricci was the first European to enter the Forbidden City and remains a strong symbol of cross cultural contact between eastern and western civilizations. The symposium was enjoyable and some of the papers were interesting but many of us in the audience had to wear headphones for simultaneous translation of presentations given in Chinese. These translations were often fragmentary and confusing and my relatively childlike attention span was tested to its limits.

Although I timed my visit to coincide with the Jesuit education symposium, the real reason for this trip was to see Macau and to spend some time with my college roommate and his family. My friend Matt was my roommate for three of the four years I was at Georgetown. When we graduated he was commissioned into the Marine Corps while I went into the Navy. We lost touch over the years but recently reconnected. For the last couple of years he has lived in Macau with his wife and young daughter and works there as a finance director at the Venetian Hotel and Casino. He was generous enough to put me up in a very posh suite at the Venetian for the two days I was in Macau and then he and his wife treated me to an insider’s tour of this fascinating place. As a visitor, it was impossible for me to do Macau justice within the forty-eight hours I was there and I am already looking forward to many return visits.

Macau, like Hong Kong, is very much a cultural hybrid, but one with a much longer and more notorious history. The Portuguese were the first westerners to establish a permanent presence in China (note to Italians: Marco Polo’s brief visit in the thirteenth century hardly counts—no disrespect). The Portuguese took over Macau in 1557 and set up a colony and trading station there after they were ejected from the Chinese mainland. Thus the European presence in Macau (and China) predates that in Hong Kong by nearly three centuries. Portuguese traders, missionaries, and sailors set up shop in the tiny colony and built it up in their image. Macau soon joined Mombasa, Hormuz, Goa, and Batavia as the last link in the great Lusitanian merchant empire of the sixteenth century. The narrow streets and sunny praças of old Macau were marked by stately Iberian government offices, elaborate Baroque churches and convents, and luxurious villas with the requisite wrought iron grills, blue tile work, pastel stucco walls, and red clay tile roofs. In particular, the façade of St. Paul’s Jesuit church (the rest of the structure burned down, see below) is a masterpiece of Mediterranean splendor, but there are many other examples as well. Macau, it seems, has done a better job than Hong Kong of preserving its architectural heritage. This likely owes to the fact that its economy never thrived to the same degree nor did the desire for innovation and improvement ever take root here as it did in HK. There was simply not the same energy or money to clear away the old and make room for the new. In any event, many older buildings escaped the wrecking ball and the city has kept much of its distinctive Old-World style and charm.

Artistic expression in Macau is not limited to architecture. In its heyday it was a rich enclave of Lusophone culture and religious ferment. Luis vas de Camões is said to have lived there and written part of the great Portuguese epic Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads) while residing in the balmy colonial outpost, though there is no actual evidence that this is really true. Even now, the street signs and storefronts are still in Portuguese as well as Cantonese, although these days very few Macau residents can actually speak the former.

As in other Iberian colonies, the religious profile of Macau bore the firm stamp of Roman Catholicism. Yet in the beginning the Church’s most fervent fishers of men were not of one mind about how best to cast their nets. The Jesuits believed that the doctrines of the church were not incompatible with traditional Confucian values of filial piety, divine right of Chinese emperors, and some Chinese folk religious practices. The Dominicans took a harder line and declared these practices idolatrous and considered any accommodation by Catholics to be heresy. In the early eighteenth century Pope Clement XI sided with the Dominicans and the resulting enforcement of stricter ideology led to a substantial diminishing of missionary success in China. Of course, Macau remained firmly Catholic.

To their credit, the Portuguese were probably the least racist of any European colonizers. As the years passed, the overwhelmingly male Portuguese minority readily intermixed with the Cantonese majority and produced a mestiço community called “Macanese.” Some of these people still exist in Macau and preserve their own unique customs and traditions. Macanese cuisine, in particular, blends the best of Portuguese and Cantonese flavors and the ubiquity of great restaurants, markets, and pastelarias along the streets and alleyways of Macau easily matches anything offered by Hong Kong. Overall, the blending of cultures is both extraordinary and seemingly effortless. Indeed to walk through old Macau is to have one foot in Canton and the other in Lisbon or Porto.

Yet the recent history of Macau was not always as pleasant or tranquil as the local culture would suggest. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Macau was a soporific little backwater weakly controlled by the Portuguese and overshadowed in every way by Hong Kong, its newer and more energetic colonial neighbor to the East. The treaty ports of Shanghai, Tsingtao, Tientsin, and Canton also drew more international commercial and political attention than Europe’s first Chinese colony did. It would be safe to say that by then Macau was about as important in Chinese affairs as Portugal was in European ones. But the colony did gain some unwanted attention in the Second World War when Japan invaded China in 1937 and then in 1941 took over Hong Kong and the other international settlements of the Allied European powers. At the insistence of the Germans, the Japanese respected Portugal’s neutrality and kept their hands off Macau for the duration of the war. The result was that the colony became a sort of shabby Switzerland of the East. Its eleven square miles filled with refugees from HK and the mainland, leading to tension between residents and the desperate newcomers.

After the establishment of the PRC in 1949, China allowed the Portuguese to keep Macau. But the colonial government remained so weak, corrupt, and inefficient and the tiny enclave so dependent on the mainland that it was clear that Beijing was really charge, if indirectly (a very different situation than in Hong Kong). Portuguese sovereignty over Macau was a joke and during the Cultural Revolution Mao’s Red Guards repeatedly overran the colony, something that never happened in HK. When the dictator Salazar’s Estado Novo was overthrown in Portugal in 1974, the new thinking in Lisbon shifted away from holding on at all costs to the nation’s anachronistic overseas possessions. Instead Portugal sought to divest itself of these embarrassing reminders of its weakness and of how far the country had fallen from the glory of its distant past. The new leadership in Lisbon offered to give back the colony to China but the PRC would not take it. Macau had by then become a barely governed cesspool of gambling, prostitution, and organized crime—a sewer grating into which these vices could drain from the surrounding area. Lisbon didn’t want it, but Beijing seemed happy to have the Portuguese flag flying over it indefinitely. Finally in the 1980s, when the handover of Hong Kong was negotiated, the Chinese arranged to take Macau back as well. In December 1999, an appropriately smaller and less lavish handover ceremony took place in Macau as the oldest European colony in East Asia (442 years) reverted to the motherland. Unlike Hong Kong, however, this gesture was less meaningful since the PRC had more or less controlled Macau for decades.

It is easy for the visitor to enjoy Macau, but working in the territory is often a different story. My friend Matt was able to share many insights with me about doing business there and gave me a rare glimpse into the netherworld of the gambling industry in Macau. While he describes Hong Kong as a combination of the best qualities of East and West, Macau reflects the worst blending of these two cultures. Hong Kong has thrived because it is a product of its colonizers’ Protestant work ethic and Anglo-Saxon insistence on the rule of law imposed upon a largely law-abiding and entrepreneurial Chinese culture. In Macau, on the other hand, centuries of the Mediterranean “mañana” attitude toward efficiency and work along with a tolerance for corrupt administration enabled the Chinese penchant for nepotism and organized crime to flourish.

As Macau’s importance as a trading center slipped into irreversible decline, the government tried to make up for the loss of wealth by legalizing gambling. The result revolutionized the local economy and turned many of its residents in the casino and hotel businesses into millionaires. The weak government and corrupt police, combined with the PRC’s permissive view toward what went on there, made it the ideal place for high-stakes gambling and its ancillary activities of prostitution and loan-sharking. When the Portuguese were in charge, the entire Macau gambling concession belonged to one man: Stanley Ho, a Hong Kong billionaire entrepreneur (now 89 years old and languishing in an HK hospital). Mr. Ho may have had the gaming monopoly, but in order for it actually to function a lot of people further down also had to get their piece of the action. For starters, the Macau government took a 35 percent cut of all gambling profits. It still does.

As in Havana and Las Vegas, the gambling economy in Macau was first built up and its rules enforced by clever and well-organized gangsters, here called Triads. Once a date was set for the departure of the Portuguese, the Triads fought amongst each other viciously for greater control over the territory before the PRC was due to come in and rain on their parade (which it didn’t, as it turned out). After the handover, Stanley Ho lost his monopoly and very quickly the major Las Vegas casinos moved in to fill the vacuum and bankroll future development. Nowadays in Macau one can visit the Sands, Venetian, Hard Rock, and MGM Grand along with the older iconic Casino Lisboa—a smaller, seedy, smoke-filled den that harkens to the less sanitized gambling culture of old Macau. It would be impossible to make room in tiny Macau for all the new developments so they are making new land instead. Many of the new casinos, hotels, racetracks, and golf courses, as well as the international airport have been built through land reclamation. In fact, so much of Macau’s dry surface these days is reclaimed land that the old islands of Coloane and Taipa are now one large land mass linked by a vast new area called the Cotai Strip upon which glitzy hotels and casinos shoot up like weeds in an untended garden.

On my first day in Macau I was given a tour of the Venetian by my friend. The building is an architectural wonder and much larger than the one in Las Vegas. I’m told that it is the third largest building in the world (the first is the new Beijing airport and the second is the Boeing plant in Everett, WA). Appropriately enough, the Venetian is like a city within a building. There are 9000 employees, 3000 rooms, hundreds of shops, and casino space that takes up the combined area of more than thirteen American football fields. The signature feature is an interior re-creation of the canals of Venice that wind around the building. The whole thing is really overwhelming. I stayed for two days and had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with Matt and his family in one of the complex’s best restaurants.

What I really enjoyed was learning from Matt about the inner workings of Macau gambling. First he took me around the main casino floor, a massive space shared by four gaming areas: the Red Dragon, the Phoenix, the Imperial, and the Golden Fish. Of all of these, the Red Dragon is always the most crowded since the red décor and the dragon pattern in the carpet are considered most auspicious by Chinese gamblers. The gambling itself is very much like Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or dozens of Indian reservations except that here the loan sharks stand directly behind the players at the tables (no joke; talk about pressure). Like many activities in Macau, loan-sharking is controlled by the Triads and while gambling debts are not legally enforceable (in other words you can’t get a court to order repayment of such a debt) these lenders usually have no trouble getting their money back.

Next we went into the “Paiza Club,” a place that would have certainly been off-limits to me had my friend not ushered me in. This is the inner sanctum: a VIP area for high-stakes betting. Opening bets are in the thousands (US$) and winnings and losses can be in the millions. Matt tells me that on average US$ 90 million circulates through this one area every week. Almost all of the high-stakes players are mainland Chinese and they are inveterate gamblers. There are no alcoholic beverages or sexy cocktail waitresses (i.e. no distractions) and many of the players try to sleep on the couches in the lounge instead of going up to their rooms so that they can keep as close as possible to a 24-hour gambling cycle. Sometimes the security officers have to wake them up and send them away (just like the Port Authority bus terminal in New York, except without the $90 million). Apparently more of the Venetian’s revenue comes from this small private suite of gambling parlors than from the rest of the hotel’s entertainment, restaurant, and casino activity combined.

Matt tells me that the Chinese are reckless gamblers and nothing that I have seen would lead me to think otherwise. But they don’t go in for blackjack or poker; instead they favor baccarat and other games that require almost no skill and are based primarily on luck. Enormous sums of money are laid down with very poor odds, all on the fleeting hope of good fortune. Matt describes the Chinese weakness for gambling like that of the Irish for alcohol. A stereotype perhaps, but the evidence is all around. Room occupancy in the Venetian is often at one hundred percent capacity and the overwhelming majority of visitors there and at the other casinos in Macau are from the mainland. The high rollers are generally from China’s new-money set in construction and manufacturing that have profited from the country’s unparalleled economic boom. A generation ago these people would have been holding up Mao’s little red book and denouncing capitalist imperialism. Now they roll up in limos to the casinos of Macau and throw down unreal amounts of money on the most ill-advised games of chance. Truly, it staggers the mind. While the US stimulus package may be helping to pay for bonuses at Goldman Sachs and keeping dying car companies on life-support, apparently much of the PRC’s stimulus money is ending up on the baccarat tables of Macau. Which is worse?
Facade of St. Paul's Jesuit Church, Macau; completed 1602