Macau’s tourist board has been going to great lengths in recent years to try and show the town is more than simply the Las Vegas of the east.
That is a hard sell, and one that won’t be helped when the eyes of the world turn in the direction of the Venetian Macau on Sunday, and alight on what is little more than a brick-by-brick replica of it elder Las Vegas sister. While Pacquiao and Rios come to blows, Chinese gondoliers singing Verdi arias will propel honeymooning Chinese couples down indoor canals past branches of Zara and Sisley’s.
It wasn’t always thus. Whole millennia eased past while the island was little more than a series of sleepy fishing villages. Then the Portuguese arrived, 500 years ago this year, in fact, and set about turning what was then a little peninsula at the Pearl River Delta into a trading port of world importance, and a metaphorical bridge – and a two-way one at that – into the heart and soul of China. The two empires swapped culinary secrets too: Macau fried rice comes with huge chunks of Iberian sausage – delicious.
Macau still has an old town, where pretty little Mediterranean style churches with lemon-coloured columns open on to whitewashed plazas. Its first settlers, so they’ll have you believe, were guided to the island by Matsu, the goddess of seafarers and fishermen, who took one step on dry land and disappeared in a ball of flame. Now the Chinese tourists meet at a temple built where she vanished, light incense sticks and pray for good luck when they hit the tables.
The casinos are newer than Vegas but they look older – they get more use. When the Sands Casino Resort opened in 2004 – the first of the big international brands to do so – a 15,000-strong crowd desperate to get to the tables broke through the plate glass doors before the official ribbon cutters could get to the front. On every financial comparison, Macau wins, but it feels a lot less fun. Eastern pockets grow ever deeper than Western ones, but to be the world’s Sin City you need to broaden your offering. For drink and drugs and women, it’s still hotter in the desert.Reuse content