Revisiting Macau – Asia’s Casino Theme Park

During my recent visit to Hong Kong, I took a side-trip to Macau, a city I last saw nearly 25 years ago. Last time I was here, Stanley Ho still held the monopoly on licensed casinos, with the Lisboa being one of the most noticeable landmarks in the then Portuguese colony.

Arriving by ferry from Hong Kong, berthing at the Outer Harbour attached to the Macau Peninsular, things don’t look that different from last time. Until, that is, you travel further into the downtown area, which now boasts two-dozen casinos. Drive across the bridge that connects to the island of Taipa, and it soon becomes clear not all is quite as it was.

Between Taipa and the island of Coloane is an area of reclaimed land, called Cotai, forming a contiguous mass that incorporates both former islands. Within this district are another 17 casinos, including some of the most lavish gambling and hotel resorts outside of Las Vegas.

As my taxi pulled up to what I thought was the Sheraton Hotel, I stepped out on to a London pavement alongside the facade of the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), complete with Big Ben clock tower and a Routemaster double-decker bus. Across the street is St. Mark’s Campanile and the Rialto Bridge, and down the road is the Eiffel Tower…Welcome to ersatz Europe, as represented by the Londoner, Venetian and Parisian resorts respectively.

If movies are more your thing, then further along is Studio City, a Hollywood-themed complex, round the corner is City of Dreams, then the MGM Cotai, and finally the Wynn Palace.

Out on its own (in more ways than one) is the Grand Lisboa Palace Resort, complete with Japanese department store, and a hotel designed by the late fashion guru Karl Lagerfeld. This complex has cost US$39bn, and will have to work hard to turn a profit even as visitor numbers to Macau start to recover. “Outlandish” does not even begin to describe what beholds the unsuspecting visitor.

Wandering around inside the resorts and walkways that connect the endless shopping malls of luxury goods, the sense of disorientation is heightened – Venetian canals, bridges and gondolas (on a set that could have come straight from “The Truman Show”); red phone booths, Royal Mail post boxes and London black cabs; replica fountains and horse-drawn carriages; the zebra crossing outside Abbey Road Studios; a fake British pub front.

The latter is a reminder that despite the acres of hospitality these resorts offer, getting an alcoholic beverage was actually very difficult, as there was a distinct shortage of bars; until you realise that it’s probably much easier to get drinks within the gaming rooms….

Away from these pleasure palaces, it was nice to know that some parts of Macau remain the same – in particular Fernando’s restaurant next to the beach at Praia de Hác Sá, on the far end of Coloane. There are still a few other authentic pockets of the strange amalgam of “Asia by the Mediterranean” that epitomises Macau’s past, mostly in the more traditional cafes and restaurants around Senado Square, offering Pasteis de Nata and Macanese breakfasts.

But mostly, Macau seems content to outdo Las Vegas – from the Chinese government’s perspective, if you can’t stop people gambling, better to let them do it locally rather than losing their money overseas.

Next week: Trust in Digital IDs