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





Hong Kong – Then and Now

I’ve visited Hong Kong twice in the last 6 months, and what a difference half a year can make.

Back in October, the Covid hotel quarantine programme for visitors and returning residents had just ended (which largely prompted my visit). I still had to undergo a PCR test on arrival, plus regular testing for the first 7 days of my stay. In addition, for the first 3 days I was unable to dine-in at cafes, restaurants and bars, or visit public places (museums, cinemas, gyms, etc.), until I had a blue “all clear” QR code on a tracking app. Masks were still mandatory for everyone, indoors and outside, but the QR check-in system was only sporadically enforced.

Of course, this being Hong Kong, the 3-day ban did not prevent me from taking taxis or public transport, going to work, or shopping. So, earn, spend, travel!

Compared to my previous visit in August 2019, there were no signs of any public protests (thanks to ongoing legal and political measures), nor many visitors from mainland China or overseas. The number of expats out and about in Central was well down (although I suspect a lot of people were still working from home), and I don’t recall there being many crowds even during peak shopping and business hours in the CBD.

I visited M+, the amazing new art museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District – which was probably the most popular location I saw during my stay, in part because admission was still free. There was a really interesting and charming exhibition of art and design in Hong Kong since 1945, from the context of cultural, social, commercial, industrial and political developments.

On a past visit, the ground had not yet been broken on the Cultural precinct, and the only art exhibition on show was a series of pop-up installations housed in re-purposed shipping containers (a link to Hong Kong’s important role as an entrepôt?).

Staying near Clearwater Bay also meant being among fewer people, and even gave an opportunity to visit a beach I had never seen before – where local residents had posted signs to encourage visitors not to despoil this small and natural idyll amid Hong Kong’s ever-expanding reclaimed land development.

Talking to some local contacts, there was a suggestion that the key motivation for scrapping the hotel quarantine programme in October was due to the Hong Kong FinTech Week being held the following month along with the much-postponed Hong Kong Rugby Sevens tournament (both expected to attract lots of bankers, brokers, traders and investors…). Yes, in Hong Kong, money still talks.

Fast forward to March, and my latest visit was a stark contrast. Not only were airfares much more expensive than late last year, but the number of visitors (especially from the Mainland) had also boomed. Now that there were no PCR tests or mask mandates, and as domestic tourism has opened up, it seems everyone was desperate to get to Hong Kong. Apparently, in the 30 days since the mask mandate was lifted, 1.5 million people had entered the Special Administrative Region, compared to the few thousand monthly visitors in previous months.

During March alone, Hong Kong hosted the Clockenflap festival, Art Basel Hong Kong, Art Central, a major golf tournament and the WOW Web3 Summit, as well as the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens restored its regular (and rightful) spot on the international sporting calendar.

Out and about in Central on a Friday night at the Tai Kwun art and entertainment precinct almost felt like old times, with people competing for taxis along Hollywood Road. I also got my fill of art – Joan Miró at the HK Museum of Art, Yayoi Kusama at M+, modern Chinese art at the JC Contemporary, and installations and pop-up shows at the K11 and Landmark malls.

From a business perspective, most of my meetings centred on the recent consultation process for Hong Kong’s proposed regulations on Virtual Assets, due to come into effect in June this year. It’s expected to boost the number of licensed crypto exchanges and brokerages operating in Hong Kong, and is a significant leap forward compared to past conversations I have had on the topic, where there was a general reluctance to engage in any meaningful discussions. Now it seems, whether encouraged by Beijing, or seeing the regulatory push back on crypto in the USA, Hong Kong is seeking to become a regional and global hub for all things web3, DeFi, tokenisation and digital currencies. (Not content with the WOW Web3 Summit in March, Hong Kong hosted the Web3 Festival earlier in April.)

Hong Kong is usually very good at reinventing its economic profile following business downturns and market setbacks – especially in the areas of trade, technology, commerce and finance. Perhaps the shift towards embracing virtual assets is simply a pragmatic move. While a large part of GDP is still driven by property and traditional finance, there is a recognition among some that the future is digital…

As much as things change in Hong Kong, they also largely stay the same. Back in October, there was 100% compliance with the mask mandate – but the vast majority of passengers ignored the compulsory seat belt regulation on buses. A breach of the former would have attracted a HK$1,000 fine; the latter, HK$5,000 and 3 months’ imprisonment.

Finally, talking of masks, it’s not that long ago that masked protestors on the streets of Hong Kong were a major legal and political issue. Since then, wearing any sort of mask on a public march or demonstration has been illegal. While I was in Hong Kong last month, the city witnessed its first authorised protest march in several years (about the environmental impact of land reclamation). In a new twist on the right of assembly, march numbers were strictly limited, and all demonstrators had to wear a visible number to identify them. From the TV coverage I watched, the march stewards contained the moving protest behind a rope cordon – so that participants did not literally step out of line.

(On this last trip, I also took a side-trip to Macau – more on that next time.)

Next week: Revisiting Macau – Asia’s Casino Theme Park


A Journey Through England

As travel restrictions have eased over the past 12 months, I’ve been taking advantage of the opportunity to visit family and friends overseas.

Late last year, I spent a month in the UK, and it was a trip of very mixed experiences. It was the first time I had been back in nearly 4 years, the longest period of time I have ever been away from the country of my birth.

It’s nearly 30 years since I left London to live and work abroad, and even though I am still “from” the UK, I don’t really consider myself to be “of” it. Despite family ties and social links, with each visit back I feel less and less connected to the place. As a result, I tend to experience my time there as a visitor, rather than a returning expat.

This sense of dislocation has become especially evident since Brexit, and the quagmire that is UK domestic politics. Not only does the political environment feel quite alienating, the profile of the political leadership is almost unrecognisable: last time I was back, Theresa May was still Prime Minister; when I arrived in early November, Rishi Sunak was in the second week of his Premiership.

Luckily, the rolling programme of public sector strikes and other industrial unrest had limited impact on my own travel schedule, even though it has become almost impossible to plan train journeys too far ahead thanks to unreliable timetables and complex booking systems. Fortunately, the grocery shortages evident during the UK winter had yet to take hold, and before I left Australia, I had managed to lock in a favourable exchange rate to offset the effect of inflation.

I spent most of the time in the Peak District, but also visited Manchester, Sheffield, Milton Keynes, London and Kent – a north-west to south-east trajectory. The Dark Peak was my base, and I really appreciate the scenery in and around the town of Glossop, where I stayed – but for a town that used to boast one of the highest number of pubs per capita, quite a few local hostelries were only open from Thursday to Sunday, probably a consequence of Covid, energy costs and broader inflation?

Manchester itself was a dispiriting experience – the city centre (Piccadilly Gardens) resembled a zombie theme park, and there was a palpable sense of anger and an all-pervading threat of violence in the air. Maybe I was there on a bad day, but the overall mood was definitely “off”. By contrast, Sheffield city centre, which I’d not visited since the early 1990s, felt welcoming and had a much more positive vibe.

I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by my weekend in Milton Keynes. Its reputation, as a planned New Town, for being soulless and devoid of personality is probably undeserved. Yes, it helps if you know how to navigate the network of roundabouts and ring roads (anyone familiar with Canberra would have sense of déjà vu), but I can definitely see the attraction, especially for families, with its acres of space and many recreational activities. If necessary, it’s possible to commute to London, plus there are nearby country parks and village pubs to frequent on the weekends.

Despite my familiarity with the geography and fabric of London, I now see it through the eyes of a tourist. Even though the overall layout remains the same, the constant changes in the built landscape can disorient the infrequent visitor. Because I no longer rely on it every day for work, I actually think London’s public transport has improved, but I’m sure it would only take a strike on the underground, or the wrong type of leaves on the train tracks at Clapham Junction to disabuse me of this situation. While London has always existed in an economic bubble in relation to the rest of the country, it probably wouldn’t take much to undermine the city’s renewed self-confidence as it tries to navigate a post-Brexit role in international banking, finance, trade and commerce.

Judging by a financial services conference I attended, compared to the same conference 4 years ago, there was a lot more focus on regulation as the UK (and the City in particular) disentangles itself from the EU – and as in many other areas, there is confusion about the transition process: understanding which rules continue unaffected; the scope and impact of any interim arrangements; and the anticipation of totally new measures yet to come into force.

Of course, the worst of petty British bureaucracy probably doesn’t even need the headache of Brexit to tie itself in knots. One small example I witnessed: in a country pub, I was told at the bar that I could not be served soy milk with my tea, and that the barman risked losing his license if he complied with my request – but oat milk was OK; and bizarrely, dishes that contained soy and served in the pub restaurant were also available. Go figure. I still can’t work out whether this was a quirk of local licensing laws, a capricious whim of the hotelier, or just a cranky member of staff.

My final port of call was the outer London suburbia of north-west Kent. Close enough to the London bubble to be popular with commuters, it’s also where I spent much of my childhood and teenage years. I wouldn’t say that familiarity breeds contempt, but it gets increasingly hard to feel any nostalgia for the place. Whenever I go back, it naturally feels much smaller (physically, socially, culturally) than when I was growing up there. Fortunately, when I caught up with a bunch of high school friends (all of whom have long since moved away from the area), there was a “very comfortable familiarity”, as one of our group described it afterwards: “not overly nostalgic but warm and generous. It’s the kind of thing I might have disdained when younger but I really enjoy it.” There speaks the wisdom of age(ing).

There’s no doubt a great deal I should be grateful for having been born in the UK, and probably a lot more that I take for granted as a result when I am there: walks in the country, spending some quality time with close family, good pub meals, excellent art exhibitions, even the inter-city train journeys through “England’s green and pleasant land” (no irony intended). All of which make the many varied and minor disappointments even harder to accept – I somehow expect better of the place, even after all this time away.

Next week: Hong Kong – Then and Now


Pivot Point

2022 marked a significant, personal pivot point: I have now lived more than half my life outside my country of birth.

When I was young, I did not imagine my life panning out this way. Although I spent part of my childhood living in Australia, after my family moved back to the UK, I thought that was probably it – no more big overseas adventures.

At one point, I had a fanciful notion that perhaps I might live and work for a while in somewhere like Paris or New York. But after university, I settled in London, and didn’t see myself moving anywhere else. After ten years working there, I bought my first apartment, and with the associated financial commitments, the prospect of relocating seemed even more remote.

Then, out of the blue, I was given the opportunity to move to Hong Kong. The idea was I would spend 1-2 years setting up a business there, after which my employer would move me back to London.

However, after six years in Hong Kong, and having met my partner, it seemed less and less likely that I would return to the UK – she planned to move back to Australia, and having had that earlier childhood experience, it seemed a natural and logical choice for me to follow her to Melbourne.

And more than 20  years later, here we are still.

I think passing this half-way point became more significant thanks to the past few years of limited overseas travel – my trip to the UK last November was the first time I had visited in four years, the longest period I had been away from my “home” country.

I’m not saying I won’t move or live anywhere else (never say never…), but the likelihood does seem to diminish with each year, and I just find it harder to imagine.

Next week: It’s Only A Game…