HOME FOR A HOLIDAY
From a shoe-shining Cinderella to exotic pole dancers, the festive season in Macau is a colourful affair, says Amy Choi
THE trip from Hong Kong to Macau is unexpectedly hectic. There’s a mad dash to the gate after an absent-mindedly long lunch at the China Ferry Terminal food court, a queue at immigration that takes us all by surprise, an hour aboard a vessel so fast its impressive speed can not only be observed through the sea-splattered windows but felt through its floors, and a queue at the taxi stand that’s at least as long as the one at immigration.
My parents’ apartment is on Avenida da Praia Grande and from the caged kitchen window it is possible to see the courtyard where the apartment in which my father grew up once stood. Caged balconies and cages around windows are a common sight in Macau, a vestige of darker days that serves a modern-day purpose, sensibly capturing a rectangle of usable airspace in a city where homes are small.
The cage around our kitchen window is used for a steady stream of strung-up laundry, and becomes the final resting place for the potted Christmas tree my mother has bought.
I lie down in one of the bedrooms to recover, the tea-making and televisionwatching and toy-playing outside registering in my ears as a pleasant but tenuous link to the world. Suddenly my father bursts out of the room across the hall. ‘‘ It starts at 6, not 6.30.’’ ‘‘ What?’’ comes my mother’s voice from the kitchen. ‘‘ Quick, get the kids’ coats on. . .’’ I throw back the coverlet and stand to attention. It is Christmas Day and time to go to the buffet at the Grand Emperor Hotel. When one no longer believes in Santa Claus or the miracle of Christmas stockings, there is still the wilfully seductive hospitality of a Macau casino complex: uniquely egalitarian, extravagant and capricious.
The Grand Emperor marks the spot on Avenida da Praia Grande where high-octane gaming gives way to ordinary living and on this occasion we are inordinately glad of its proximity. We are able to breeze from our front door to the hotel, passing the pink, white-shuttered Governor’s Palace on one side of the street and the fountains of Nam Van Lake on the other.
At the Grand Emperor there is a gilded carriage out front, pretend guardsmen in scarlet jackets at the door and, according to my father, a woman dressed as the Queen of England in the lobby who will shine your shoes. The Queen of England, as it turns out, is an elegant blonde with theatrically upswept hair in a blue ballgown. She is a woman we all know but she is not the Queen of England. ‘‘ It’s Cinderella,’’ whispers my wide-eyed elder daughter.
The evening’s entertainment commences sometime between my third shot at the buffet’s first course and my partner’s fifth plate of oysters (30 oysters and a slice of cake being his idea of a feast). It is a musical act and there are 90 minutes of old-fashioned favourites, some Christmas carols and musical theatre excerpts, then hip-hop covers to play everyone out.
And out everyone goes. Immediately. For it is during this time that the maitre d’ visits each of the tables to say that the buffet will be closing shortly and, like a party falling prey to the spread of a scandal, table after table of hitherto insatiable diners promptly stand in unison and file out of the room.
We’ve enjoyed a Christmas Day buffet for nearly half the usual price by attending the early sitting, and it seems a speedy exit can only compound the cleverness of it all. But the act of turning one’s back on performers who are still performing, whose faces remain steadfast and whose voices are unwavering through the mass scrape of chairs, screams of cheapness.
There are no such scenarios on New Year’s Eve, however; my partner and I pay premium prices for our drinks until midnight and remain rooted to our chairs until the last Russian pole dancer has taken her bow.
We start the evening at 6pm, leaving the children at home with their grandparents, and head for Senado Square, Macau’s longstanding public epicentre. The cobble- stoned plaza is surrounded by two and threestorey neo-classical buildings and decked out in great swaths of Christmas lights. We eat at the Yee Shun Milk Company store, which serves light meals in addition to pumping out hundreds of bowls of the steamed egg-white or egg-yolk custards for which it is famous. As the square starts to fill with revellers, we move on to Fisherman’s Wharf.
We walk along Avenida da Amizade past a dozen casinos, including the legendary Lisboa, as well as the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government, which is housed in an imposing high-rise adorned with a single red star. We take a detour through the Macau Cultural Centre and I am struck by the sight of an immense pool of water in the forecourt of the Macau Museum of Art. The water trips gently downwards, following the slope of the forecourt, virtually flush with it, and the water feature extends so far, I feel for a moment as if I’ve stumbled on an encroaching ocean.
We reach the walkway that connects the cultural centre to the South China Sea and cross it, then walk along the unfinished esplanade to Fisherman’s Wharf. The plaza here is dotted with elaborate Christmas installations and in the far corners loom the hulking forms of three neon-lit casino complexes. The enormous Sands sign, in particular, is as omnipresent as devilry, its twinkling red letters staring down at us every time we chance to look up or turn around, and winking at us from between buildings.
We cross the plaza to the top of a wide, cobblestoned walk. It is Macau’s answer to Disneyland’s answer to Main Street USA’s answer to the civilising stylings of old Europe. And it is quite lovely: open and clean and uncrowded, with shops, bars, nightclubs and restaurants, all housed behind a confused yet somehow harmonious mix of period fakery.
At the other end of the walk is a modest roller-coaster, encased in what appears to be a papier-mache mountain, and a children’s amusement park that is situated on higher ground and reached via a staircase resembling the side of a pyramid and cleverly cut through with a ramp.
We have a few drinks at an outdoor bar that strikes us as akin to something from The Love Boat or Fantasy Island , then we move on to Avenida Doutor Sun Yat Sen. The surrounding streets are rather industriallooking, home to innumerable building sites and karaoke bars, as well as expatriate watering holes that are mostly unembellished but for giant Carlsberg or Remy Martin signs plastered across walls and windows.
We go first to Casablanca Cafe, where we are the only patrons apart from three generations of a Chinese family quietly playing a drinking game in the corner. We move on to MP3, an establishment recommended to us by my 19-year-old cousin.
When last we were here, MP3 was as nondescript as every other bar on the strip, with the added unpleasantness of two tacky pin-ups decorating one wall. But it turns out the pin-ups are not the icing on the cake but a taste of the bigger picture: now there is a hostess standing on the steps, a broadly smiling young woman in lingerie with angel wings on her back. She greets us in Slavicaccented English and a waitress seats us inside; we are into our second round of drinks when a woman in a short lace dress takes the stage, which is no more than a small platform surrounded by a railing and with a glossy metal pole at its centre. We are effectively front row.
Half an hour after midnight we meet up with my cousin, who leads us to the karaoke bar she co-manages. She bangs on the roller door that serves as its entrance and a rectangular door within the larger square door swings open. Inside, we find ourselves amid a sea of Chinese youths sitting at long tables like soldiers in a mess hall. Their hundreds of voices and dozens of sets of dice merge into a single wave of deafening sound, and above it is the disembodied voice of a man with a microphone.
My cousin brings us clean glasses before dashing off, and we help ourselves to the pitchers of Johnnie Walker and green tea sitting on the table.
Twenty minutes later, my cousin reappears and speaks into my partner’s ear. ‘‘ Do you know I Swear ?’’ My partner looks at her quizzically. ‘‘ He does,’’ I say, suddenly understanding. My partner is handed the microphone and before he can object, my cousin has dashed off again and the musical accompaniment to the boy-band classic has started.
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