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 Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Happy hol­i­days.

Check­list

New air­line Viva Ma­cau has a range of in­tro­duc­tory of­fers from Aus­tralia and a se­lec­tion of ac­com­mo­da­tion pack­ages. More: www.fly­vi­va­macau.com.au.

www.macau­tourism.gov.mo

Il­lus­tra­tion: Dave Fol­lett

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