Macau, China: Contradictions and Tiny Miracles
It's midnight in Macau, and a stout little Chinese woman is standing on my back.
“Whoa! This is unexpected!” I think as my chest caves into itself on the tall, hard massage table of the Wong Chio On Mo Chong Sam salon.
It's only 120 Hong Kong dollars (about $20 US) for a one-hour massage, and soon a stern-looking woman whisks me upstairs. The place conjures images of a Haight Asbury hippie coffeehouse circa 1969, or worse an opium den.
In a dark room, the woman covers my naked back with threadbare towels and proceeds to climb upon the massage table. In one quick astonishing move, she's standing on my back where she will stay for the next hour — working intricate miracles, surprises in my sinews, massaging my muscles with her toes.
Feeling oddly incredible and thoroughly re-aligned as I walk back to my hotel, it occurs to me that this strange encounter epitomizes my whole my Macau experience – moment upon moment confronted by the unexpected, the unforgettable, the exciting; strange.
Surprises, tiny miracles one after another, appearing before my eyes, jumping upon my back.
Words from Walt Whitman's “Song of Myself” ring in my ears: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).”
Some cities, most people, (and me most certainly) are just that — contradictions — and perhaps Macau most of all. Is it the Vegas of the Orient, or is it a quaint seaside village where fishermen drag in their nets?
Is it a Portuguese place with curvy mosaics in the streets? Is it China and chopsticks? Is it urban sprawl where teenage lust throbs through nightclubs and kids bungee jump from skyscrapers? Which Macau will I meet?
The Vegas Thing on Steroids
When I came here, I expected Las Vegas. I'd heard about Macau's grand gaming palaces — The Sands, The MGM Grand, The Wynn Macau Hotel Casino and Resort, the brand-new Venetian Macau Casino Resort and more.
The Venetian is the world’s largest hotel/casino complex and the world’s second-largest building — almost twice the size of the Pentagon. For starters, it houses 350 shops and 30 restaurants; and, at 6.9 million square feet, it’s actually large enough to hold 90 Boeing 747 jumbo jets.
Another Las Vegas-like attraction is the Macau Tower, which looks like The Stratosphere in Vegas, only larger at 1,109 ft. AJ Hackett’s 765-foot high tethered Sky Walk and bungee jump from the tower's outer rim is the world’s highest.
And, yes, in Macau, the Vegas thing is all there. On steroids. There's a replica of the Roman Coliseum, a volcano like the one at The Mirage, a Disneyesque version of the New Orleans French Quarter, and neon to light the night.
However, I sensed this city might be more than just sum of its casinos, and as I fell asleep listening to waves lap at the shore that first night, I knew I still hadn't seen the real Macau.
Often mistakenly referred to as an island, Macau is a peninsula just 37 miles southwest of Hong Kong and bordering mainland China. It is now one of two special administrative regions of the People's Republic of China.
Governed for 442 years by Portugal, it was the oldest European colony in the history of Asia before it was handed over to China in 1999. The Portuguese influence is apparent in the distinctive architecture, food, music and swirling mosaic patterns inlaid in city streets.
Real and Raw
I awoke early to wander with my camera. The best way to get acquainted with a city is to catch it early in the day before it has had time to wake up properly, before the human highway begins — to look into the faces of shopkeepers opening their stores, nod a hello to old ladies who wash the streets with brooms outside their houses, see the children in their uniforms walking to school.
You can tell a lot about a place by how it looks before it puts on its face.
The Red Market is a good spot to witness everything real and raw about Macau — get the startling uncut version with all its blood, guts and gore, its bulging eyeball fish and slimy eel lying in an ocean of ice on the stands of fishmongers, the chickens getting their heads whacked off, blood spurting out and dripping down the feathers.
I watch as a lady shouts her order and points toward a tank of muddy, gloppy frogs. The merchant scoops a hopping handful of them, jumping and croaking, onto a kitchen scale.
A renegade Mister Toad jumps off, so she sticks him back on the scale, then slides them into a plastic baggie which she ties shut with a quick twist.
After trading the gruesome stands of the fish and poultry vendors for aisles of fresh flowers and dried blossoms of daisy and chamomile tea, I walk across the street to a Macanese tea house on the second floor of an old building. Its name in English means 1962, the year it opened.
With windows thrown wide to the wind, the room has an uncomplicated air, and old men sit squinting at sunny streets below while warming leathery hands around little porcelain cups of familiarity and tradition.
Rain Through Sunlight
Across town, a gentle rain falls through bright sunlight on Penha Hill, where a neighborhood of colorful Portuguese-styled houses of pink, blue and marigold-colored stucco dot the edges of slender twisting streets with a view across the Pearl River into China from an old Catholic church on the hilltop.
I learn a fascinating legend during my visit to the Macau Maritime Museum: Portuguese sailors find themselves tossed about by a ferocious storm in the South China Sea and fear all is lost, when suddenly a young woman appears on board and begins to pray.
Ordering the storm to stop, she instantly stills the sea. All are saved. Then the lady steps ashore, climbs Barra Hill overlooking the harbor, and disappears into the heavens in a halo of sweet fragrance and light.
Hundreds of years later, when Portuguese sailors land and ask the name of that place, the natives reply A-Ma-Gau (Bay of A-Ma) named for the goddess of fisherman and sailors, Matsu, the lady of the legend. Their mispronunciation of A-Ma-Gau, some say, became the name Macau.
Nearby, on a hillside knee-deep in sun and clouds, the A-Ma Temple, built in honor of Matsu, rests overlooking the sea. People light enormous beehive-shaped incense coils there that take all day to burn, filling the air with a sweet intoxicating smoke, a haze of prayers and gentle quietude.
There I place an offering into a fountain of flowing water and shake a cylinder of numbered wooden sticks until one rises above the other and falls out. This helps determine my fortune, which is read from a delicate rice-paper sheet. Keep it till it falls apart, and the fortune shall come to pass.
One of the biggest landmarks in Macau is the Ruins of St. Paul's, the façade of what was originally the Church of Mater Dei, built in 1602-1640, and the ruins of St. Paul’s College, both destroyed by fire in 1835.
All that remains today is its Baroque front façade and the stone stairs leading down a hill into narrow streets of shops, bustling with people, paper lanterns, porcelain teapots and satin slippers.
Shopkeepers sell gelatin-like sheets of meat: a cross between beef jerky and a fruit roll-Up. The scent of almonds is strong and sweet as vendors extend flat baskets of tiny warm cookies to hungry passersby.
Kiosks with tourist items here are most entertaining — especially the T-shirts. One reads, “Love is all vraneed” — spelling an old Beatles lyric the way it must sound.
My friend João H. Rodrigues sees another shirt that says on front, “Every time you go away” and on back, “ you take a piece of meat with you,” another hilarious misquote of an ’80s pop song.
There are trinkets, coffee mugs, magnets — even nesting dolls with the faces of Marilyn Monroe, Mao Tse-tung, Princess Di, Elvis and Che.
During my time in Macau, I beheld many fascinating faces: dear little children, weathered old men, giddy newlyweds in their wedding clothes, schoolgirls holding hands.
I have smelled the sweet fragrance and felt the gentle halo of light that lifted Matsu to the heavens from this place now known for neon.
On the last day of my visit, I duck out of an afternoon rain shower into an antique shop, and see her — a smiling solid wooden head painted black with a gilded crown: the goddess Matsu of the legend.
As I return to the hotel carrying the head like a heavy bowling ball between my knees, I smile to think I'm bringing home one of the many precious faces of Macau: a city of beauty, grace, surprises and stories, casinos and contradictions — large, containing multitudes.
Where to Stay:
Where to Play:
Don’t just live on the edge – Jump!
AJ Hackett Bungy Jump & Sky Walk
Macau A-Ma Temple
Read Kent St. John's story: Miraculous Macau: Modern and Mystifying
Read Richard Frisbie's story: Macau: The Birthplace of Asian Fusion Cuisine
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