August 19, 2008

Visit to Macau, Day 1

Sunday morning bright and eary (actually, just early, it wasn't bright yet) I hopped on the MagLev to the airport and then to Macau. Macau is part of China now but considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR) after the handover from Portugal. The upshot of this is that internationally speaking, you have to leave China to enter Macau. This means that I had to go through immigration on both departure and arrival. So that's what I did.

Flying into Macau, I could see the amazing blue, puffy-cloud-filled skies. The peninsula and its islands are at the southernmost tip of China, way closer to the equator than Shanghai, so the tropical feel was to be expected. It was so tropical, in fact, that when I got off the plane and took out my camera, the lens and LCD screen were fogged up! I had to wipe them off with my shirt to take a picture.

After that, a cab pulled up and I got inside. My first thought: the driver's on the right side! Holy shit! I've never seen that before. But yes, in Macau (and Hong Kong also) they drive on the left side of the road. It's so different. I entered the car on the left side. Oncoming traffic was on my right, not on my left. Very strange. Obviously the drivers and residents are used to it. But not me! It was great.


They Drive on the Left over Here


Macau is on the sea (probably even moreso than Shanghai, whose name literally means "on the sea") and and stretches across several islands (Taipa, Cotai) and the main peninsula that's attached to mainland China. So on the ride in from the airport, we crossed over numerous bridges, which again is pretty cool to me. All these intricate stone ropy constructions to get you from one place to another. I recall hearing about a family member of mine who was scared of bridges; not me. I love them. And I especially love them when the skies are blue, the air feels like the beach, and you've just arrived in a brand new destination.

Macau Sky Tower

Cities on the water look cool to me. I can't figure out why. I think it's because you have flat expanses of water edging up against towering skyscrapers, creating an extreme contrast in elevation. I think it's the contrast that I find intriguing. Macau and Hong Kong have that in spades.

Being a former Portuguese colony, Macau's maps and street signs all have Portuguese (in addition to Chinese and English) on them. This is a welcome sight as that langauge is superficially similar to Spanish, which I vaguely recall from two years in 7th-8th grade and three years living in Austin. So I know what "salida" means on a sign, even if it wasn't right next to the word "Exit" (or even the Chinese 出口, which I can read also. Happy days. An example of the tri-language signs:


However, most Macau natives speak neither Portuguese nor English, but Cantonese, which is an official language. Some might speak Mandarin also, moreso now than when Macau was controlled by Portugal, but it's overwhelmingly Cantonese. So right off the bat you've got four languages you're dealing with: English, Portuguese, Cantonese, and Chinese (Mandarin).

On my hotel's web site, they give the address as being on "Avenido do Dr. Rodrigo Rodrigues." So I assumed that I would be able to tell this to the cabbie and be on my merry way. No such luck. He didn't understand. I had a map with me that had the Chinese name of the street, so I figured with that plus the number, we would be good, but either my cabbie didn't read Chinese or he didn't know where it was. Luckily I mentioned the name of the hotel (in Portuguese, but it's simple, Casa Real), and the cabbie knew, so off we went.

I arrived at the hotel, checked in, and found my room in short order. I walked down two flights of stairs and knocked on Jen's door, and she came out. It's been 8 or 9 years since I've seen her, so we spent a little while catching up. She told me her friends were going to the Cirque de Soleil show Zaia, so I tagged along. Jen is touring China with a production of The Sound of Music, so I met some of the cast as they joined us. We walked over to The Sands:

The Sands

The Sands

From there we caught a free bus to The Venetian (where Zaia was playing). On the bus, Jen and I talked about what I should do on Monday. Her and some friends were leaving Macau at 7:30 AM to catch the ferry to Hong Kong and from there to HK Disneyland. I had no desire to go to Disneyland and had been planning to stay in Macau and do touristy things. But Jen convinced me that, in the couple days her and her company had been in Macau, they'd run through all the touristy things and that there wasn't so much to do, or at the very least, not much interesting stuff. After some discussion, I decided to go to Hong Kong with them, but just break off and do my own thing for the day.

We ate a late lunch at McSorley's, an Irish pub in the Venetian, watched some of the Olympics, chatted a bit, and then headed out to the show. It was pretty interesting. I liked all the clowns and the breakdancing green robot :-) I didn't take any pictures though because I wanted to enjoy the show, oh, and also because at this upper-class resort the ushers actually prevent you from taking pictures. (Not so at many other places in China.)

After the show, I joined Jen and some other kids for dinner inside The Sands. I was in Las Vegas once about four and a half years ago, and it felt exactly like what I felt like in Macau. Grand, sweeping displays of opulence, all ignored while people sit at blackjack, roulette, poker, so so many other kinds of games. We had to thread our way between slot machines and gamers to get to the cafeteria. I wonder why the gambling industry feels compelled to dress itself up in neon and put on this show of luxury? Maybe because people with a lot of money like to gamble?

After dinner, we headed over to the Macau Cultural Center. Jen left to get ready for the show, and I found my seat and settled in to enjoy the performance. I had never seen The Sound of Music, but now know that I've heard a number of its songs. (Especially The Vandals' cover of "So Long, Farewell.") I really liked the show; especially the historical context of being set in Austria before the German annexation in the run-up to WWII. Hindsight is 20/20, I guess. I wonder how much of that context was known to the Macauian (is that the proper term? Macauite? Macauvian? In Chinese it's easy; you just add 人 to a place name to denote its denizens, so these people would be 澳门人 or Aomenren) audience.

No matter: the performance was sold out (like most of the Macau performances have been, I learned), and the audience hung on every word. They laughed at the appropriate times and I even heard a couple people singing/humming along with the songs. The entire script was projected on either side of the stage during the audience, both spoken words and song -- whereas, during the Beijing opera performance, only the song lyrics were projected on the wall. During intermission, I took this picture of The Sands at night:


On the right-hand and bottom-left sides, you can kind of see how my camera lens was all steamed up.

After the show, we went back to the hotel. It was someone's fake birthday, so there was cake and a small get-together/party in someone's room. I met some members of the cast, including the guy who played Rolf and the guy who played Max, and some of the stagehand crew. It was pretty interesting talking to the actors and getting their perceptions of China. Obviously some of their experiences are vastly different from mine. They've been travelling around the country and have visited tons of cities like Chengdu, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Fuzhou, and so on. They haven't had to learn much Chinese, as they've got interpreters with them (or they will hire different ones in every they visit, I'm not sure). However, some of their experiences are quite the same, including many of the cultural and sociological differences that separate China from the United States. Anyhoo, talking to them was pretty neat.

I hung out for a little while, ate some cake, and then went to bed. I'd agreed to get up at 6:45 in order to eat breakfast at 7 and leave the hotel by 7:30 to spent the day in Hong Kong.

Tomorrow: Hong Kong by day and Macau by night. You can cheat a little bit and look at the full Macau picture set.

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