Saturday, June 02, 2007

Awaken Macau

After almost 400 years of blissful colonial slumber, the new Special Administrative Region of Macau is already rivalling the world’s major leisure capitals.

Macau Legend and History

The fierce driving rain lashed the tiny boat and the seas rose and threatened to swamp it completely. Then suddenly the girl who had boarded at the last moment in such a hurry, stepped forth and commanded the tempest to cease. She was not simply a girl, but a goddess with an appointment with heaven.

The crew gratefully put the girl, whose name was A-Ma, ashore in the port of Hoi Keang where she immediately strode to the top of a hill to keep her date with divinity. A temple was built in 1488 and is a focal point for tourists even today as the shrine of the Goddess of the Sea. Centuries later, when Portuguese sailors landed and asked the name of the place, the local inhabitants replied “A-Ma-Gao” (Bay of A-Ma). Thus, the peninsula was renamed. In modern usage, Amagao has shortened to simply Macau.

Even though Macau is best known for its rich Portuguese heritage and eclectic mix of European and Asian cultures, the town’s maritime and trading history dates back to the 5th century and earlier when coastal traders and fishermen used Hoi Keang for resupply. Many historians also believe the port was used by the enormous fleets of the Ming dynasty during 1421-23 as part of their theorised discovery of the world.

Well before the end of the 16th Century, the Chinese had withdrawn from their expansionist plans and the massive fleets disappeared. In 1513, the Portuguese merchant and explorer, Jorge Alvares, landed and almost immediately began a trading relationship with the local Cantonese (Guangzhou) who were quite probably craving for a resumption in international relations. The Europeans established various temporary outposts before reaching an arrangement with the mandarins in 1557 to settle the tiny peninsula at the mouth of the Pearl River estuary, now modern Macau.

Their monopoly of trade in silk, ceramics and spice with the Chinese quickly produced enormous wealth and in 1622, with much of the Portuguese empire crumbling elsewhere in the world, the Dutch invaded in overwhelming numbers. Seriously on the back foot, the local militia were fighting a desperate stand at the Citadel of Sao Paulo do Monte when a single lucky cannon shot struck the Dutch ammunition stores. The resulting explosion, fire and destruction bewildered the invaders and Portuguese control was not again challenged until the Second World War, and even then the Japanese notionally respected Portuguese sovereignty.

Most significantly, Macau reverted to a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China in 1999, ending 329 years of colonial Portuguese rule.

Macau Grand Prix: Asia’s Most Significant Motor Sport Event

First held in 1955, soon after the restoration of Formula One in Europe after its wartime hiatus, the Macau Grand Prix has evolved as arguably the most historic and significant Asian motor sport event.

Unlike its “twin” event in Monaco where the narrow and dangerous streets still play host to FIA Formula One, Macau has reverted to a more practical programme of motorcycles, touring cars and international Formula 3 (F3).

Formula One has since returned to Asia with events in both Malaysia and China. But unlike the comparatively tiny Macau race, the “big time” F1 World Championship rounds fail to generate the festive aura so evident in Macau.

The list of Macau Grand Prix champions and former competitors reads like a list of the who’s who of Formula One with such names as Ayrton Senna, Michael and Ralf Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve, Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard and Damon Hill. Spectators at each event can theorise on the latest F1 champion from the field of talented young driver arrayed before them.

But Macau champions and stand-out performers have not been limited to international stars. Singapore's Chan Lye-Choon won the 1958 Grand Prix in an Aston Martin DB 3S and Hong Kong’s Albert Poon followed in 1964.

The 54th Macau Grand Prix will be held from November 15th to 18th 2007.

UNESCO World Heritage Declared in 2005

Macau’s unique European cultural fusion has spawned a range of colourful cultural events including arts, music and fireworks festivals, a dragon boat regatta and a marathon foot race. Golf and the legendary Guia Motor Race and Grand Prix complete the international sporting calendar.

Furthermore, the United Nations, through UNESCO, have recognised the very special significance of the architectural heritage of Macau by listing the centre of the old city as a World Heritage site of cultural significance. Their description reads thus:

“With its historic street, residential, religious and public Portuguese and Chinese buildings, the historic centre of Macao provides a unique testimony to the meeting of aesthetic, cultural, architectural and technological influences from East and West. The site also contains a fortress and a lighthouse, which is the oldest in China. The site bears testimony to one of the earliest and longest-lasting encounters between China and the West based on the vibrancy of international trade.”

The historic and cultural “branding” of old colonial Macau is perhaps best portrayed by the preserved façade of the Cathedral of Saint Paul. Built during the last decade of the 16th Century by the Jesuits, the building was destroyed by fire in 1835 during a typhoon.

The proximity of the landmarks makes this expansive World Heritage site an engaging and vigorous self-guided walking tour that could easily occupy several days.

Gaming and Leisure a Hallmark of Macau

Apart from the cultural and historic significance if the port city, Macau is known worldwide for its gambling history which began with the Chinese workers and merchants who populated the growing city soon after the arrival of the Portuguese.

While the legitimacy and legality of gambling fluctuated on the Chinese mainland over the centuries, it has always been a staple of the Macanese economy.
“When Hong Kong opened its port to the outside world, Macao suffered a drastic decline in its gambling business. The Macao-Portuguese authorities announced the legalization of gambling in 1847 and began to rely upon gambling as its main economic pillar. The local government issued numerous gambling licenses to collect takings,” writes Lau Bun Leung, Member of the Economics Studies Group of Macao University.

Significantly, the 40-year gaming monopoly held by the highly influential, Forbes-listed Stanley Ho and his companies ended in 2002 after the new Chinese government opened the market for new operators to enter Macau.

These new arrivals include the Sands Macau, the largest casino in the world as measured by the number of gaming tables, in 2004 and Wynn Macau in 2006. Remarkably, Macau's gambling revenues eclipsed those of Las Vegas Strip last year (each about $6 billion), making Macau the highest-volume gambling centre in the world. Other casinos and hotels opening before 2010 include: The Venetian Macao, Four Seasons, MGM Grand Macau, Ponte 16, Far East Consortium Complex, Grand Hyatt, Galaxy Cotai Megaresort, City of Dreams, Oceanus and Mandarin Oriental. The first Phase of Macau's Cotai Strip will open this year and includes 19,000 guest rooms throughout seven resort hotels, with the $1.8 billion Venetian Macao serving as the anchor. The head of Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, plans to open Macau’s most expensive casino resort yet, a US$3 billion, 2.1 million sq. ft. casino and entertainment complex with three hotels on the Cotai Strip, right next door to the Venetian Macao Resort.

You could enjoy yourself in New Zealand, apparently.

I like New Zealand, I really do.

There’s a certain charm to ordering ‘Fush un Chupps’ and you have to admire a country that sells us back their gutted, skinned and transformed feral animals at a premium price for us to wrap around our necks.

But try as they might, our energetic cousins across the Tasman will only ever to aspire to what is on offer here in the big country.

Sure, they can knock out a pretty fair Pinot, turn on a spot of skiing occasionally and field a half-respectable team of Rugby players, but in the real world New Zealanders are little more than respected try-hards and cottage industry experts.

Now I can see steam building up behind the ears of some of our esteemed Kiwi cousins and they will be quick to remind us of that anomalous 1976 Olympic Hockey fluke (c’mon, hands up, who remembers?) and that perfectly legal one-day cricket win when brown trousers were still in style. But the true state of the world is quickly restored and one only has to look to the recent World Cup for a salient reminder.

But please, don’t be put off. As Sam Neill, Dame Kiri and Xena will want to tell you, New Zealand is a lot more than blockbuster mountain scenery and Oscar winning performances – even if the famous dubbed and defiant diva refuses to be showered in undies aimed at our own darling, Johnny Farnham.

I’m assured too that a singles bash in Dunedin, a B&S as we like to call them here, is not known as ‘blokes ‘n’ sheep’ on the South Island. That’s just a furphy. All the chaps I’ve met from there have perfectly normal relationships with their livestock.

But please take note and don’t make the mistake I did. When the tour brochure says, “experience an authentic Maori haka”, it is in fact not an outdoor cook-up. When I asked a big fellow who looked like a chef in a grass skirt, “how about some sausages then?”, he and his friends got very very angry and made nasty faces. I’ve since learned that Maori food is set fire to and buried.

Despite these unfamiliar customs, I’m reliably informed that people who like smelly cheese, desolate mountain ranges and jumping off bridges will have a perfectly fine time.

So, by all means, shun our parched and arid deserts, man-eating wildlife and well-ordered vehicular traffic and bugger off to New Zealand.

See if I care.