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Macau, China: Casinos, Cannons, and Cremation

Posted by on April 7, 2012

Macau just might be one of the coolest places you’ve never heard of. I hadn’t until I moved to Zhuhai, the city in China adjacent to its north. Because of this proximity, I was lucky enough to check it out.

Now, so can you. :)

So what’s up with this place called Macau? Well, there’s the factual and then there’s the actual. Let me bore you a bit about Macau’s history:

Basically, back when Portugal was hot ship on the seas—the 1600’s—they went a-sailing to Asia and colonized this small chunk of land on the southern coast of China. They called it Macau, and they ruled it through the years all the up until 1999 when it was officially handed back to China.

So throughout those three centuries, wee Macau was basically immune to the ups and downs of life on mainland China. Despite being populated by almost all Chinese folk, Macau marched to a different beat, and consequently, this peninsula/island combo became a lot more prosperous.

Today, the rest of China is catching up. It’s not night and day anymore when you cross the border, but it’s still a unique vibe. Here’s a map of Macau:

Guangdong, to the north, is the name of the province. And that particular piece of Guangdong is my city, Zhuhai.

And yes, despite the handover in 1999, there is a border between China and Macau. They call it the “One Country, Two Systems” system. Though it’s annoying to have to cross, Macau is thus able to maintain more Internet freedoms, personal freedoms, and business freedoms.

And when you talk business in Macau, you mean gambling:

One of Macau's signature casinos: The Grand Lisboa

Macau is the only spot in China where gambling is legal (though I’d come across several cash card games–-most by the elderly–on the sidewalks in Zhuhai.

The legality of gambling in Macau has caused it to explode (in a good way) over the last ten years. As the rest of China grows, they come to spend their dough in Macanese casinos.

Real quick, let’s put Macau’s size in perspective for ya: Good ole’ Rhode Island is 1,200 sq miles and we all know how tiny it is compared to the rest of America:

wee Rhode Island

Okay, so imagine all of America’s gambling–all of it–packed into that tiny state. Well, China is about the same size as the U.S. But Macau? Macau is just 11.4 sq. miles!

Take a look and see if you can see it:

Wait, what are we looking at?

Yeah, if that circle’s not there, neither is our idea of where to look. With it’s 30 or so big time casino-hotels, Macau is sort of the Vegas of Asia. And, in fact, now pulls in much more gambling revenue than Vegas does.

But unlike Las Vegas, Macau features a lot more than just casinos. And this is what I came to see…

I awoke early and took the bus down to the border:

Border Gate: that's Macau in the distance

In it, you gotta do the passport and customs thing. You get through in about half hour.

I liked the vibe when I entered Macau. Though it is technically China, it is quite different. You have to get different money, people drive on the other side of the road (the left side in Macau), and because I had no connection there, I felt a freedom in the “foreignness”. So I wandered and enjoyed and explored…and was nosey.

I was heading south toward the historic old city center to check out the buildings and such. But after just a few blocks, I already had to stop and observe. Local folks were exercising on some contraptions available in the area parks. I spent a few minutes to snap a few pics of the morning calisthenics:

Looks like they need a Macanese Richard Simmons to pop out and pump them up.

Or maybe it wasn’t boredom, but zen-like focus:

'I gotta fit into that size two for prom.'

After watching these gals give it their all, I continued south. And in just a few more blocks came upon a temple. “Hmm”, I thought, and decided to investigate. I didn’t know jack about it, but it was old and solemn and had a nice, serene vibe to it. It was a comfortable, cozy, and yet, spacious structure—-large, with many rooms, some of them without ceilings. (This is something you can do in warm climates.)

Walking straight in I headed for the main prize, a beautiful altar:

You could spend a while enjoying all the details.

close up

After this, I wandered about—slowly. One can’t rush in a temple, can they?

It was lovely the way the sun light splashed down inside the temple:

a heavenly quality

But not all is peaceful at the temple:


Calm down, Bro.

I walked over to the music makers to play this angry god a lullaby:

All that time in high school band was for something!

Actually as soon as I hit it three times–as instructed–a worshiper bowed:

I felt like I inspired a monent

I gave a donation to the people there and thanked them. They were happy having foreigners come by to appreciate their temple–-their history and spirituality. And I felt good, having my own solemnity and serenity increased as a result of their beautiful structure. This was preparatory for the next stop I was to make.

Another block or two down the road, I looked to my left. I’m not sure what called me to enter the driveway, but when I did and sat down to this:

From a temple honoring the afterlife to a funeral recognizing a man who recently joined it

You can see his picture way in the back there. Sometimes when I see a real old person I imagine them as a young, energetic child. It’s so moving and I’m not sure why. I want to say I’m being moved by the power and beauty of life—its potential for so much joy, its transformational process…its brevity. Perhaps it’s just a deep-seated fear of death. That this man, who once came fresh from the womb, is now gone—by now a pile of ashes.

What does one do with this realization? This view of life isn’t usual for us; we don’t go about our days with this reality in mind. It’s too big–yet it’s right there! Buddhists recognize that the key to happiness is understanding that life is change, that all is change. They say we can better appreciate life—be better at being in tune with the flow of life—if we recognize its temporary nature.

I think that might be what these ladies were honoring:

they chanted

Then from the spiritual, came the educational…

The second half of my time this day was spent taking in the typical touristy stuff. So here’s a bit of that:

First I had to make my through some “genuine” Macau—the cramped apartment buildings and street life:

By the way, Macau is the most densely populated region on the planet.

But soon things started to get more elegant as I approached my destination:

it felt a bit more 'European'

And soon I was there, the old center of Macau—Senado Square.

This is an area of large, pillared buildings around a beautifully bricked space in the center. It’s where the leaders of the former Portuguese colony would convene. Today, it’s a time capsule. Here’s the old senate building:

Now it's a musuem

And turning around, here’s the view of the square:

Senado Square

Lovely, isn’t it? Yeah, it deserves another look:

good looking

There was the museum here, a church, and my favorite, a fort just beyond this scene–Monte Forte, or Mount Fortress:

watching out

I walked up to get a closer look:

probably not a good habit to get into

This fort, like others dotting SE Asia, rings wet with the blood, sweat, and tears of the Dutch and Portuguese—both major powers of the seas back in the day. (It’s fun when grown-ups play King of the Hill, isn’t it.) The Dutch never did succeed at taking Macau.

Indeed, Portugal held onto Macau and eventually handed the baton back to China. Today it retains the charm of China’s ancient religions, the European architecture, the blended cuisine, and of course, as many gambling and entertainment options as you’d like.

Macau might be a small place, but the little bugger packs a punch! Heck, I didn’t even make it to the southern half—an island with a more laid back feel and wilderness areas. And I ended up only stepping foot into a casino to catch their shuttle service back to the border.

From there, I entered back into China and took the bus back to my apartment. Back to my “real” life in Zhuhai.

hope you enjoyed the trip,


One Response to Macau, China: Casinos, Cannons, and Cremation

  1. Jan Lee

    I certainly enjoyed this and seeing all the pictures. Since I am reading this online, I then wondered if this was also printed in the regular paper and whether the writer is a regular contributor to the paper or website. I would encourage you to include his writings in the paper, in spite of the fact it was written very informally and included more pictures than would be printed in the paper.