Once a peaceful,historic resort, gambling boomnow sparks a dash for brash in the Vegas of the East
Compared with hyperactive Hong Kong, Macau used to be the charming but sleepy Portuguese colony an hour’s boat ride away across the Pearl River Delta. Macau’s colonial inheritance included an outpost of the Vatican, a Catholic seminary for educating Chinese missionaries, and baroque and neo-classical architecture dating back to the 16th century. As the base of the first Jesuits working in China, Macau had a distinctly old-world European, as opposed to Anglo-Saxon, atmosphere. Portuguese colonialists mixed more than the British with their Chinese subjects, and this shows in the Macanese language, which is distinct from either Cantonese or Portuguese.
Despite a surge of turbo development over the last decade, Macau has managed to care for its rich building history. In 2005 it won World Heritage status, but its main attraction for Chinese and foreign tourists was, and is, gambling.
This has been the mainstay of Macau’s income since it was legalised in 1847. Stanley Ho, one of the world’s richest men, owner of banks, hotels, clubs, and even the ferry services that bring players to Macau’s casinos, has been the region’s one-man economic motor for over four decades. When, in 2002, Macau’s gambling monopoly was liberalised, many more foreign investors were attracted to the former colony. The subsequent explosion in hotels, casinos and shopping centres has switched Macau from a restful, historic enclave to a fun palace resort to rival Hong Kong.
Macau now has 22 five-star hotels, all built in the last decade and each more glitzy than the last, designed to accommodate Chinese day-trippers and longer-stay foreign tourists whose numbers have increased threefold, to 23 million in 2008. The 258m-high Grand Lisboa Hotel, by Hong-Kong-based Dennis Lau and Ng Chun Man Architects, is typical of the genre, improbably resembling a colossal golden lotus. The 338m Macau Tower, by New Zealand architect Gordon Moller, is famous for bungee jumping. Such luxe developments have helped increase the city’s income sixfold since 1999, when it was handed back to Beijing.
Similarities between Las Vegas and Macau are unavoidable. Ho’s family empire is now in business with American gaming company MGM Mirage and Macau is becoming a spectacular oriental rival to the West’s desert gambling paradise. However, like Vegas, Macau needs other forms of entertainment to woo tourists, and is now billing itself as an ‘urban-inspired entertainment destination resort’. And, like Hong Kong, Macau has created new land on which to develop further. Five square kilometres have been clawed back from the sea by landfill, extending the peninsula to the south, and the islands of Coloane and Taipa are now united under the name Cotai Strip.
Two of Macau’s latest and most extravagant architectural offerings have been designed by New York’s Pei Partnership Architects.
IM Pei, the grand master of modern Chinese American architecture, now shares design tasks with his two sons. Their Macao Science Centre, with planetarium, exhibition halls and educational facilities, officially opened for the 10th anniversary of Macau’s handover to Beijing on 20 December last year. Occupying a prominent waterside position, it sports bling aluminium cladding and an asymmetric conical form reminiscent of Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower. Even more gargantuan will be the House of Dancing Water, due to complete this year. Cited as the world’s largest water show, performances are staged in a central aquarium that holds as much water as five Olympic-sized swimming pools. Whether Macau will still able to preserve its fragile, historic fabric and ambience amid this unstoppable ‘dash for brash’ is another question.