China’s answer to Vegas is Eastern gambling paradise

OF all the improbable consequences of China’s headlong rush into beating capitalism at its own game, Macau is the weirdest.In common with nearby Hong Kong, the former Portuguese colony returned to Chinese ownership in 1999, but remains largely self-determining. As a result, gambling is legal. And not just legal: Macau is known as the Vegas of the East. Gaming revenues increased a whopping 58 per cent in 2010, to $23.5bn. That’s fully four times what the Las Vegas Strip takes in, and makes Macau easily the gambling centre of the world.

Your first sight, as you zip into the harbour like James Bond on the Turbojet ferry from Hong Kong, is of these fabulous palaces of neon. Some are home-grown, but since 2002, when the gaming industry was opened up to foreign investors, the big American corporations have moved in. You’ll find a Wynn, MGM and a Venetian that are just like their Vegas counterparts, only bigger.

It gives the Vegas veteran a weird sense of déja-vu: it’s the same, but slightly different. For a start, almost everyone here is Chinese, which changes the atmosphere at the tables. Vegas gamblers are a rowdy bunch: drunk on cheap booze, good times and the promise of dirty sex, they mostly gamble for fun. If they win, drinks all round! If they lose, hey, that’s Vegas, and at least we kicked some ass! But in Macau the gamers are serious and somber, as if they were putting in a hard day’s graft at the office. Perhaps they really believe all that stuff about lucky numbers, that if they place their bets diligently, they stand a good chance against the House.

And the Chinese authorities, clearly, are not entirely comfortable with Macau casinos siphoning off the profits from the mainland’s economic miracle. Beijing has urged Macau to diversify its revenue stream, and Macau officials plan to cap the number of gaming tables and limit the building of new casinos – the Sands group recently spent $100million on plans, only to have the application turned down.

As an officially accredited journalist I am billeted, presumably deliberately, in pretty much the only major hotels not to have a casino of their own.

The Grand Hyatt on Cotai island is an efficient and elegant new building, ideal for business travellers, and part of the City of Dreams complex which includes the Hard Rock casino and “The House of Dancing Water”, a breathtaking water-based acrobatics show which cost $250m to produce. The Mandarin Oriental on Taipa is an exquisitely tasteful affair, with wonderful views across the bay, and a superb restaurant.

But if the tourist is to be discouraged from coming for the Baccarat tables and pinging slot machines, what else has Macau to offer? It’s actually a funny old place, one for which those stock travel cliches of “East meets West” and “a place of contrasts” seem freshly minted. Most of the apartment blocks are ugly, higgledy-piggledly constructions with white walls discoloured by the sub-tropical climate and washing hung out on every balcony.

There are surprisingly few bars and nightclubs, and the English language, when used, is delightfully mangled: you can buy records from Happy Sound Music, or clothes from Wanko; the sign outside a foot spa, where little fish eat the dead skin from your feet, reads “Let the Doctor Fish nibbles away your death skin.”

And yet the Portuguese influence is also everywhere, from the Portuguese street names on blue and white tiles to wonderful examples of colonial architecture.

The Guia fort, which was built in 1637 and turned into a lighthouse in the 19th century – somewhat redundant now that its beams are eclipsed by the neon jungle below -- is worth visiting not least for the view: it stands on the highest point in Macau.

The Historic centre of Macau was designated a World Heritage Site in 2005, with 25 landmarks of which the most famous is St Paul’s cathedral, built in 1602. Sadly only the facade survives, but that’s splendid enough to be worth a visit. Other churches of note include St Lawrence’s, St Augustine’s and St Dominic’s. Most affecting, however, is the Protestant Cemetery, whose tombstones bear witness to some of the early visitors and sailors who died, painfully young and in agony, of malaria. It also contains the grave of Robert Morrison, the missionary who devoted his life to the region. He translated the dictionary and the Holy Scriptures into Chinese, but it is to be hoped that his efforts were better rewarded in heaven than on earth: during his lifetime, he managed to convert just one person.

Worth a little detour is Lord Stow’s Bakery on Coloan island, which bakes a locally celebrated variation on those Portuguese egg tarts, because it’s round the corner from a thoroughly delightful white-arched square, with a peaceful little church containing a Madonna and Child done in a typically Chinese style.

And for a boutique hotel, you can’t beat the Pousada de São Tiago. Converted from a 17th century fort, which you enter up a passageway hewn from the rock, it has 12 beautiful suites overlooking the Inner Harbour.

Another pleasing byproduct of Macau’s mixed heritage is the profusion of festivals. Chinese New Year is coming up, and the Macau Arts Festival takes place in April. And of course the winding city streets are given up to the Macau Grand Prix in November, which is commemorated year-round by a museum filled with famous cars.

This collision of cultures is fascinating, if something of a curate’s egg. If you want to gamble, Vegas is more fun. If you want Portuguese influences, Portugal itself is closer to home.

But if you’re in the Far East, don’t miss the opportunity to visit. And if you get those lucky numbers right, it could just pay for your trip.

GETTING THERE, WHERE TO STAY
Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong four times a day from London Heathrow. Flights start at around £549 (020 8834 8888, www.cathaypacific.co.uk). Turbojet (00852 2859 3333) runs frequent jetfoils from Hong Kong to Macau from £12pp

Grand Deluxe King Rooms at the Grand Hyatt Macau are available from £140 (0845 888 1234, www.macau.grand.hyatt.com), rooms at the Mandarin Oriental Macau start at £203 (00 (800) 2828 3838, www.mandarinoriental.com/macau)