Monday, June 28, 2010

Spending time in the Asian Las Vegas

Macao is a paradise for gambling. Mainland Chinese and foreigners spend millions of dollars trying to hit the jackpot. But the region has several other charms, including well-maintained churches and temples, and tasty cuisine

Photos: The Venetian Macau; the author at Macau

By Shevlin Sebastian

M.J. Shah, the owner of a pharmaceutical firm in Mumbai, takes a photograph of his wife playing baccarat at the casino of the Venetian Macau hotel. Suddenly, a Chinese security woman, wearing a bright yellow uniform comes up to him and says, in a nasal voice, “No photographs in casino.” Shah apologises immediately. “I don’t like to gamble, but my wife does,” he says. Luckily, thanks to the din, his spouse cannot hear what he is saying.

Business magnate Shah came to Macao with 50 dealers and their wives. “The men had crossed the sales targets set for the year,” he says. “This is my reward to them, an all-expenses paid holiday at the Venetian. I expect to spend around Rs 70 lakh.”

As expected, most of the dealers at the casino, which has an area of 5 lakh square feet. There are hundreds of slot machines, and on green baize-topped tables, people play poker, roulette, Caribbean stud poker, craps, and blackjack. Stony-faced dealers, with names like Moon, Mabel, Pan and Fong, pinned on their chests, deal the cards with express speed.

And passions can be intense. At a baccarat game, a Chinese woman suddenly hits her husband on the back of his head. He looks back, and scolds her, but with a smile on his face. The grim-looking woman leans forward and proffers advice. He nods, plays, and loses again. Exasperated, she walks away. At other tables, there are shouts when somebody hits a jackpot and groans when the white ball falls into the wrong slot during a game of roulette.

In the midst of this melee, Rakesh Patel comes up and says, “Would you be interested in exploring the night life of Macau? I can offer guidance.” Rakesh ('Please call me Rocky') came from Ahmedabad two years ago and likes it in Macau. “For 400 Hongkong dollars, you can get a body massage, plus sex for 80 minutes,” he says. “But if you want Russian girls or those from countries like Kyrgzstan or Uzbekistan, the rates are high: 1100 dollars.”

Rakesh points at some delicious-looking girls standing outside, dressed in low-cut blouses, micro-mini skirts, and black stiletto heels. “They can be yours for a price,” he says.

Last year there were 45,000 Indian visitors in Macao. Indeed, there are a lot of Indians this year also. But what catches the eye are the women, who, in Chinese style, wear mini skirts, shorts, and see-through strapless dresses, and walk around in gay abandon, keenly aware that they could never wear these clothes in public back home in India.

Meanwhile, the highlight of the hotel is how they have recreated Venice on the third floor. There is the same architecture of the houses in the Italian city, as well as a canal flowing through the middle. Red shirted gondoliers on plush black gondolas take tourists on a serene ride.

Blonde-haired Nutella, a gondolier, is from Milan. “The Venetian was looking for a singer who could row a boat,” she says. “Since I can do both, I applied. I am enjoying my time here in Macao.”

When the boat reaches one end, Nutella breaks out into a famous Italian song, ‘Funicul√¨, Funicul√†’.

“It celebrates the opening of the first cable car on Mount Vesuvius in 1880,” she says. Bystanders hear her in rapt attention, and clap loudly when she finishes.

At one side, some Chinese people throw coins into the water. In fact, the floor of the stream glints with numerous coins. “People have a belief that if they throw a coin and pray for a wish, it will be granted,” says Nutella. So Indians and Chinese have at least some beliefs in common.

On another day I explore Macau. This Special Administrative Region of the Republic of China has an area of only 27 sq. kms. A large portion has been reclaimed from the sea. The place is spotlessly clean, with narrow streets and well-maintained buildings.

Massive hotels have come up here, with names like 'City of Dreams ', 'Grand Lisboa', 'Wynn Macau' and 'Galaxy World'. The Sheraton hotel, when it is complete, will be the world's largest, with 4000 rooms. There are 35 casinos in Macao, and the mainstay of the economy is gambling. One in five among the locals works in a casino.

“This is the Asian Las Vegas,” says Michael Chang, a guide. “Last year, there were 22 million tourists.” Most come from Hongkong and China. A bridge connects Macao to Zhuhai, a large border town in China.

At the oldest Buddhist temple in Macao, the A-Ma, constructed in 1488, Chinese visitors light incense sticks and pray on bent knees. A sign says, 'Your donation is highly appreciated. May we wish you unlimited blessings.'

At Our Lady of Penha church, built by the Portuguese, the gleaming wooden pews lent charm to the well-maintained building. “There is a lot of Portuguese influence in Macao,” says Michael. “They arrived here in the 16th century.”

That night, at the Perola restaurant at the Sands hotel, I had a Portuguese meal: dried cod fish ball, grilled sardines, clams, prawns, meat platter and boiled cabbage. But the dessert – Serradura (whipped vanilla cream with crushed biscuits) – tasted the best.

Meanwhile, Michael points to a white-painted bungalow and says, “That belongs to Stanley Ho's first wife.” The four-times married Ho, who controlled the gambling industry in Macao for 40 years, has an estimated personal wealth of $ 1 billion. Aged 88, he is now in indifferent health, and stays in Hongkong.

But hey,
You don't have to be Ho,
To enjoy Macao.
With lesser cash,
You can have a good bash.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)


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