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Macau: city of dreams?
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By David Klepper

I'm in Hong Kong for a few days of work and R&R before heading back to KC. Monday I took the day off and headed to Macau, the Vegas of the East, so see what all the hubbub is about.

Macau is a former Portuguese colony, a city of just over half a million. It's long been China's Sin City, a place where gambling was allowed and call girls easy to find. But in recent years it's undergone a facelift as casino developers attempt to recreate Vegas in the South China Sea. Big casino hotels boasting brand names like Wynn, MGM and Sands have popped up. There's a move toward family-friendly entertainment and world-class convention facilities.

Curious about the results, I hopped on board one of the many ferries plying the HK-Macau route.

As an aside, let me tell you how fabulous Hong Kong's mass transit is. I'm staying in a business hotel on the eastern side of the main Hong Kong Island. The ferry leaves from the western side. But after a 10 minute walk to the subway and 20 minutes in the cleanest subway car I've ever seen, I was buying my tickets to Macau. (That's not quite true – I paused briefly at the Starbucks above the subway stop).

After an hour on the ferry I was in Macau, along with seemingly a million Chinese, Indonesia and Pilipino tourists. Some were single men obviously out for a good time. Others were couples. And lots were families.

I hit the historic part of town first. There are several old churches left behind by the Portuguese. Colonial buildings straight from the 1600s. And beautiful black-and-white tiled squares that look like something from old Europe. Like any old city in China, there are adorable shop-lined alleys that can either dead-end or open up to colorful food markets and secret neighborhoods.

Then I hit the casinos. I went to three – the Sands, the mammoth Lisboa and the Paradise. I lost $100 HK, about $15 U.S., so needless to say, I'm not a big gambler.

Macau hit it big at just the wrong time. International casino developers eager to win over the world's largest gambling market built big, perhaps too big. The downturn has drastically hurt the gambling revenue, and convention business is way down too. But take a look at all the construction cranes building new casinos and hotels and beachfront resorts. These developers are clearly making the long-term bet that Macau will pay off.

The scene inside the casinos was all Vegas, although the language was Cantonese. It was just as bright and glitzy and vibrant – or as pathetic and seedy and depressing, depending on your view of gambling – as anything I've seen in Vegas.

After a few hours, the cigarette smoke and constant bleating of slot machines got to me, and I had to leave. I suddenly wished I was back in Hong Kong. I didn't come to China to see Reno.

But I had a few hours to kill before my ferry took off, so I wandered. I found a quiet, tree-lined park just a few blocks from all the towering monuments to human folly. I bought a Diet Coke (Coca-Cola Light they call it here) and took a seat a bench. Nearby old men read newspapers. A little boy flew by on his training wheels, his anxious mother a few paces behind. Several elderly women walked up and down the length of the park, doing an exercise that consisted of swinging their arms and clapping their hands behind their backs.

The park was cool and dark, shaded by knotted trees straight out of the Jurassic. Long tendrils of moss hung low, hiding the park from the glitz and neon just a few blocks away. If Macau is China's Vegas, then this park was a piece of Savannah.

Back on the ferry I filled out the requisite Swine Flu declaration forms for customs (no, I don't have it, thank you very much). The night lights of Macau reflected in our wake and lit up the entire South China Sea.

The flat screen TVs in the ferry cabin repeated commercials for the big casinos and hotels, offering specials and packages. Then the TV played a tug-of-war match between a Japanese Sumo wrestler and an orangutan. The orangutan won (I saw that coming) and the wrestler ended up in a pool of mud.

The orangutan looked smug. Perhaps he's a casino developer.

(primebuzz.kcstar.com Agusut 20, 2009)

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