China-Me and the Dragon

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 2 (v.1) - Macao

Submitted: December 30, 2008

Reads: 263

Comments: 1

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Submitted: December 30, 2008

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Macao
We decided to begin our journey around China in Macao; a city we already knew well. We used to live in Zhuhai, which borders Macao. However, Zhuhai is in China proper, whereas Macao is now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, like Hong Kong.
Let me begin with a little history. Macao, or Ao Men in Chinese, was the world’s first Asian colony, and for 400 years the Portuguese held sway, but they were always a racial minority, and in the 20th century their rule was nominal and almost ghost-like. Having said that, the old town still looks remarkably Portuguese; it’s just that 98 per cent of its inhabitants are Chinese.
Macao still has its own currency, the Pataca, and-nominally at least, its own local government, but in reality, Beijing calls all the shots, as in Hong Kong.
Macao also has the highest population density of any city on earth. If all the people who live here, about half a million, tried to leave their tower blocks and stand in what little pavement its 25 square kilometres offers, they’d kill each other in the resulting squash. Thankfully, it’s never occurred to the Macanese to do this.
It would be like this in most cities, I suppose. We rarely go outside nowadays. If you will permit me the first of what I’m afraid will be many digressions, consider, dear reader, how little time you’ve spent ‘outside’ in the last week. We’ve all got so used to living in boxes that ‘outside’ has become merely a medium to get from one box to another.
Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that to ‘succeed’ in life really just means living in a bigger box. In Paris, my wife and I have just bought an old but charming 33-square-metre box, which is quite a small box, but the box has a wonderful location. What worries me is that I rarely go outside to appreciate it. I stay in my box.
We’ve all forgotten that ‘outside’ is where we belong, and after a lifetime’s education spent teaching us how to live and work in boxes, we are incapable of surviving outside one for more than a few days. I mean, how long could you survive if you suddenly found yourself transported to a wilderness, bereft of all civilisation? And yet this is the environment we have evolved for. Little or no significant evolution has occurred since that time, and we are still, at a genetic level, hunter-gatherers, but we no longer hunt or gather. We have learned to be helpless.
It is this, I suspect, that is at the root of the angst that is so much a part of post-industrial man’s existence. Or perhaps I’m just spreading my own neurosis onto society at large.
In any case, the immense and innumerable tower blocks of Macao, contrasting so strongly with the ancient colonial Portuguese city centre, made me think of the boxes that have become our world and how unnatural everything has become.
But us move on from history and my Grand Theory of Boxes to Macao’s current ‘raison d’etre’; gambling. Casinos are illegal in Hong Kong and China, so every weekend sees ferry loads of Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese descend on the roulette wheels and black jack tables of Macao’s many casinos to place their bets and roll the dice.
I went to one of the casinos once, the Lisboa, one of Macao’s largest; replete with garish lighting and well-worn, but once plush, carpets. What I remember most was the air of desperation in the place. It was almost palpable. There is something very unpleasant about casinos, and I can’t understand why people go there. The gamblers, to me at least, looked like drug addicts desperately craving their next fix. I’ve never seen a crack den, of course, but I imagine they have the same rank atmosphere.
Of course, there aren’t any flashing lights, expensive suits or cocktail waitresses to distract you in a crack den, but the psychological cues and triggers are fundamentally the same.
I didn’t do any gambling in the Lisboa. In fact, I have never gambled. I could never see the point of it, as the ‘house’ always wins. The gambler is doomed to failure. The facts are irrefutable, so why anyone gambles, and why the Chinese in particular-surely the world’s most logical and calculating race-are so addicted to gambling is a mystery to me.
Psychologists, or rather behavioural psychologists, argue that gambling is addictive because of the power of what are called ‘variable return reinforcement schedules’. To oversimplify, the possibility of short-term reinforcement (winning one game of cards) outweighs the long-term punishments (eventually losing your money, your possessions and possibly even your friends and family).
Other mammals, from rats to republicans, are governed by the same laws of reinforcement, and exhibit the same preference for short-term reinforcement. We are hard wired to think short-term, it would appear.
From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Life in the wild is brutish, ugly and short; and you need to live one day at a time, so there is little incentive for long-term planning.
This ‘inconvenient truth’ might also explain the psychology of why we are making our planet uninhabitably polluted in the long term, so we can drive large pieces of metal from one box to another in the short term.
It’s a depressing thought really, but doesn’t it upset you too? I mean that something as ‘dull’ as our genetic predisposition to short term rewards over long term punishments may condemn our species, and perhaps even the planet itself, to extinction. You cannot grab peoples’ attention with a piece of information like that, regardless of its fundamental importance. It’s so terribly dry that I came very very close to deleting the last two pages. Who can make ‘variable return reinforcement schedules’ sound interesting? I mean, can you imagine a news headline stating: Short-Term Reinforcement Shocker!
But again, I digress. Let’s turn to geography. The S.A.R. of Macao is divided into three areas: Macao proper; that is, old Macao; Taipa, the middle island which is mainly residential; and Coloane, the last and smallest island, which has been left largely undeveloped, and is a beautiful park area. Actually, recent extensive land reclamation makes the word ‘islands’ somewhat misleading for Macao and Taipa, but Coloane is still a bona fide island, but connected by an enormous bridge to the other islands of Macao.
Macao proper contains the old town and the historic heart of the city, the Placa del Largo do Senado. The plaza is laid out in a truly beautiful traditional Portuguese pavement style, a calcada, with black and white mosaics of waves and ships and so forth, all intricately inlaid into the pavement. I mean the pavement itself is a work of art, even without the carefully preserved 18th and 19th century Latin European buildings. How many places in the world can claim that their pavements are a work of art?
At one end of the square, an old church, St. Dominic’s, constructed in 1587, remains open for business, but most of the business these days is not the devout, but the mildly curious. The hapless tourists outnumber the churchgoers ten to one.
We sat in a pew and admired the church. Now and then, however, an aging Portuguese resident ambled in, knelt and prayed in a pew, temporarily oblivious to the end of the world she had known. There was something oddly moving in this, but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly. I still can’t.
The old town only extends for a few blocks and is rapidly swallowed up by massive, and massively ugly, tower blocks. During the Chinese civil war and World War 2, refugees swelled the city’s previously tiny population, and the government could either let them die on the street or build high rise monstrosities to house them all. And with so little land available, the towers had to be crammed very tightly together.
Financial constraints and the need for speed meant that architecturally speaking, the towers of Macao are truly hideous.
However, taste is a luxury the teeming and starving masses cannot afford. I guess if you’re dying on the street, a high rise monstrosity looks pretty good. The need for shelter, the most basic of human needs, along with hunger and thirst, must be satisfied before abstracts like beauty can be considered. Macao needed to build high and build fast, and to its credit, it did so.
Indeed, Macao was a bastion of peace and tranquillity in the twentieth century, while China proper was torn apart in wars, civil wars and the insanity of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward.
It still attracts mainland Chinese immigrants now, and nearly half its current population are Mainlanders. It is a very pleasant place to live, which could account for it having the longest life-expectancy rate in the world: the average Macao resident lives 84.3 years.
The shortage of space and the demand for land in Macao meant the streets were built narrow, but since they are not clogged with traffic, they seem more ‘cosy’ than oppressive. In fact, Macao has one of the world’s lowest rates of car ownership, and people do not see having a car to be a necessary status symbol, as they now seem to feel in most of China.
Indeed, Macao is small enough to make a car completely unnecessary. Cars are also heavily taxed to discourage car ownership. Mainland China’s environment, and the environment of the entire world for that matter, would benefit greatly from the rest of the country adopting the same policy and placing financial penalties on car owners. I mean, if smokers must now pay punitive health taxes on cigarettes, then why shouldn’t car owners also pay high environmental taxes? Instead the Chinese government actively encourages car ownership and car production. It is keen to promote all industry, regardless of its environmental impact.
Built long before the arrival of those moving cigarettes we call motor cars, near the end of Macao’s old town, an old fort, Monte Fort, still stands on top of a hill and its cannons and watchtowers still appear to guard the city.
Beside the fort, the front of St Paul’s Cathedral, Macao’s emblem, somehow remains standing, but the rest of the cathedral was destroyed by fire during a typhoon.
This is taken by some as miraculous, but I fail to see how 90 per cent of a church burning to the ground, killing those inside, and a piece of it not falling down, can be seen as evidence of divine intervention. I mean, what kind of God are we talking about here? A God who kills, maims and demolishes buildings, drowns entire cities in typhoons, burns down his own church, but then holds back and decides to save the fade of one church. What would be the purpose of such an action? Why would an all-powerful God do something like that?
I put this question to one side when my long-suffering wife reminded me that I always made exactly the same point every time we visited the church, and that I had promised not to vent my vitriolic atheism when we were actually on church property.
Instead we looked down on the city from the fort’s walls. The old town, and its colonial pink building, lay around us. In the distance, an old disused lighthouse stood on a hill on the other side of the city, a beacon to ancient mariners, since Macao’s original wealth was built on exploiting the spice trade, and not exploiting gamblers.
In the other direction, across a small bay, mainland China was busy building itself up from farmland to city; skipping the intermediary stages of village and town entirely. Cranes were everywhere, skyscrapers shot up from nothing, industrial complexes mushroomed in the misty damp air, and everywhere there was energy, vitality and sheer determination to succeed.
Part of me was excited by the dizzying speed of progress in China, but part of me was appalled by the ugliness of it all; sorrowful like the polluted muddy brown waters of the Pear River, flowing into and discolouring the sea beneath me.
Behind me was the beauty and charm of old Macao; in front of me the power and industry of new China; the waking dragon. “We’re heading into the belly of the Dragon,” I said to Sandra, with a cigarette dangling precariously from my lip, hoping I sounded cool rather than crass.
In the afternoon, we went down to Coloane, Macao’s wooded island park, for a small hike. Well, ‘hike’ is probably an exaggeration. A ‘stroll in the woods’ is probably a better description. The minibus from central Macao only costs 5 Patacas (50 cent) and if you’re quick, and a little bit childish, you can sit at the front of the bus, next to the driver, in what must be the only bus ride in the world that feels like being in a grand prix. The engine roars, and the minibus swerves to and fro through the narrow streets. It’s wonderful!
The strange thing is that this park cum island is almost always empty. Only about 2,000 people live there, and since new construction is prohibited, the rest remains unspoilt. Moreover, on our stroll, we only came across a couple of other people there. We finished our walk at Hac Sa beach, but even its black volcanic sand and swimmable beaches didn’t seem to attract many people.
As we prepared to leave Macao, the same thoughts occurred as when we arrived: thoughts of boxes, cages and a dysfunctional society. It seemed odd to me that in the city with the highest population density on earth, the large wooded park remains empty and is left to the birds. People just don’t want to leave their boxes, it would appear.
When psychiatric patients spend too long in a hospital environment, they become ‘institutionalised’ and cannot function outside this environment. The human race, I sometimes fear, is suffering the same fate, but on a far larger scale.
Are we all now ‘institutionalised’ to living in boxes, staring vacantly at TV boxes and screens,moving from box to box, blissfully unaware of the rabbit hutches we have confined ourselves to?

Have we become a race of agoraphobic


© Copyright 2020 Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.

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