Macao is marred by ugly high-rise apartment buildings, many for low-income residents. But tucked away behind them are intriguing narrow, crowded streets with overhanging balconies. (Parts of movies set in old Shanghai, including "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," were filmed in Macao.)
One morning, as a typhoon was sweeping in from the Philippines, Sales and I joined early shoppers who had come to the Red Market to buy the best giant mussels, eels and other live delicacies. In a food stall adjacent to the 1930s red brick building, a roast pig, stuffed and festively wrapped in pink paper, awaited pickup for a special feast.
I enjoyed strolling the cobblestone pedestrian streets around pretty Senado Square with its pastel buildings and 17th century St. Dominic's Church. I watched the faithful lighting incense sticks at the 16th century A-Ma Temple (Macao residents are primarily Buddhist) and walked the streets of old Taipa.
I lingered at the wonderful Museum of Macao, which opened in 1998 on the foundations of 17th century Monte Fort. Exhibits, including re-creations of old Chinese shops and facades of houses in different styles, depict Eastern and Western cultures over the centuries.
I was transfixed by a film of a cricket fight. Who knew that champion crickets had training diets (rice and fish) and were buried in tiny caskets? Once, thousands of dollars were waged on cricket fights, but today they are illegal.
Truth to tell, Macao used to be a bit of a backwater. Locals used to travel to Hong Kong just to go to McDonald's. Now, the Golden Arches are so familiar here that when Sai Van, a cable-stayed bridge to Taipa, opened in 2004 with M-shaped towers (as in Macao), it was dubbed the McDonald's bridge.
Now, Macao is basking in its prosperity. Young people, once eager to leave, are taking well-paying casino jobs.
One concern is where to recruit the help needed for all the new hotels and casinos. Currently, there are restrictions on immigrant labor from the mainland.
Mainland China, with its 1.3 billion people, its prosperity and its penchant for gambling, is just steps from Macao. Each day, gamblers, shoppers and workers stream across from Zhuhai, and people cross to the mainland from Macao for cheaper shopping. (U.S. citizens need a visa.) Visitors arriving in Macao find a fleet of private buses to take them to the casinos.
Macao was spared the devastation of World War II, when it was a neutral haven for refugees. Since the '50s, when numerous old buildings were bulldozed to erect housing, it has enacted laws to save much of its architectural heritage.
IN her role as an architect with Macao's Cultural Affairs Bureau, Carla Figueiredo is one of those fervent about preserving old Macao.
Over winter melon soup, she told me, "Macao is an incredibly special place, where people of different cultures and different religions have lived side by side for so many centuries."
She remains optimistic that Macao can thrive while "preserving the authentic atmosphere and not destroying our heritage."
Not everyone is thrilled to see Macao fashioning itself into Las Vegas East. Over coffee in his Coloane bakery, local luminary Andrew Stow -- a British transplant known hereabouts as Lord Stow and famous for his Portuguese egg tarts -- called it overkill.
"Grab now, pay later," he said. "Yes, it may create jobs for the young, but many gamble away their pay."
Seeing the transformation of little Macao as it gears up to host 30 million tourists five years from now, it's hard not to wonder whether its infrastructure will be able to accommodate that many people.
"It's challenging," said Macao native Cecilia Tse Heng Sai, head of promotion and marketing for the Macao Government Tourist Office. "We must be careful not to destroy the harmonious, peaceful environment we have." She acknowledges that it may not be possible to maintain the status quo, but she thinks it's important "to preserve what's most precious."
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The high-roller life
From LAX, connecting service to Macao is available on EVA, Philippine, Malaysia and China airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $843.
To Hong Kong, nonstop service is available on Cathay Pacific, direct service (stop, no change of plane) on United and connecting service on All Nippon, EVA, JAL, Korean, United and Singapore. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $689.
TurboJetSeaExpress offers 24-hour ferry service between Hong Kong and Macao (about 50 minutes) and from the airport to Macao. Fares start at $18. 011-852-2921-6688, www.turbojetseaexpress.com.hk.
East Asia Airlines' Heli Express has frequent service in 12-seat helicopters from the Hong Kong ferry terminal and the airport to Macao. Fares begin at $200. 011-852-2108-9898, www.helihongkong.com.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 853 (country code for Macao) and the local number.
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