Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Other Side of Macau

The lit-up skyline of Macau hides the great divide behind the scenes
I have just come back after spending almost 24 hours in Macau.

The glittering hotels all aim to whisk you away from all your stress and enjoy your time in the former Portuguese enclave.

All the staff smile broadly and you get even more of an ego boost when they remember your name.

The rooms are stylishly decorated -- and in some cases are much bigger than your shoebox flat in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile restaurant menus entice you to forget about your goal to lose weight or eat healthier and instead indulge in foods you wouldn't normally order.

But there's another side to Macau, those who live and work there who tell a different story.

At the spa I went to for a treatment, my therapist was Balinese.

She said she'd been at the hotel for over a year and previous to that she was in Sanya, Hainan for three years so she knew a bit of Putonghua.

When asked which city she preferred, she immediately replied Macau because the city had more of the foods she liked to eat.

However, on her days off she hardly went out and stayed in her room.

"When I go out, I have to carry my passport because there are many Indonesians who find a way to get to Macau illegally," she explained. "My colleagues laugh at me because the police always come up to me to ask to see my passport and then they see my work visa and tell me to be careful because there are some undesirable people around, I know who they are referring to."

It's probably because of this hassle that she prefers not to go out, but also perhaps she is trying to save as much as possible for her family back home near Ubud.

Her husband drives buses for tourist groups, while her 16-year-old daughter will graduate from high school next year.

"I want her to go to university, but she wants to go overseas," the therapist said.

Then she hinted she would try to help her daughter get into the hotel industry, working in departments like housekeeping.

She added there were lots of Indonesians and Balinese working in Macau and Hong Kong, particularly after the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 that practically killed the tourism industry, forcing many to go overseas for employment.

Nevertheless, while she is happy to work here and the hotel provides a dormitory for the staff, there doesn't seem to be any transportation provided as it's 20 minutes away by foot. And certainly in the summer months she'd be drenched by the time she arrived at the hotel.

This is in stark contrast to the guests of the hotel who don't even need to break into a sweat as a minivan whisks them to the ferry terminal or a taxi takes them to their desired destination.

And speaking of taxis, we chatted with one cab driver as he drove us from the Westin hotel at Hac Sa beach back to the main island.

We passed by what looked like 32 towers of flats being built and asked him what they were for.

"That's subsidized housing," he explained. "For those with low incomes. When the casino licenses opened up [in 2002], property prices increased more than 10-fold, or even more than that," he said. "So if you didn't buy a home then, you can't afford one now."

I asked him if he owned his own place and he said yes, otherwise he'd be a poor tenant eking out a living.

We drove past more developments including the construction site of the University of Macau and an amusement park that is supposed to rival Ocean Park. "They are building a hotel for that park," he said.

When I remarked there were too many hotel rooms in Macau, he said that in fact there weren't enough.

"Whenever there are holidays, the hotels are all booked up, including the ones that are HK$3,000 to HK$4,000 a night," he replied. "It's those mainlanders. They don't care how much money they spend. Of all the customers buying name-brand goods, it's the mainland Chinese."

Then he talked about one man he ferried around in his taxi. He apparently wore sunglasses that were HK$80,000 that were from Germany, and the thing about them was that if you threw them on the floor they wouldn't break or scratch.

Apparently this rich mainlander had his own illegal gambling den and lost some HK$2 million at the tables in Macau and didn't seem to mind his big loss. "They have too much money so they don't care," the taxi driver said.

"Then they should give some to us," I remarked and he agreed.

So while we like the quick relaxing getaway to Macau, it's hard not to forget those who toil hard to pamper us.


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  2. My first visit to Macau was in 2001. Granted that even then, there already was the Hotel Lisboa with its casino and flood of prostitutes inside of it but it still generally felt like a sleepy as well as charming part of the world.

    There's still a lot of charm to Macau to my mind. But it seems that each time I visit, I feel Macau getting more and more overwhelmed by non-Macanese -- and not just visitors but also migrant workers, particularly from Mainland China. Put another way: Macau feels less and less a cross between East and West and more part of the Chinese mainland.

    I also see fewer and fewer smiling faces and more and more frowning ones -- something that some might put down to the Mainlander influx but which I see as showing how many people going over to Macau (be it to work or play) go there with hopes of making riches, only to find out that that may well be the impossible dream.

  3. Interesting comment. Yes there are definitely more mainlanders there and catering to that market which has totally skewed the market in terms of offering the more authentic side of Macau...