1996 January: Wednesday
Having decided to travel further afield, I checked out various destinations. I would have liked to go to Canton in the Peoples’ Republic, but it was time-consuming and expensive. In common with most Chinese cities, the name Canton had been changed in the 1980s. It was now Gangchou. I remembered a story current around the time of the Tiannamen Square massacre – the editor of a Fleet Street newspaper had contacted one of his foreign reporters in China and demanded to know how long it would take him to fly from Peking to Beijing.
Instead, and following Beryl Bryden’s advice, I decided to go to Macau, the enclave that was still under Portuguese administration (at least, till 1999), and situated forty miles away on the western shore of the Pearl River. It sounded interesting.
I took the bus to the ferry area near Central HK and tried to follow a map of the coastline to the Macau ferry terminal. Unfortunately, there was so much land reclamation that the ‘coastline’ changed every month. I walked past gangs of Chinese labourers filling in yet more of the harbour. Also, I came across a group of Gurkha soldiers standing around smoking. It turned out that they were the main body of troops defending Hong Kong until the Chinese take-over in 1997. It seemed apt – the last British imperial frontier guarded by the last remnant of the British imperial army.
Finally I found a large pier projecting into the harbour bearing the sign ‘Macao’. After the routine of passport, exit cards, currency exchange, etc, I boarded a motorised catamaran known as the Turbo Cat. The lounge deck was large, a width of fourteen seats and a length of sixty rows; tinkling Chinese music played over the speakers.
From my window seat, I had a great view of Hong Kong harbour. From the island coast on my left to Kowloon in the north, there were dozens of craft on the water – it looked vaguely like old photos of the D Day landings. From tankers to sampans, from rickety houseboats with rubber tyres lashed on their sides to smart cabin cruisers, it was a tumult of criss-crossing maritime activity. I was amazed at the sheer busy-ness of it all. One of the famous Star Ferries veered across our bow looking like a fat, floating, double-decker bus, while a Royal Navy patrol boat sliced through our wake.
(I found out that these patrol boats were the only Royal Navy ships to retain the old tradition of having a ship’s dog. None of the rest did because of rabies, but as the HK boats didn’t go anywhere else, it didn’t matter.)
We sailed on between the more westerly islands of Lantau and Tsing Yi – unlike Hong Kong Island, they looked relatively uninhabited; or, at least, no tower blocks. (Pia told me later that 40% of the Hong Kong Territories were a nature park. The reason why land was so expensive was because the government rationed it out to keep the price up.)
Within half an hour, the Turbo Cat had cleared the islands, and we were out on the open South China Sea. Suddenly the vessel was enveloped in a grey mist – there were no other ships to be seen. It was an eerie feeling after the naval maelstrom we had left behind. It really did feel as if we were alone. I felt a vicarious shiver of danger – a mixture of Joseph Conrad and memories of ‘Boys Own’ stories of the piratical China seas.
I shook my head to clear the fantasy and concentrated on a guidebook. Macau consisted of six square miles of peninsula plus two small offshore islands. With a head count of 450,000, it was the most densely populated region in the world. It had been the only neutral place in most of the Far East during World War Two, and thereby became a crossroads of spying and intrigue – an Oriental Rick’s Bar. Even its present curious position as half Communist Chinese and half colonial Portuguese gave it an exotic frisson.
The first impressions, however, did not live up to the romance – from the sea, the place looked damn dull: just a long elevated road bridge linking the headland to an offshore island. The shore front resembled Hong Kong’s grim dwarf cousin: high rise but only twenty storeys up, and a lot grimier.
Disembarking from the ship, I walked along the long dusty dock road, the Avenida Da Amizade. In total contrast to HK, there was very little traffic – it was if Macao had turned its back on its waterfront.
During the Cold War, the West used various areas as capitalist shop-windows, bright shiny toys to make the contrast with communist grey even more stark – West Berlin, Taiwan, Miami, and Hong Kong obviously stood out as prime examples. But it seemed that they hadn’t bothered about Macau.
But, as I walked further into the town, it dawned on me that maybe Macau’s real role was to advertise the illicit temptations. Namely, gambling and sex. The hotels were essentially casinos, not on the Las Vegas scale but still big enough to attract major money. (The slot machines here, I found out later, were nicknamed ‘the hungry tigers’). One hotel had the reputation of being the largest brothel in South East Asia – a title for which there was considerable competition. The Triads still had a lot of control, (although this was to disappear after the takeover by Beijing in 1999).
Macau also had a suitably dubious history. Although it was the British who had started importing opium and famously fought a war for the right to peddle dope to the Chinese, the Macau Portuguese had assisted and profited by the same trade. (The British government had not banned the sale of opium until 1946!)
Wandering deeper into the centre, it struck me that this was a real backwater; much less traffic and bustle than HK, and also far fewer Westerners. I exchanged glances with a tall American on the far side of a group of Chinese – we looked rather like a pair of Labradors in a pack of fox terriers.
I got to the main drag – the Avenida do Praia Grande. This was pleasant but still just downmarket HK. Getting bored, I decided to break away into the alleyways and walked up a hilly side street. Then suddenly – I was in old Iberia.
It was obviously the original settlement and looked like 18th century Lisbon. A Baroque church faced a square of pink and yellow painted houses, mercifully only three storeys high. Large arched windows faced outwards from above, the ground floors consisted of open cloisters, while an ornamental fountain played in the centre of the square. It was charming, and a glorious break from concrete modernity. It was the hidden Macau.
Although there were signs of China everywhere in the brightly coloured adverts and shop fronts, this was a genuine mix of cultures. Whereas Hong Kong was English in a prosaic Sino-Croydon way, this felt like a much older mingling of atmospheres. It all fitted together somehow.
I followed the Rua da Palha, a pedestrianised alley fringed by cafés, and came to the foot of a wide flight of stone steps. At the top was St Paul’s Cathedral. The main difference to its London namesake was that, although the imposing southern façade still stood, there was nothing left of the building itself. According to the guidebook: ‘The cathedral with the exception of its frontage was destroyed in a typhoon and fire over one hundred years ago’. In Hong Kong, this would have had the property developers licking their lips. Thank God, Macao seemed to have more sense and had left the romantic remains as they were.
I sat down for a few minutes and was hassled by a trinket seller, an old woman wearing the traditional conical ‘coolie’ hat. It was only the second time that I had seen one. The first time had been on a drunk Australian in Wanchai.
I strolled on around the back alleys – this felt like real Macau – eight storey high tenements on either side, the alleys about ten feet wide – and clothes drying everywhere. What was it with this national mania about laundry?
Moving north, I came across the Old Protestant Cemetery. As the Jesuits had refused to bury Protestants inside Macau, and the Chinese refused to bury foreigners outside Macau, the British East India Company had been forced to buy this plot of land in 1821, to cope with the problem. It turned out to be the last resting place of Royal Navy Captain Henry Spencer-Churchill, (a distant forebear of Winston), and Lieutenant Joseph Adams (grandson of John Adams, second president of the USA.) The empires had scattered their sons to some unlikely burial places.
I walked on for a mile or so, past the small hill of the Mont de Mong Ha, till I reached the Portas do Cerco or Barrier Gate. It was a square stone archway surmounted by the Portuguese flag. One hundred yards further on flew the Red Flag. I wandered up to the customs area and stepped one pace beyond the arch. Well, at least I had set foot in the People’s Republic of China. Considering all the presumed doctrinal confrontation, this seemed to be a very relaxed border post. Dover/Calais, by contrast, were more like Checkpoint Charlie.
As evening fell, I returned on board the Turbo Cat and we set off east. A TV screen was showing videos of China – an intelligent, disciplined, frighteningly populous and powerful nation. I thought: ‘this crowd are going to thrash Europe one day – it’s the face of the future’. The other day, Ivan Heng had shown me a map of the world that had been printed in China. Hong Kong had been in the centre; the UK was located in the far north-west – the place usually reserved for the Yukon on British maps.
Napoleon Bonaparte left a warning not to wake the sleeping dragon.
We arrived back into the aquatic dodgems of Hong Kong Harbour and swung round in a wide arc to starboard, just missing a sampan, which in turn swerved away into the path of a speedboat. We floated into the ferry terminal by 9pm.
Next week October 31 – the last show in Hong Kong and how not to teach Oscar Wilde in schools.