Saturday in Macau

St Paul Telling The Chinese To Stop Being Buddhist, Maybe

Apparently Macau is not an island. I deduced this by arriving there by car without having gone over a bridge.

Apart from elementary geography, I also learned that it’s yet another place that has the changes ripping through China emblazoned across it’s innards like a stick of rock. I arrived at the border at 8.30am on Saturday, having set off from Guangzhou at 6.30am. Anywhere that’s this close to Guangzhou’s thirteen million people is going to be busy every day. At this time of day there were about forty gates open at the border crossing, each with several dozen people in the line. Coming back at 11pm it was even busier.

Macau Backstreet

People go to Macau for a mixture of shopping and gambling, mostly. It should shock people in the west that many people in China now like to go abroad to shop somewhere CHEAPER than China, where the stuff is made, but it’s true. If you’re expecting me to explain that one for you, than ask someone else and tell me the answer, because I don’t have it. Neither do any of the locals. I’ve asked.

Macau Street Scene

My impression of the place was that it was pretty nice, but felt strangely small compared with Guangzhou, and I’ll never enjoy seeing casinos everywhere. And whenever I see rich people buying Chanel’s shiny junk or massive gold jewellery, or sundry other expensive beads and baubles, I think variously of native americans trading their valuables for glass beads, or just that I could never have enough spare money to buy a humongous, fifteen thousand quid golden necklace shaped like cartoon pigs. I could always think of something better to do with money than that sort of tat.

Old Timer Making Little Pancakes Over Charcoal

I read somewhere recently that there’s more money gambled in Macau than in Vegas, and that’s one thing that I can explain: Chinese people love gambling and it’s illegal on the mainland. It still goes on on a small scale with the odd majong game, and probably at private clubs, but there are no casinos where a real estate billionaire can fly in by helicopter, get escorted to a VIP room and piss a million USD all over a green velvet table. These casinos are so big that they have their own bus stations to ferry people in (for free) to lose money and make the place look super busy for the minority who keep the place in profit. This one must have had thirty or forty buses and I estimate about 2-300 security cameras in the ceiling of the main room. This just gives you some idea of the scale and money involved. It’s big.

Macau Almond Cookies

Macau used to be Portuguese owned, and you can see that everywhere. There are latin style churches, old houses and shops. There’s even an Irish pub that sells Kilkenny for 8 quid a pint. I can buy a bottle of leffe in the supermarket here for 2 quid, so why would I do a silly thing like that? The symbol of the town is an old church façade that you’ll have seen before, which is more impressive if you’ve never seen the churches in Europe that haven’t burned down. They also have pork sandwiches (fresh bread, strangely dry meat), egg tarts (nice, but nothing new), an 80 year old recipe of mango pudding (that dates from before good desserts were invented) and tasty almond ‘cookies’ made with compressed something-flour that may or may not have been cooked. As well as misusing the courtesy bus from the border to the central casinos, you can also go in the casinos and get free snacks and drinks, and the shops selling touristy foods do free tasters. It’s pretty funny getting full up just on free tasters.

Two Women In Shades

One other interesting thing was that I could’ve sworn I heard Chinese people there speaking portuguese (I followed them to make sure), and wearing sunglasses I honestly couldn’t tell the Portuguese from the Chinese. Same languages, same dress, same skin tone. It was interesting. In a 7-11 I heard one conversation with Mandarin, Cantonese and Portuguese and I have no idea what the guy’s origin was, except that his mandarin was a bit rough. It’s pretty normal around here to hear multiple dialects, but that was still novel.

Cheese Dumpling

What else was new? Well, the local food was pretty good. The little skewers that are boiled in soup were the same as in Guangzhou, but better quality, and the cheddar filled dumpling was awesome. The restaurant I went to had fried rice in a pineapple (not bad), squid with cheese (mediocre), fish chowder soup inside a hollowed out bread with a raw egg to stir into it (addictive) and a chickeny eggy potato thing that was okay. That meal wasn’t especially cheap.

Macau Skyline

You’ll see from the weird angled photo through a bus window that the apartment blocks are tall and the sky is clear, but if you want to see the sky in quite the same way you’ll either have to be a little forgiving or borrow my camera’s new polarising filter and walk around with it in your eye like a monocle. It darkens the sky and lightens the clouds a little, but it was nice to begin with. On a scale of one to ten I give Macau a B+. Thank you for reading.


A friend’s journey home

The general theme of this blog is giving people an insight into what life in China is like through the eyes of a British guy who speaks enough Chinese to know what’s going on, has lived here a few years, and can sling out the odd anecdote that may be revealing to anyone coming out here, or someone who wants to learn about China and needs a counter-balance to the rubbish written in the British press. Everything that I’ve seen written about this country either exists in surreal hyperbole; ranting about things over here in an ill-informed way, or else is just not news. Fake Apple stores? Well, everybody here knew that already. If you write a newspaper article that says you discovered them it means that you’re either pretending that this is news, or you were genuinely surprised by it, and are fresh off the boat and pretending to be an expert. The controversial issues are worse. You get solely negative comments based on wilful ignorance of this country’s history and why things are done the way they are. This leaves people with no way to understand what’s really happening, and fundamentally ignorant about why it’s happening. It’s too different out here to understand without making more effort than that, and being a bit braver in leaving behind the comfort blanket of British values. If you expect a country with an entirely separate history to be the same, then you should also expect to be disappointed. Sorry I can’t be more specific than that.

Today’s anecdote is about one of my friends who has just told me that she’s leaving Guangzhou and heading back to her home town. This is all pretty mundane and ordinary, but the reasons and background are things that a Brit interested in China could learn from. If someone in Britain goes to work in a different town they’ll come back when they get bored. Here, the reasons are different.

I’ve met people doing menial jobs making £2-300 a month (that’s with two full time jobs and ungodly hours), and one of them told me that he has about £18,000 in savings and wants to go back home to the countryside to build a new house. The way that people get savings like that on earnings like that is partly through there being almost no such thing as being tight with money here. Everyone wants to make and save money and they’re not shy about not hanging onto it. Why should they be? Some people save cauliflower and broccoli stalks and pickle them in chilli for a free side dish. There’s also no real minimum amount of money you can spend. You can rent a flat for 300 a month or a single room with no A/C for £30. A poor job probably provides dormitory accomodation and meals, to offset the miserable salary, which is almost all saved. It’s maybe like working at Butlins. You can eat in a lovely restaurant fifty floors up the TV tower for £100, or get noodles for 30p. It depends how low you need to go.

The particular friend who I first mentioned has a dad who is not well, and her mum is sick, too. In Britain you’d get paid sick leave and free healthcare on the NHS. If you were self-employed you’d probably be insured. In this case my friend’s folks run a mahjong parlour where people will sit and play, smoke, get horribly drunk, and then blunder home singing at 3am. It makes a living wage, but these people are working these hours while unwell, and they have little alternative. The pressure on people here is of a different magnitude to anything in Britain, with giving up normally meaning either that you starve or become a burden on your family, because the welfare state is minimal, and the normal way to pay for all healthcare is pay cash from your savings. An extended stay intensive care might cost tens of thousands of pounds, even here. I’ve heard of an old lady who spent her last days in intensive care and who’s son found himself with a £90,000 bill.

People looking at newspaper articles about life in the developing world will often see things about people living on $2 a day, and be unable to comprehend what that kind of life is like, except that they know they wouldn’t want it. Well, the lowest incomes are in rural areas. Developing countries have their industry and services in the big cities, which are reasonably comfortable, but the countryside is often just subsistence agriculture. Families grow enough food to eat, sell what’s spare, and also sell some dried chillies, a pig or a chicken when they can. They own what’s normally a poor house, heat it with collected wood, drink free water, and only buy what they absolutely need to. This normally amounts to a few clothes and stationary for the school kids. Areas like this in China are shrinking back farther away from the big cities and now the provincial ones, too, as the country becomes middle-income. People who have a little business like the mahjong parlour get by through spending as little as possible, staffing entirely with family members, and riding their luck on some things. You don’t need home contents insurance if you put bars on your windows and get a steel door. And you don’t need medical insurance if you don’t get sick. People just cross their fingers, because they’d be hard pushed to buy insurance.

My friend will soon be home with her parents, taking care of them, hopefully getting a job only slightly worse paid that what’s available in Guangzhou, but only if she can fit it in on top of caring for two sick parents and a mahjong parlour. Now I need to try and figure out what my point was in all of this, and I guess it’s that we have things pretty good in Britain, life here is different and the problems are not what you’d expect. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s all doom and gloom, though. A few months ago I wrote a blog article about how nice, and how happy this particular person’s home town is, I just don’t know where I saved it.