It’s always an enlightening and slightly strange experience returning to a place years after you first encountered it, especially when that place is constantly changing at a rapid pace. Macau, or ‘Chinese Vegas’ as this gambler’s haven was initially described to us, is still as mad as ever, but things looked somewhat different from where we stayed this time in downtown Macau, as opposed to Taipa, the island across the sea where we resided for a manically festive fortnight four years ago.
Once again we crossed the sea between Hong Kong airport and Macau by ferry, leaving behind the striking Hong Kong mountains in all of their intriguing bulbous forms, and into the mist, towards reclaimed land, new land, bridges and casinos and bright lights and five-star hotels. We would soon be ringing in the New Year and, whatever happened, there was no doubt it was going to be an interesting week.
For a vegetarian ordering food in Macau is an exciting experience. ‘No meat. No fish,’ we repeated to a baffled waiter at every meal time. ‘Beef okay?’ one replied. It was normal to end up with ‘aubergine with a side of aubergine,’ but at least the aubergine in question was second to none, with flavours unlike any we’ve experienced in Europe. MSG, many say, is the secret, but there’s something that tells me these delectable delights can’t be that simple. The fried rice often contained small chunks of pork, and the tofu would usually accompany beef, or perhaps tripe, and yet it seemed that, with even a simple broccoli dish being so delicious, meat wasn’t really as necessary as it seemed to be believed. Here in downtown Macau, away from the huge international hotel resorts, far fewer people spoke English – it felt far more like mainland China than nearby Hong Kong – and we enjoyed many half-failed communications with amused waitresses. Fortunately most restaurants had menus containing more pictures than words, and while the brightly-lit photographs of tripe up-close didn’t look so appetising, it proved increasingly useful throughout our stay.
In between main meals we perused the shelves of the 7/11s and other local supermarkets and bakeries, finding miniature bottles of rice wine and such delicacies as ‘chicken cake’ and ‘Happy Hand Bag’ (the latter was a croissant-like pastry; the former we sensibly left on the shelf). In the same vain as the restaurant menus, I purchased a Chinese comic which, being picture-based, I thought might be possible to understand. Then again, perhaps I just liked the novelty of taking something back home that could be read from right to left (or back-to-front, as it appears to a Western reader) and with vertical text.
While the high-rise metropolis around our lavish hotel and surrounding casinos was eerily quiet, we found the masses in the old Portuguese district around the Ruins of St Paul. The buildings here looked to have been transplanted straight from Europe, but had now gathered a heavy layer of black dust. The pedestrianised streets were lined with a mix of Chinese eateries and Portuguese-style bakeries selling nothing but the famous Portuguese egg tarts. We got warm egg tarts for 10 Macanese Patacas each (the equivalent of 10 pence) and nudged our way through a sea of people and wafts of food smells that I have come to associate strongly with the Far East – namely the smell of anonymous animals, often of the insect or arachnid variety, cooking on an open grill.
Climbing the steps towards the ruins was a trial in selfie-dodging, as it seemed this was the place that every tourist came to take photos. At the very top of the steps stands the facade of a grand 17th-century Catholic church, the back of which was entirely burnt down during a typhoon in 1835. It seemed incongruous with the rest of the cityscape, to see this old European ruin; that is, until we climbed the hill towards the Monte Forte (Mount Fortress). Built during the Portuguese occupation in the 17th century, this marks the historical military centre of Macau, and the whole area now has UNESCO World Heritage Site status. From the top of the fort we enjoyed a panoramic view of Macau at sunset, spotting mainland China in the foggy distance beyond the ruins, and sitting on old canons that mysteriously seemed to be aimed at the glitzy Grand Lisboa casino in all its neon glory.
In our usual bid to see the city from the highest point, we ascended Macau Tower on the final morning of sightseeing, and watched terrified tourists walk along the upper edge, thankfully attached by ropes and harnesses. On the show day we enjoyed watching a few thrill-seekers do bungee jumps from a platform just above the observation deck – apparently this was the highest point in the world from which one could do it, and where the bungee phenomenon all began. Zero fatalities in the last 20 years or so, I read somewhere on a nearby wall, which was reassuring, but unfortunately we didn’t have the spare £400 to splurge. From up on the observation deck, at 223 metres high, the entire island and beyond was in view. It occurred to me how even the richest places in the world can’t have everything: in other words, if I lived here, I would miss the simplicity of the green hills, the blue sky and rural outdoor space.
Our first show took place the day before the main event, and so, having put on our makeup and costume at the hotel, we were loaded onto a bus with our instruments and driven to a dusty underground carpark, perhaps the strangest place we’ve ever prepared for a gig. It was before lunch and the sun was shining brightly – on this rare occasion the typically-smoggy Macanese sky was incredibly clear and blue, and despite the 96 per cent humidity it felt like we could breathe in a little fresh air. Of course, the humidity also meant that the gig itself was a slippery one, and so between trying to avoid our retinas being burnt by the sun and losing a few pints of sweat, we tried our best to entertain the crowds (none of whom, presumably as a result of some sort of black magic, were wearing sunglasses). Fortunately all went well, and an hour or so later we were back on the bus and looking forward to lunch (or Happy Hand Bags in the park). If jet lag isn’t enough for a warped sense of time, try being a musician and finishing a gig before lunchtime.
The following day it was time for the big event: the Chinese New Year International Parade. We set up in an outdoor area reserved for performers in the shadow of the Macau Tower, with just a few small white tents lining the perimeter by main road and the waterfront. Backstage was a party, with multiple large-scale groups of performers from all over the world preparing for the gig, sharing their material throughout the afternoon. There were Japanese dancers, Indian dhol drummers, Korean drummers and many more. The support from the other performers was incredible, and we were greeted with screaming crowds as we began hitting our drums; breakdancers even took to the floor and the excitement grew and grew: this was a confidence-boosting rehearsal to say the least. The official performance began with a one-minute TV performance in a huge red and pink walkway with hundreds of seats and cameras either side, decorated mostly with pigs, this year’s Chinese zodiac animal. For us seven drummers, it was a one-minute whirlwind, over in a flash, and then suddenly we were at the end of the strange TV tunnel having our microphones rapidly removed and being whisked straight into the street parade.
The parade was a longish route along Macau’s main highway by the harbour; at some moments it was sparsely populated and at others we would suddenly meet a huge crowd that seemed to appear out of nowhere. The speed at which we had to move to keep up with the dancers and pig-themed floats in front of us was astonishing, and by the end it felt as though our arms and legs might be about to fall off from the sheer amount of simultaneous running, drumming and waving. The magic really began as we reached the end of the parade, and suddenly we realised we were surrounded by many of the performers from earlier: they were buzzing with the energy from the gig, waving glow-sticks and screaming with joy. Before we knew it, we were giving them all another performance; we were like prancing peacocks with our bright, colourful lights, egged on by the exuberant crowds. Soon enough it seemed they were in the palm of our hand, and we were drumming and dancing amongst them, one drummer controlling their screams with hand gestures, like a conductor with an orchestra. It was here we were reminded of what this job is all about: we didn’t need to play for an extra half-hour when we were completely exhausted, but it was worth every second.
On our final night in Macau, slowly coming down from all the madness of the Chinese New Year international parade, we sat and drank beer in a city park. This spot had become a kind of landmark for us over the past few days, where on various occasions we had sat and eaten Happy Hand Bags and stepped through all of our show material in the typical a cappella style in front of confused onlookers. There we were approached by an elderly local man who claimed to be the park keeper. He had learned English only from a book, he told us, and from the proficiency of his vocabulary – along with a complete lack of sentence structure – we could only assume this book was the English Dictionary. He wrote out some words in neat handwriting on a scrap of paper, which included ‘transform’ and, to our astonishment, ‘transmogrify.’ He later told us that the dried fruit we were snacking on at that moment came from ‘the dried flesh of a plumb,’ and finally proceeded to sit down on a nearby bench and write out a short poem about bringing in the New Year. It read as follows:
To decorate colour lantern with festoon to pass away the old year.
A hundred of flowers is in profusion to blossom
for meeting the new spring festival day.
Not quite believing the profound nature of this surreal moment, marking the end to an intense and meaningful trip, we left the park in awe, wondering if this time we were actually in a film.