Watching locals on the streets of Macau and Hong Kong, I get an insight into the ascendancy of the selfie stick in this part of the world. On the streets, inside shopping malls, at restaurants, in front of tourist attractions, and everywhere else, I see amateur photographers armed with only their phones.
Once I spot a mother and daughter pose for a co-selfie in front of the ruins of St. Paul’s in Macau. Only, they are standing on the steps in front of it,facing this beautiful Macau landmark, dating back to the 16th century.
Speaking of ruins, I am rather taken aback by the sense of history and timeless charm around this area. Where are the glitzy casinos and the grandiose hotels that Macau is known for?
In their place, I find myself at Senado square, a short walk from the church ruins through a bustling market. I feel like I have wandered into a small town in the heart of Mediterranean Europe. Senado square, once the hub of the senate, is dotted with candy pink and clotted cream yellow buildings, with sudden spurts of pistachio green peeking out near the fountain at one end. I spend a happy hour walking aimlessly through the narrow shopping lanes branching off on all sides, suddenly finding myself hugged by a group of shy college kids out to spread peace and joy.
This, the ‘historic centre of Macau’, features on the UNESCO world heritage list. It is a cheerful mishmash of Chinese temples, Portuguese churches and monuments sporting varied architectural styles.
Actually, being in Macau gives me the feeling of having been transported to Portugal: street names on little blue and white tiles (Rua this and Rua that), restaurants serving the cuisine of that country, and Portuguese itself one of the official languages of the land. This once-sleepy town was a settlement of the European country since the 16th century, until it was handed over to China in 1999. And Macau holds on to its colonial legacy with a fondness that is visible.
But if Macau’s soul is Portuguese, then its trappings are irrefutably Chinese.
On the streets, I have to step carefully around the remains of the burnt faux money and the food offerings left to mark the Hungry Ghost Festival, linked to the Chinese practice of ancestor worship.
Macau is full of other small delightful discoveries. My favourite is the time I wander around in the Coloane area, where I go to sample the famous egg tart at Stow’s Bakery. That is when I come upon St. Francis Xavier Church. At first glance, the cream-and-white façade is like any church I might expect to see in this little piece of Portugal. And inside, in a corner room, is a painting of a Chinese goddess (some say Kum Lam, the goddess of mercy) with a baby in hand; unsurprisingly, this has come to be called the painting of the Chinese Virgin Mary.
For most visitors, however, this interesting juxtaposition of cultures is not of interest; the clarion call of casinos across town in the Cotai strip is too strong. Today, these 30-odd casinos define Macau. And that includes the ultra-opulent, bordering on the surreal Venetian, with its indoor blue skies and floating gondolas, serenading Italian gondoliers included. Its casino industry is larger than Las Vegas, only minus the fake Elvises and wedding chapels. This is thanks to the thousands, perhaps millions, of Chinese punters who stake their all in games of chance every day.
The selfie stick follows me as I cross over to Hong Kong on the ferry; I find a place almost devoted entirely to it. The 3D Trick Eye museum is filled with illusions created by clever paintings that seem three-dimensional. I go there fully expecting to not like it (what kind of museum calls itself a trick?) but it turns out to be great fun. And here, I confess, I give in to the lure of my phone camera, as I pose and pout in front of some bizarre creations.
Like Macau, Hong Kong was handed back to China, this one by the British in 1997, to become a Special Administrative Region. That means that some of the rules that govern China do not apply here, while some others are already in Hong Kong’s genes; everywhere, there are signboards warning citizens about what they cannot do. Despite that, everyone has a great time here, with mine beginning at Kowloon island.
Walking on the Avenue of Stars, the waterside promenade at Victoria Harbour, modelled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I manage to identify only a few familiar names (Bruce Lee, anyone?). But it is a great place for an evening stroll and people watching, as the elegant red junks glide silently along the harbour.
I manage to see the many sides of Hong Kong in a few days (of course, missing as many). One morning, it is on the ‘ding ding tram’ that locals use, followed by the peak train that climbs up at an astonishing angle to Victoria Peak. Another time, it is from the Hong Kong Observation Wheel—the homegrown version of the London Eye—which provides a bird’s eye view of the water and the land on either side of it.
And if people from Mainland China go to Macau to gamble, they come to Hong Kong to shop. My companions follow their lead, shopping themselves to near bankruptcy; from the lavish Harbour City mall to the night ladies’ market, there seems to be something for everyone.
Travel writer Jan Morris described Hong Kong as “(once) a fantastical mix of colonial style and rampant materialism”. Ten years after she wrote it, the description holds true. Relics of the British rule are seen primarily in the names of streets, landmarks and natural features, the colonial era buildings and the lingering sense of nostalgia among some of the older citizens. But it is indisputably Chinese in its core.
After a traditional dimsum breakfast at Ming Garden one day, I stroll down the mall in search of coffee—green tea just does not cut it in the morning—and find a Starbucks two floors down. They coexist peacefully, often attracting the same customers. I think of this as an example of what Hong Kong is really, two cultures that have managed to mingle and thrive quietly and with great dignity.