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One Pacata, Two Pataca…:

I sometimes wonder how many people know what Macau is (a former Portuguese colonial outpost on the southern seacoast of China) or could point to it on a map (if you can locate Hong Kong, you’ve basically found Macau.)  If you can do that much, you’d need either a big map or a small finger to make a mistake.  Special bonus question – what is a Pataca?

Steeped in history and offering a unique mixture of European charm with the brisk Chinese mercantile mentality, Macau comprises three small islands located some 40 miles east of Hong Kong.  Each island is connected by a series of bridges that span the Pearl River, which is the main trading route into southern China.

Macau
This square is the largest in Macau. Macau is a former Portuguese colony.

Yet Macau never reached economic critical mass like Hong Kong has. The reasons for that are many and varied.  The indigenous Chinese population is from the same Cantonese stock.  They speak the same language, share the same culture and display that same tenacious work ethic, as do their Hong Kong brethren.  Why then is Hong Kong the bustling metropolis while Macau is more like a sleepy, colonial enclave?

Many would cite the fact that Hong Kong was colonized by the more commercially aggressive and financially astute Anglo-British; while Macau was colonized by the more laid back, Latin-Portuguese.  Others might point out that Hong Kong has more land, a far better port and English as it’s lingua franca.

True, but I had to find out for myself.   To escape the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong and spend a sleepy weekend in a little touch of Europe is one of the advantages of living here.  So I gathered my family up, made my way to the Macau ferry terminal and settled in to the Boeing Jetfoil for the 55 minute trip to Macau.

I should add that the mere mention of Macau to anyone living in Asia means gambling.  There are Las Vegas style casinos, shows, extravaganzas, and all the temptations associated with dens of iniquity.  Being one to make an occasional wager myself, I wandered around until I found myself in the Lisboa, the grand dame of Macau casinos. I found an empty place at the $10 blackjack table and looked forward to a little excitement. 

A couple of hands later, much to my amazement, the dealer looked past me and accepted not only my bet, but a bet on my hand from a kibitzer behind me.  He even let this yokel call my cards!  I couldn’t believe it.  Dammit – it’s my chair, my spot; go find your own table – I thought to myself.  Well, not exactly.  Seems he was willing to bet more than my modest $10 per hand so I was out of luck before I could even be out of luck.

My wounded ego and I made our way out of the casino and found one of the many fine Portuguese sidewalk cafes that dot the landscape.  A delicious bacalau and some Portuguese fried rice, washed down with a nice bottle of vinho branco, followed by a generous snifter of Port put me in a better mood.  A quiet stroll through the narrow alleyways that pass for thoroughfares finally brought me back to my hotel.  I rested, had a good nights sleep, woke up the next day and realized that I was ready to face another work week in Hong Kong.

By the way, the Pataca is the official currency of Macau.

Rob Chipman is the CEO of Asian Tigers Hong Kong.  He will not be seen at a blackjack table in Macau anytime soon.

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