[Editor’s Note: My computer was out of commission for a while, so I am even further behind on the blog. It’s back in working order now, so there will be new posts, but I’ll be in Japan for the next few weeks, so they might take a while.]
The Chinese know how to kick off a school semester – with a holiday in the second week of classes. And don’t say “What about Labour Day?” – I mean a real holiday, with celebrations and traditions and history. This week we celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival (or Moon Festival), one of the three big seasonal festivals in Chinese culture. It’s a pretty big deal here – it’s like an amalgamation of Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving, except that it has floating lanterns.
Associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival is the consumption of mooncakes, which are often given as gifts. We ate a fair number of these cakes in the days leading up to the festival, though we didn’t get any on this particular occasion. The festival also involves lighting lanterns, putting scraps of paper inside them (they represent wishes) and letting them fly away. This connection to lanterns has led to some pretty intense lantern-based displays in the modern Mid-Autumn Festival.
Since the festival happens at night, the day of the holiday is still a working day (although many employers let workers out early). Much like New Year’s Day, the celebrations are held in the evening and the day after the festival is a day off for most people, including students. And, much like Valentine’s Day, it is customary to engage in a little matchmaking between young single people during the festival. Families will lay out picnic blankets in parks, light candles, eat mooncake, send off lanterns and just generally have a good time.
You may be familiar with those dancing dragon displays from Chinese New Year celebrations. They had those here, except that the dragons were built out of lit incense sticks. As a result, in addition to being fragrant, they were also on fire (albeit a subdued, ember-y fire). Due to the lighting conditions, my photos of this all look like orange smears above a sea of Chinese heads, so you’ll have to use your imagination. Or Google, which is pretty much the same thing.
We may not have been able to get the same level of enjoyment out of the festival as the locals, but we had an excellent time nonetheless.
The Mid-Autumn Festival was on Tuesday. On Wednesday we had our second (and last) day of classes for the week. This left us with four days in which we had no obligations and all of Asia to explore.
So, naturally, we went to Macau for the weekend.
On paper, Macau is a lot like Hong Kong. It’s an island city that is operated as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (that’s code for “capitalist”), and it’s located in roughly the same place – only an hour away by ferry. There are notable differences, however. Macau was colonized by the Portuguese (not the British, as in Hong Kong), its population and land area are mere fractions of Hong Kong’s (roughly 10% and 2.5%, respectively), and it is absolutely covered in casinos. That last point has lead some to call Macau the Vegas of the East.
We had been planning on going to Macau for some time, so before leaving Canada we had purchased ferry tickets from Groupon‘s Hong Kong associate, uBuyiBuy. Unfortunately, we discovered that the ferry company in question had gone out of business the day before we arrived at the ferry docks. They posted a very contrite (and very upset) sign outside their ticket kiosk blaming ferry-licensing authorities for refusing to provide the licenses that the agency had apparently been promised.
Luckily, there were several ferry companies at the pier. We purchased discounted last-minute ferry tickets from a nearby kiosk and rushed to our ferry. We had a short moment of panic while we looked for Amelia’s missing ticket (it was hiding at the Immigration desk), but we made it on with seconds to spare.
Just an hour later, we found ourselves standing on a corresponding ferry pier in Macau.
We caught a shuttle to our hotel (it was free!), checked in, got a bite to eat, and caught a cab over to the Venetian. The Venetian is the largest casino in the world, and is the focal point of Macau’s casino industry. Macau’s 34 casinos collectively pull in twice as much cash as their Las Vegas competitors, so perhaps Vegas should be called the Macau of the West.
Despite being in the largest casino in the world, we weren’t interested in gambling that evening. We wandered the Venetian’s hallways for a while before succumbing to hunger. We stopped in at a Japanese restaurant called “Edo”, which is a discount sushi brand that we recognized from back home.
“Edo” is not a discount brand in Macao. In fact, as we would later find out, it is hard to find a more expensive Japanese restaurant in Macau than Edo. Of course, once our hungry and stubborn selves were seated, we were in it to win it. And, insofar as it is possible to “win” dinner, I think that we probably did.
That evening we booked a tour for the following day and attempted to go to a karaoke bar. We asked Reggie, the concierge, for directions to the nearest karaoke place and – in case that didn’t work out – directions to the nearest “disco” place. Being as I left my zoot suit and pompadour back in Canada, I hoped that “disco” meant “dancing” and not “Saturday Night Fever”.
There were some slightly crossed wires, as Reggie seemed to be under the impression that we wanted to do both. As we left towards the karaoke place he ran after us, saying that he’d be off in five minutes and asking if we’d like him to come dancing with us. Kat, believing that he meant that he would be glad to guide us to the bar, said simply “No, we’re good.” Reggie, to his credit, took the rejection like a man. Amelia and I (mostly I) spent the rest of the night ridiculing her for her cold-hearted dismissal of our favourite concierge. Unfortunately, “the rest of the night” was not very long at all, as we were thwarted by the nearest bar’s private-room-only policy (which was expensive for a group of merely three). Dancing seemed empty without Reggie, so we decided to turn in for the night instead.
The next day we went on a tour of Macau. It was very interesting. For instance, we learned that the first temple that we visited is called “A-Ma”. When Portuguese explorers arrived in the area, they asked the locals what the place was called. Assuming that the explorers were asking about the big temple, the locals responded “A-Ma”, which sounded like “Macao” to the Portuguese.
If I had a much weaker desire to live, I would make a joke here regarding the attentiveness of the Portuguese. I am sure that my half-Portuguese wife will appreciate my restraint.
We met an Indian fellow on the tour who was very charismatic. Apparently he runs some sort of business back home, and was taking a vacation to Macau to learn about the local culture. He discussed the benefits of salsa dancing and the power of prayer with equal fervor.
We also went to a museum and stopped by the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is really just the front façade of a cathedral that burned down in a fire a couple hundred years ago. Apparently it’s still a pretty big deal.
We continued our tour at the Fisherman’s Wharf, which (in true Vegas style) is actually a series of chintzy one-block replicas of various European architectural styles.
The wharves included a Coliseum-styled amphitheater, which was pretty rad.
While we were reliving the heady days of the Roman Empire, Kat was approached for more “Look, it’s a blonde foreign girl!” photos. Even in Macau, with its history of European control, Kat appears to be an exotic commodity.
Up until this point we’d been having a pretty safe and relaxing day, so we decided to mix it up a bit by going to the top of the Macau Tower and jumping off. Although, to be fair, by “jumping” I mean “bungee jumping”, and by “we” I mean “Kat”. I will totally understand if you thought that I might jump as well, what with my persona of a fearless adventurer. It’s just that bungee jumping is expensive, you know?
Also, it involves heights, plus I have been lead to believe that high wind-speeds might muss up my hair. Suffice it to say that I had many legitimate and not-at-all-unmanly reasons not to go.
After Kat and I were finished with risking our lives (Kat to gravity, me to heart palpitations), Amelia lead us to a ice-based amusement… thing. It was actually pretty awesome. It was run by Russians, and the premise was “Look, you can be surrounded by ice (and go tobogganing!)”. As Canadians who were a long, long way from home, we found this very appealing.
We went out that evening for dinner at a classic Portuguese restaurant called “Antonio’s”. We foolishly did not bring any cameras except for Kat’s point-and-shoot, which decided at that moment that it didn’t need a functional screen. This was unfortunate, as the chef actually came out and made dessert, crepes suzette, right in front of us. He even got Kat to pour various alcohols into the flaming pan, making our lack of reliable photographic equipment doubly tragic.
The next day started out as a relatively lazy one. We slept in, had a late breakfast and went swimming in our hotel’s pool (or, at least, the ladies did – I’ve go blogging to do). Then we headed back to the Venetian to see Zaia, a Cirque du Soleil show.
After the show we took a gondola ride down one of the Venetian’s several canals. Our gondolier, we discovered, is an Italian musician who had been brought to Macau for a six month contract by the Venetian. This was surprising, as we had assumed that everything was as fake as the canals.
Afterwards we ate at a gourmet place called “Kraze Burgers” (“REAL AMERICAN BURGERS!”). I am not joking about the gourmet part – Western food is thought to be pretty high-class over here. We then headed back to the Macau Tower so that Amelia could take a shot at risking her life.
The bay next to the tower was playing host to a fireworks competition between Austria and Taiwan that evening. We went up to the SkyWalk X to watch it. The SkyWalk X works like this: there is a walking platform encircling the uppermost part of the tower (in the same spot at the bungee jumping platform). There are no guard-rails or walls to hold you in. There is a rail above you, to which you are tethered. By locking your harness (did I mention that the tether is not of fixed length?) you can literally swing out over the city of Macau, with nothing but a half-kilo of rope keeping you from succumbing to gravity in a most distressing way.
Amelia swung out over Macau. Running start and everything. There was no platform beneath her, despite the fact that the platform had been placed there specifically for the purpose of being beneath people.
It may surprise you to discover that I, your intrepid blogger, did no such thing.
We headed down to catch the tail end of a public concert. We stopped to gawk briefly at some wedding photos. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before (Google tells me that I haven’t), but wedding photos are sort of a big deal in Asia. Almost everywhere we go, people are getting wedding photos taken. The Great Wall, for instance. City walls. Subways. The Coliseum, from earlier. And now, apparently, at a public concert at the base of the Macau Tower. It seems odd to me that the brides (and it’s always brides, we’ve hardly seen any shoots with grooms) don’t mind being photographed in the middle of a sea of people, but I suppose it’s just a different cultural norm.
Anyways, I chatted with one of the photographers. She told me that it was quite popular to stage additional wedding photos in multiple wedding gowns long after the wedding date (even years after). It’s a whole cottage industry; hire a team, rent a dress, and go somewhere fantastic for the day. This particular lady had wanted shots during the fireworks, so here she was. I can see the appeal.
Oh, right, the fireworks competition. In case you were wondering, Taiwan crushed it. No contest.
We wandered off and found ourselves in a bar with seating on the street’s edge. We ordered some appetizers and chatted for a while. Eventually Kat spotted a nearby table playing a dice game that she didn’t recognize. She went over, introduced herself, and learned to play. Eventually Amelia and I joined. We ended up playing dice and chatting until 4am.
Our companions for the evening were three Japanese folks who all happened to work at a Japanese restaurant. They were, in fact, a sake-and-wine sommelier (Sachii), the manager (Taku), and a chef (Hiro); if you’re wondering which is which, they are arranged in the same order in the photo above. We compared notes on life as a sushi chef vs. the perpetual adolescence of postgraduate schooling. From the sound of it, Hiro’s training was somewhat more demanding than law school. The Japanese take their sushi seriously.
They’re opening a new restaurant in Hong Kong soon, so we’re hoping to make it to the grand opening.
The next day started even later than the previous one. It was also our last in Macau, so we only got one big activity in – a show at the House of Dancing Water, located in the City of Dreams (a multi-hotel complex on a similar scale to the Venetian). Like Zaia, this was an acrobatic spectacular. Unlike Zaia, the stage is a CAD$300 million aquatic contraption that manages to be a diving pool one moment and solid ground the next.
We all preferred Zaia to the House of the Dancing Water’s show, but I was the only one to find the latter repetitive and boring. Amelia enjoyed it quite a lot, and in Kat’s mind Zaia only won out by the thinnest of margins. Clearly my companions lack your humble blogger’s rather refined taste.
After the show we spent some time in the City of Dreams before boarding the ferry to Hong Kong. There was no drama this time – in particular, no shuttered agencies and no missing tickets. Our four days in Macau had come to an end, leaving just enough time to get in some course readings for classes the next day.
Amelia and I have adopted an every-other-weekend approach to traveling outside of Hong Kong, so next weekend we will be visiting the Lantau Island district of Hong Kong. I hear that they have a really big statue of Buddha there, so it should be pretty exciting.