City of Dreams
[Note: Over the past two weeks, I helped lead a tour of Ohio State University architecture students and alumni on a tour up the East China coast, from Hong Kong, to Shanghai, and inland to Beijing. The following few posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited…. Today: Macau.]
The original concept for this tour was the study of post-colonial urbanism in China. An ideal, rigorous version of our itinerary would have taken us through Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou, Fuzhou, Xiamen , Ningbo, Shanghai … and perhaps the dozen other cities that were home to foreign concessions in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty and early years of the Republic. In the end, our focus shifted somewhat (to include Beijing, for instance), but Macau remained on the itinerary.
Whatever history may have been inscribed in the urban fabric of Macau, and whatever unique character the city may have possessed in the past, all seems to have been erased today – or overlaid with so many layers of advertising and tourist propaganda as to render it completely vacuous. Take the historic core, that UNESCO-listed town center, comprised of narrow lanes overflowing with souvenir shops (“Portuguese clothes” made in Thailand) and Egg Tart stands (also available at KFC). Formally, the old town center is pleasant enough, and the paving patterns and church facades are reminiscent of scenes from Portugal (or, in my limited experience, old Spanish settlements in the Caribbean), but the overlay of tourist schlock robs it of any sense of authenticity, and it is reduced to a facsimile or simulacra, propped up by the tourist dollar (usually, HKD, as opposed to the local currency, the “pataca”).
The Casinos, by contrast, are refreshingly inauthentic. On the Cotai “strip” (reclaimed land bridging between two formerly-distinct islands south of the Macau peninsula, whose urban and economic planning is modeled on Las Vegas) the Venetian is a clear stand-out. Modeled on – and larger than – it’s Vegas namesake, the Venetian is an exemplar of a new authenticity. The iconic monuments of Venice are conveniently collected in one place: the Rialto bridges across the entry drive, terminating next to the San Marco Campanile at the Doges’ palace. Scenic views can be had from across the “Grand Canal,” before entering the expansive building, where the baroque madness of the entry corridor gives way (eventually) to a (relatively) subdued hall, where lights are focused on tables and gamblers are focused on their games. The canals of Venice are recreated, absurdly, on Level 2, a quick elevator (or: curved escalator!) ride from the gaming floor.
The canal level exists in perpetual twilight: the stores will never close (and it will always be just-about-time for a drink), and the water is a chlorine-blue you’ll never see in Venice. The Venetian, in fact, has one-upped Venice. Why bother with dirty canals, old stone bridges, unpredictable business hours, and long confusing walks through the old fabric when you can have the Venetian, with its color coded retail zones, and clean waterways, where the gaming floor is always just a quick elevator ride away?
Macau is a tough city to “process” and I’m sure I’m missing a lot of the local culture – away from the Cotai strip in the dense neighborhoods surrounding the historic center. But as an eight-hour day trip from Hong Kong, it passes in a tourist blur, denying critique. (More thoughts, perhaps, later, on the role of reproduction/copying in Chinese architecture, but for now, enjoy the Talking Heads’ “City of Dreams” (from “True Stories”), which I couldn’t stop singing after hitching a ride on the free City of Dreams casino shuttle. Completely unrelated, aside from the post-colonial subtext…..)