Sunday, December 11, 2011

Civilization at its best?

Some of you might already know that Macau is a place that is special to me.
Macau, an sort-of-island (as it is so attached to the mainland) is located one hour away from Hong Kong and is like Hong Kong a so-called "Special Administrative Zone" of China. The place has been in Portuguese hands since the 16h century (although the Dutch have repeatedly trying to conquer it), but has been handed over to back to the People's Republic in 1999.

Macau is not only a special place to me personally, but in general it is considered special in this region, because it has legalized gambling to such a certain extend, that it has influenced the area tremendously. Besides that, it is a tax haven for offshore companies and inhabitants, and there are no foreign currency controls such as in China. Investors are also heavily stimulated by the government to invest in Macau, partly due to the eased tax-policies.

A glimpse of Macau at night. Casino neon lights
I have only been in Macau since the beginning of this year, but if you look into the history of this place, you can understand that the inhabitants have experienced a huge transition. Since the handover in 1999, the place has seen an annual economic growth of 13%. While before, the main income was only generated by trading and local activities such as fishing, nowadays the biggest income comes from tourism, and especially the gambling industry. In 2006 Macau overtook Las Vegas in gambling revenue with 23 Billion US$, but this year they expect that number to be 5 times higher.

When I walk through Macau, I have mixed feelings about the place. The casino's, some of the biggest in the world, are enormous and endless and (for a Dutch guy) almost beyond imagination. Let me give some examples.

The Venetian Resort, over 3000 hotel rooms, casino and
When you enter The Venetian (a copy of Venice), you can walk for an hour through the shopping malls in Venice style streets, with canals and even the same venetian boats (with opera-singing boatmen). The ceiling is painted like a cloudy sky and constantly changes light so you won't feel tired. There is more than 51000 square meter of casino floorspace, filled with endless rows of slot machines, poker tables, cashiers and ATM machines. Besides that, they have an hotel inside the building with 3000 rooms.

The Galaxy (which has just been opened this year) features an enormous entrance with a huge hall where you have quarterly fountain shows, marmer floors, toilets, and LV, Gucci and Rolex stores everywhere you look. There are two hotels inside, offering a total of 2200 rooms, and an enormous swimming pool on top of the building.

The canals inside the Venetian
Some day when I was visiting the Venetian for the first time, I literally got lost as it is such a huge complex. I was looking for the exit for almost half an hour, walking around in the Venetian streets, the gambling halls and food courts, until I finally managed to escape to the right place. My god!

One thing that amazes me in Macau, is how the local people deal with the transformation that is going  on. As western people, like me, you have the idea that Asia is still a developing country, and that there are some rich people, but the majority has a far lower life standard than us. If you want to blow away this illusion, Macau is definitely the place to visit.

First of all, you cannot get a decent hotel room for under 120 euro during the weekend. Everything below that amount I would not even let my dog stay for the night. An average room in a decent hotel will cost you between 150 and 200 euro per night. The food and drinks in Casino's are far higher priced than most of the restaurants I know in The Netherlands, although you can have an excellent meal for a very good price when you take a step outside the casino's and go to the places where the locals eat.

Besides that, you will see so many expensive shops such as LV, Gucci, Hermes, and they are all fully occupied, sometimes even with waiting queues outside to have the rich Chinese orderly wait before they spend thousands of dollars. Expensive cars drive around in the city as it is normal to own a Ferrari or Maserati.

Besides luxury goods and expensive cars, there are lots of women where you can spend your earned gambling money on. You see advertisements everywhere to call prostitutes, they walk around in hotels looking for big money spenders, and for the insiders, there is even a place where you can take a seat, and watch them stroll by (and select one like it is a meat market). I happened to get this location from a friend of mine, and of course I had to take a visit just to see what is going on there.

The place where it all happens is an ordinary shopping mall, located next to the old Lisboa casino. Inside, on the main floor there is a long hall with shops, where dressed-up Chinese ladies with short skirts and high heels parade through the hall. Just install yourself there and take a look. The ladies will walk by, and if they see you are interested, they will smile at you, and the price negotiation process will start. (So I heard...)

You can see that money spending has its impact on the local citizens of Macau

But one thing that scares me is that this generation, so influenced by easy money, might destroy itself in the end. Most of the Casino licenses end around 2020, and what if China decides not to renew them? What if China decides Macau will no longer be a tax haven? What will happen to the economy that nowadays is mostly based on the entertainment industry? What happens when the majority of the young generation cares only about easy money, and does not have any significant degree when all the Hong Kong and Chinese graduates will compete with the same scarce amount of jobs?

Therefore I sometimes think that Macau might show us an example of the end of a civilization.

When there is nothing left to do than Gambling, Drinking, spending money on luxury goods you don't need, it means that life is pretty useless.

Or am I wrong? .. Perhaps

After all, there is also a bright side. The casinos and all the yearly visitors brought a huge improvement in government earnings, and I believe that in general everybody in Macau is now better off than before.

The Government spends a lot on health care improvement, tax reductions and other social programs, so that the majority of the people benefit. I also read that the life expectancy in Macau is the highest in the world!

Besides that, the old center of Macau, where you can see the old Portuguese style houses, will give everybody a warm feeling when visiting.

I leave the final conclusion up to you, but I think everybody will agree with me that Macau is certainly a unique place in Asia!

Definitely worth to visit!


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wind or no wind, the Dutch guy goes to work...

A couple of weeks ago, when the weather was still hot and humid in Hong Kong, my alarm woke me at the usual time of 7.00am. After taking a shower, having breakfast and all the other morning activities, I grabbed my laptop and went down with the elevator.

Walking out of the elevator and the building, entering the street I started to get an unusual feeling, that something was not entirely the same as every other day. Meanwhile, thinking about what could cause my unusual feeling, I walked down the road to the Hong Kong MTR (metro). It is about 8 minutes walk downhill along the road.

"What is wrong today?" Is it the weather? Mmm, not really. It was grey, yes, but it didn't rain, and there was a some wind coming from the other side of the hill, but nothing to be scared of.

"But what was it then?"

It was quite silent this day, something that never happens in Hong Kong. While walking further I noticed that there was really nobody on the street. Usually around this time, the street is full of businessmen going to work, grandmothers walking with the Filipino maids to bring the children to school, and lots of taxi's, cars and buses on the road to transport all those million of souls across the city. But today.. absolutely nothing. No people, no cars, buses. Even the security guards were nowhere to be found.

Even the MTR stations were totally emtpy,
unusual for the rush hour!
"Well I guess I am the only foreigner that doesn't have a free day today. Guess I must have missed something" I thought to myself, and continued my walk to the MTR station.

But when getting to the entrance of the metro, I noticed they had placed a sign near to the elevator:

"Typhoon level 8 is hoisted"

That explains it!

During my previous visits to Hong Kong I have experienced some smaller typhoons before, so I was aware of the typhoon level warning system that Hong Kong operates.

This system is in place since 1884 when the Hong Kong observatory began to monitor the tropical cyclones in the South China Sea.

The signals are classified between level 1 and 10 where level 1 means that a tropical cyclone is within 800 KM range, level 3 warns of strong winds, and level 8 up to 10 means very strong wind or a real typhoon with wind speeds up to 12 Beaufort.

When the warning level 8 or higher is issued, the city enters a complete blackout; all the public transportation stops, government institutions close, and highways will be closed or scaled down. Therefore, usually most companies will shut down their operations and send everybody home. People call it a lucky day, as they can go home and stay with the family. (Usually playing mahjong all day)

And this was the reason..Thank you!
Since this signal was issued in the early morning, everybody could stay inside and have an extra free day.
Unfortunately I didn't watch the news, and just went to work without understanding what was going on. Luckily I saw the sign at the MTR station!

Yes, of course it was windy outside, but being born in Holland, a country where I believe it is windy 300 days per year, the storm that was blowing over Hong Kong that day didn't really impress me.

But now I learned my lesson.. if there is any typhoon nearby, check the weather forecast on an hourly basis, like most Hong Kong people do, and who knows you might be lucky!