Melanie Prestige tries to focus on Hong Kong in the glare of its neon lights and finds Macau a sight for sore
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As the plane dipped and skimmed over llong Kong harbour I found myselfplaying a special kind of game: spot and identify the different ﬂags on the ships below. The flags of Japan. 'l‘aiwan. Korea. Britain and Panama barely fluttered in the humid heat. For about eight miles. ocean-liners. huge cargo ships. ferry boats. launches. sampans and junks wove their way in some silent and obscure dance in and out of the harbour.
After the spectacular landing on the narrow man-made penisular that juts into the sea. llong Kong holds few surprises. Imagine picking up Soho. dropping it into San Francisco. jiggling it around and there you have it: steep gradients. at mass of high-rise buildings. bold advertisements for ‘expert massage'. a restaurant every other square foot. and a lot of bankers strutting about.
It‘s the only place I know where the residents put on their shades at night. Whether this is to protect their eyes from the glare ofthe neon that springs off the buildings. or to signal some ritualistic 'l'riad message remains an enigma. (‘ome to that. it’s the only place I know where the hotels open your bedroom curtains at night. It's an addictive sort of lullaby to gaze out across the harbour and hypnotise yourself staring at the neon signals flashing on and off.
I long Kong‘s economy has been described as a ‘transformation economy". accepting things. changing them in one way or another. passing them on. This applies as much to its emigrants as it does to merchandise. Just as fast as the (‘hinese sneak into the (‘olony using ‘connections‘ and a lot of pluck. droves of I long Kong residents are leaving before it is handed back to China in 1997. This feeling ofinstability seems to permeate everything in llong Kong — buildings are torn down. land is reclaimed to build more ‘new towns’ in the hills. while illegal immigrants live like sardines in temporary cell-blocks.
But Ilong Kongers have made
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ingenuity a natural follow-on from instability. A quick walk down Temple Street market proves that the (‘olony is a materialist‘s paradise. ()ne of the gifts I bought (as a joke) was a band-size sewing machine which chirps out a Madonna song as it stitches on buttons in seconds. Just what I needed.
But the island isn't just a supermarket full of fake watches and bizarre toys. lt's wrong to assume that everything you buy with an HK label is badly-made. Nowadays Parisiens opt for silk knickers from the (‘olony and couture fashion shows reveal that some of the best made clothes are from small businesses in llong Kong.
After a few days exploring Kowloon and the island. including the inevitable tram ride up Victoria Peak and swooshing about on a Sampan in Aberdeen 'I’yphoon shelter. I needed a break. So I took the jet-foil from Sheung Wan Pier to Macau and travelled through time as well as space. An hour later we docked on the far side of the Pearl River delta. in the Portuguese territory of Macau. once the pivot of Portugal's Japan trade in the 17th century.
The contrast with Hong Kong could not be more pronounced. Macau's faded grandeur has been hardly touched by the 2()th century. Its most distinguished buildings. including the sugar pink (iovernor's residence and the white clap-boarded former East India (‘ompany residence. set the tone. Macau stands apart for its Byzantine combination of oriental exoticism and Mediterranean languor.
'l‘he (‘amoes Museum is worth a visit. It houses a motley selection of (‘hinese bronze and porcelain and a rich collection ofpaintings showing old Macau at the height of its trading power. At the Praia (irande waterfront l restored my strength with a plate ofchilli prawns. and plotted how I could make my fortune at one of the many casinos. This is clearly a cliched fantasy. since 99 per cent of inbound tourists come from I long Kong for the casinos as. apart from horse-racing. gambling is illegal in the (‘olonyx
Of all the islands in the South ('hina sea. Macau retains a unique personality. How much this will change after Portugal‘s final withdrawal in 1999 remains to be seen. Visit it while you can. before it becomes just another half-remembered fable.
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70 The List 19 May— 1 June 1989