It has absorbed many influences over the centuries and is now called Asia's Vegas, writes Thomas Bywater

Viva la Broadway isn't bad. Not by any means.

The cast of imported luvvies are painstakingly choreographed and professional to the last. They are clearly enjoying top billing at the Macau Broadway Hotel, and good on them.

It just isn't for you.


As a Beyonce-a-like leads into some passable magic tricks and a medley of Cantonese classics, this is 70 decades of pop reimagined for an overwhelmingly Chinese audience. Judging from the rows of beaming smartphone screens and rapturous applause, it is clearly hitting its mark.

The Las Vegas-style spectaculars and labyrinthine casinos are playing to the district's much-abused moniker as the "Vegas of Asia". But this is a label Macau has never worn well.

Since its return to China, Macau has become a playground for the state-controlled casino industry. The comparison with Las Vegas was inevitable. Over the past 20 years casinos and super-hotels have been springing up at an alarming rate. Lots of these — including the Wynn Palace, Venetian and Parisian hotels — are twinned with Vegas resorts.

Macau's improbable connection to Nevada's city of forbidden fun is just the latest chapter in a back and forth between East and West. This city is all about the clash of cultures.
Beautiful, and at times awkward, contradictions.

It started in the 1500s as Portuguese missionaries arrived. Shape-shifting Jesuits, wearing Japanese kimonos. Assimilating local cultures and setting up schools and churches across Southeast Asia, these monks created a foothold for the Portuguese.

It's an era captured in Martin Scorsese's recent and very serious 2016 epic, Silence. Taoist temples were able to coexist alongside St Paul's College. It was this tolerance that allowed the Portuguese old town to become what is now one of China's Unesco cultural sites and it is this "live and let live" philosophy that came to be embodied by the tiny, 330sq km country.

Even throughout the 1940s as neighbouring Hong Kong was occupied by Japan, neutral Macau became a haven for refugees, exiles and spies.

It was during this chapter that one of Macau's more famous visitors was embedded deep in the South China drinking dens. British writer Ian Fleming came to Macau on business as a spy master and returned again after the war purely for pleasure, gambling and the beguiling Macanese senoritas.

It would be easy to see James Bond — the author's most famous creation — propping up a baccarat table in the Central Casino.

However, the class of casino has changed beyond recognition since the 50s and so has the clientele. Today, about 90 per cent of the visitors are from mainland China and have brought with them their newfound wealth, tastes and interests.

The stakes for resorts have been raised.

Macau's gambling revenue has outgrown that of Las Vegas by almost three times, eclipsing America's Sin City.

Walking down the strip you will encounter a new generation of curiously quiet and sober tourists.

The great 55km bridge from Hong Kong is the latest development, aiming at opening up Macau by road. When it opens in June it will increase the steady stream of tourists entering Macau.

Climbing the Monte Fort, you can't help but wonder what those early Jesuit missionaries would make of modern Macau.

The view from the fort looks out over 3m-high walls, bristling with cannons.

They currently point at the Grand Lisboa — Macau's lotus-shaped casino — and form a favourite backdrop for selfies.

These giant guns still bear their Portuguese insignia. The Macanese are fiercely protective of their connections and will make sure these traditions still have a place in the country's future identity.

Checklist: Macau


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