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March 2007

look at me, like you’ve never seen a white man
look at me, like a relative back from the dead
look at me and rubberneck, or stop in your tracks
look at me, China, not as a country
but as a billion pair of eyes

eyes that know me though we’ve never met
eyes that despise me, want me, loath or love
eyes that would take from me or sell to, or both at once
eyes that look up, but only to gauge the climb
and intend someday to look down

look at me closely
see the emblem
and not the man

Not 40 miles from bustling high-tech Hong Kong is sleepy crumbling Macau. You wouldn’t notice much difference to look at an atlas or a history book; the two places seem similar enough be twins. But in the flesh, they are as different as night and day.

Geographically speaking, they have sprung from the same DNA. Both of these city-states are comprised of a cluster of islands. Both were acquired by European powers through force, Macau by Portugal in 1557 and Hong Kong by England in 1842. And both of them were returned to Chinese control in the late nineties as Special Administrative Regions (SARs.)

Each has only a narrow stripe of water, no wider than the Mississippi, dividing them from China. But they have more in common with each other than with the mainland. They both speak Cantonese. They both drive on the wrong side of the road. They both have a large number of European residents: about one for every five Chinese. They both have local TV stations that broadcast in English. Their people idolize the Japanese, whereas the mainlanders shun the Japanese and favor the Koreans.

So I was shocked to step off the Hong Kong ferry and into the strange world of Macau.

The first thing I noticed about Macau is what it doesn’t have. Gone are the rude and inescapable crowds. Gone is the glow of shiny towering buildings, competing with each other in height, radical design, and candle-power.

In only a few parts of Macau do you even notice a crowd, and it only gets cramped around some ill-conceived repair work, where the sidewalk is reduced to a splinter. The only tall buildings in Macau—with the exception of the cement-cast Macau Tower—are casinos. Most of the casinos are the sort of two-bit joints one associates with sin and poverty. But right now, the island’s principal occupation seems to be building huge new gambling palaces. Many of these have a Vegas pedigree, like The Venetian and The Sands.

As for the rest of Macau, well… Both cities have economically turbulent areas, but Macau is dominated by them. Leave the small but tidy path that runs through the casinos, the main shopping district, and the few historical offerings, and the place becomes an endless ghetto. Cement high-rises are stained with dirt and paint. Road are filled with as much gravel as the original pavement. All around the islands, there are giant inexplicable holes in the ground.

Evidence of crime is everywhere in Macau, from the security cameras all over my hotel to the fully barred apartment porches—even six stories up. There is a piece of paper taped to the windows of Macau’s only Starbucks declaring, “Burglar Alarm Installed.” The sign feels personal, telling whoever it is that broke in the last time they had better not try it again. No doubt the west’s largest coffee chain—with branches smeared across Hong Kong—were shocked to find that ten years of Chinese rule had done little to against the four centuries of Portuguese influence.

And I think it is in the lineage of these two cities where we can find the answer to their deep-rooted differences. The British like to make money, and they are good at it. They turned Hong Kong into the gateway to Asia, a neutral ground where manufactures of everything from clothing to electronics clamor to get their good into Western markets. And the British took their modest cut.

Portugal, on the other hand, is often referred to as the “the third world of Europe.” They have enough of their own troubles without having to worry about some run down island on the other side of the planet. No doubt the administrators they sent ran things the way they did at home, with little more aspiration than to squeeze a few patacas out of their ancient colony. In fact, walking around Macau, I experience déjà vu from my trip to Lisbon. Even half-way round the world, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

And perhaps this is why, while the British had to be cajoled into giving up Hong Kong, Portugal offered Macau back several times before China begrudgingly took it from them.

The young women in my neighborhood fix their eyes straight ahead as they pass me, their faces as blank as rocks. They are hoping, I think, that if they give me absolutely no indication of interest, I will let them pass unmolested.

I can’t blame them. Though this Hong Kong neighborhood is dominantly Chinese, it’s just a few short blocks from an area packed with over-priced, over-themed bars that cater to the most feral mass of drunken westerners this side of Key West. And down that street, the behavior is pretty much anything goes.

A girl who couldn’t even be in high school saddles up next to a man at a bar and tells him she needs a drink. At the strip clubs, the dancers stand outside and grab any man passing by, literally pulling them into the place. To the men who frequent this area, Hong Kong is a smorgasbord of the feminine, from the underage to the well-experienced, all to be had on the cheap.

Of course, it’s easy to tell the difference between these hustlers and the women who are just trying to go about their lives. But even easy things take some thought, and I don’t see too much thinking going on around here. A twenty-something crew-cut plops down next to me at the bar and, before he even has his drink in his hand, announces loudly that he’s “just an American businessman looking to get his rocks off.” His words are received with a cheer.

His voice faltered just a little on the last couple words. He must be new here, because the more experienced, with their rugged, beach-town-alcoholic looks, would have made no such hesitations. I can’t decide which is more offensive: those that have made this their lifestyle, or those that just take a vacation from their moral values. And good taste. How many drinks would it take this crew-cut to even approach a woman he felt was on equal standing with himself?

With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand why the girls of my neighborhood fear contact with me. I suspect that starting years before puberty even knocked on their door, they’ve been under constant assault by the whimsical hubris of western men like myself. And I don’t even want to think about how aggressive some of them must get.

Half-awake yesterday morning, stumbling down the street, my gaze falls for just a second upon an attractive woman in a business suit. She’s waiting for someone by the entrance to the subway. As she catches my glance, her eyes widen slightly and she shakes her head: no. This early in the day, I’m just trying to get to my first cup of coffee. But I guess it’s never too early, or too late, for one of my ‘type’ to be out on the prowl. Still, I find myself offended at her assumption, that I’m just like the rest of them.

But I guess that would be her complaint, too.