On kind of a lark, we spent three days in Macau, China’s “other” Special Administrative Region (along with Hong Kong) just 40 miles west of Hong Kong. Basically we had three days to kill before meeting my brother Al and his family in Singapore so we figured why not see Macau? Now we can check that one off.Compared to Hong Kong’s seven million-plus population, Macau seems tiny at just over 600,000 people. Yet, when compared to other countries and “dependent territories,” Macau is the densest region on earth with nearly 55,000 people per square mile. To put that in some context, tiny Monaco is second with about 48,000 people per square mile while New York City, the densest city in the U.S., has about 27,000 people per square mile. In other words, imagine New York’s population doubling and you get a sense of Macau’s density. But – and this is a big but – Manhattan’s population density (as opposed to the City as a whole) is 70,000 people per square mile, so Macau falls pretty far short of that level.
Macau is primarily known as a gambling mecca, having surpassed Las Vegas as the world’s leading casino market. Since the official government monopoly on casinos was ended in 2002, there has been an explosion of huge new casinos moving in: Sands, the Venetian, Wynn’s, and MGM Mirage all have a huge presence here. And not unlike Las Vegas the new mega-resorts are a bit away from the older places and make them look pretty dowdy.
As a result of all this – driven largely by the mainland Chinese taste for gambling – it’s gotten pretty rich. In fact, measured by purchasing power parity (a concept that tries to even out economies based on differing price levels), Macau has the highest per capita income in the world, having recently passed Qatar. Now, we spent time walking around some of the non-touristy parts of Macau and there are lots and lots and lots of people who would not be described as well off by any standards, so I suspect that #1 ranking is a function of a few very, very wealthy people here.Like Hong Kong, Macau was only recently reunited with China, having been ruled by the Portuguese since the mid-sixteenth century until turned over in late 1999; at that point it was the last European colony in Asia. As is the case in Hong Kong – at least in theory – Macau is part of China under the “one country, two systems” concept of Deng Xioping.
It turns out that unless you’re really into gambling (we’re distinctly not), there’s not much reason to spend a lot of time in Macau. It’s a fun mixture of Portugal and China, and we found one pretty darned good Portuguese restaurant. And the big casino hotels have some great restaurants; one building alone had two three-star Michelin restaurants. But three days there is more than enough. Now it’s off to Shanghai to meet my brother and his family for two weeks of exploring China.