Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Macau: An Improbable City

I am soon off to the China-Hong Kong ferry terminal to catch the next boat to Macau, so I must be brief. But yesterday as I edited our Chinese soundfiles for our soon-to-be-launched Mandarin product for Macau, I pondered the appropriateness of Macau making most of its livelihood from gambling.

Of course, it has not been a new thing, gambling in Macau. After Hong Kong Governor MacDonnell's controversial experiment in legalized gambling in Hong Kong in the 1860s was ended (due to its success, making up 20% of annual government revenues), the Macau government happily took on the business as a way to make money. And money was desperately needed - after the opium merchants had relocated themselves from Macau to Hong Kong, the city had become a backwater - and typhoons and attacks by Qing dynasty troops had done nothing to improve conditions.

But the very fact that a Portuguese Macau survived in the face of that Qing attack is a miracle, and if the tape of history were to be replayed again (kudos to Stephen Jay Gould, the late great naturalist for that turn of phrase), it is incredibly against the odds that Macau would have survived the attack. But, despite the city's apparent record of historic failures and missed opportunity, the gods of luck and chance have always favored the city. For what else could explain how Colonel Mesquita, in 1849, was able to take the city's only howitzer, and with one shot (after which the howitzer malfunctioned) he was able to wipe out the senior leadership of the Qing forces massing in a nearby fort? His subsequent foolhardy charge with only a score of men against a far greater force was then successful because of the confusion sown by that miraculous shot.

What is even more improbable is that this was not even the first time Macau had enjoyed a turn of outrageous fortune in armed conflict. Over two centuries earlier, on a sultry June day in 1622, a large invading Dutch fleet sailed into Macau roads, and began bombarding it from all sides. Apparently the 900 Dutchmen were aware of the fact that most of the Portuguese of the city were abroad, and that the city had but 150 ill-organized defenders. After a day of unceasing cannonades, they landed their main party at Cacilhas beach, near where the ferry terminal is today. What they had not counted on was the ferocity of some unorthodox defenders, including some of Macau's African slaves. Apparently an African woman dressed as a man, killed two Dutchmen with her prong!

Still, none of that heroism and bravery would have stemmed the tide, had an urbane, Jesuit man of letters, Father Jeronimo Rho, not stood on the northeastern parapets of the Monte fort, surveying the tide of battle near Guia Hill. Apprised of the situation, and proficient in gunnery, he, the only defender atop the Monte Fort, loaded a cannon and fired it at the main body of Dutchmen. On his first shot, he hit the Dutch gunpowder magazine, which killed many of the attack's leaders and scattered many others. Upon this cue, the citizens of Macau burst from their houses, sensing a turn in the tide. In desperate, bloody, hand-to-hand fighting, the 900 Dutchmen were dispatched or repelled.

So consider, if you will, that Macau has benefited from not one, but two incredible strokes of luckthat would otherwise have meant a completely different course in history for the city. Firstly, it puts today's Macau and its reliance on chance, luck and gambling into perspective, a city that has defied the odds by its very existence. And also, it explains that underlying assumption of all gamblers that play against the house when the odds are weighted towards the house - that there is a God - for I, for one, have never met an atheist gambler! For you must logically believe in some higher power that will grant you 'luck', 'luck' that will overcome the odds against you, when you play a game of chance.

Is it perhaps now clearer, then, that casinos, churches and temples not just co-exist, but are complementary to each other?

No comments: