Creative non-fiction / October 2017 (Issue 37)

A Portrait of Two Cities: Hong Kong and Macau

by Lee Tse Mei

Hong Kong

Away from the pier, the silence envelops us, and the din of the crowds slows to a murmur. The man next to me talks about the seats on the trains. A cross breeze blows from the side, and the sound of the waves lapping up against the side of the boat matches the constant hum of the engine.

There is an unchanging rhythm to the Star Ferry that is a part of its appeal. The ride from Kowloon to Central takes five minutes, but it remains one of the most romantic rides that a person can embark upon within the space of a few miles. There is a sense that you are crossing a threshold into a different age, and your journey begins as you drop the coins into a machine that dispenses the tokens, red and black plastic chips rattling out into the compartment below.

The boatman, clad in a blue jacket, leans over the railing as the passengers disembark, toddlers clasping the hands of parents as we clamber up the gangplank, red against the railings at the side in green.



A sense of ascent, steady, narrow, vertiginous, as one moves up the slope and leaves the water behind. The gradual unveiling by degrees of a panoramic coastline, a dizzying, intoxicating blend of the city, the sky, the mountains and the water.

Away from the water, the quieter and more lush the surrounding greenery becomes, the more spectacular the view of the emerging coastline below. Almost as though to grasp the essence of what was most magical about Hong Kong, all one had to do was to ride the ferry between Kowloon and Central, and take the funicular or climb up to the top of the Peak and gaze down upon the city and the harbour below. It is a city of contrast and elevation, of dizzying height and scale crammed within an impossibly steep and inhospitable terrain.


Luk Yu 

The sense of a bygone world within. The diners are a mix of affluent Chinese tourists and regular locals who sit reading the papers with a pot of tea at the side. An atmosphere of custom and tradition, as though this is the way it always was. 




Noon at St Paul's

The steps leading down from the ruins are crowded with tourists. At the bottom of the stairs, the street is crammed with stores selling Portuguese egg tarts and Macanese pastries. A sign outside one store says No.1 for 13 years.

At the St Dominican Church, a lone brown confessional box stands inside of one of the exhibition rooms, and a statue of St Francis gazes idly down from a wall.

The two storeyed buildings flanking the street are old shophouses left in their unrestored state dilapidated and rust filled with balconies covered in railings that have rusted and laundry hanging from in between the cracks. 

Away from the ruins, a different way of life carries on untrammelled in the side lanes and alleys. Old women sit with their wares displayed in open air stalls, the doorways reveal hidden interiors, and a man tends to his wares inside one of them. 

The attractiveness of Macau lies in its vague sense of disorder, with fortunes teetering on the edge of calamity.

There is a sense of recklessness that surrounds the city's casinos, a tinge of the gambler's spirit in each toss of the dice, of the thrill of the game, not just for the game in itself but for the entrapments, the sense, taste and touch of money, the lure of gold, the sheer attractiveness of it, almost as though the making of money was itself a religion.

At a card table, a man places the chips in front of him in jerky awkward movements. One after another, extending his arm again and again. 


Avenue de la Republica

The Avenue de la Republica, a tree lined promenade, is calm and quiet.

A woman walks a dog and a few people seated on the benches along the way. At the end of the street, there is a sign marked Fortress Barra, and a steep path leading uphill to a building that was once the Portugal consul general's residence, now the Hotel Bela Vista.

Further up, at the Penha church, a wedding photograph session is underway. A group of young women clad in purple mount the stairs clutching their handbags chattering gaily. On the street down the road, a young woman in velvet red rings the chimes on a large bronze door and disappears within, and a man in white follows closely behind. 

All around me are grey tenement buildings, scattered and crowded, rising filigree like steeply up from the hillslopes in a cavalier manner. In the middle, dug out of the hillslope as I am walking down, a massive construction site resembling a comet's meteor attack, an excavation strike zone. An old woman with a young child climbs up the steep road in the opposite direction.


The Casino

An interior of plush red carpets, gold, opulence with piped in jazz, chandeliers, bartender service and waiters ferrying drinks adeptly on trays. 

A woman sits down at a table next to a gambler and casually tosses a wad of thousand dollar bills to the dealer, who spreads them out in a ritualistic flourish in four rows on the table, each row containing five notes. 

The gambler flicks his wrist and tosses his cards to the dealer. A dapper man at the far right is a perfect foil, precise, economical and controlled in his gestures, cool as the gambler is hot-headed and impatient. And the third player, the woman with the money, chamber characters in a drama.

Outside, a lone protester holds up a placard. At dusk, the neon lit scene all around is reminiscent of a twilight Götterdämmerung. The roads are filled with dust and smog filled particles, huge cars and lorries trundle by without stopping and the roads are several lanes wide and difficult to cross.

At the Macau outer harbour terminal, the economy class waiting room is packed. A railing separates the crowds from the first class waiting room where a lone passenger sits, the only one in first class for the ride.


Hong Kong

Kowloon Pier, Night

Emerging into Canton Road, a burst of festive light, the street ablaze in display window colours. It is Saturday night and the walls of the Cultural Centre are blasting an anime cartoon in a gigantic sound and light show, the sound competing with the jamming bands.

A huge cargo-less barge glides noiselessly and silently through the water, the only thing that is unlit apart from the water itself amidst this sea of neon sound and light. 


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