To: Jane, Patrick, Jane, Jon, Richard
Greetings from scenic Shenzhen Airport, where there is at least a Starbucks. This being Shenzhen, the area outside the airport is teeming with migrants offering various services and not taking ‘no’ for an answer. When Li and I got here a few days ago, we got a couple of young guys from Chongqing to drive us to the Shekou (‘Snake-Mouth’) ferry pier for $12; this afternoon when we arrived back at Shekou from Macau, we got a local guy to drive us back to the airport for $10. Prices go up over the weekend, apparently.
I’d planned to meet up with a blogger friend at the Macau Venetian last night, but it didn’t quite work out. Li and I got there, and apparently Lonnie was there too, but the place was so huge and so crowded that we ended up wandering around for a few hours without finding him.
‘Huge’ and ‘crowded’ are awfully vague adjectives. Some background: Gambling used to be controlled by Stanley Ho, the local Bugsy Siegel analogue whose 2003 taxes accounted for 30% of the Macanese government’s revenue, but after Macau returned to the Motherland in 1999, things opened up to outside investment, and the old monopoly was completely broken in 2002. Las Vegas invaded more or less immediately and the area around the Hong Kong-Macau ferry terminal found itself infested with casinos — the Wynn, the Sands (the largest casino in the world, as measured by number of table games), and the MGM Grand, side by side with the now dowdy-looking old Casino Lisboa and other pre-handover casinos.
Things got crowded pretty quickly, and before long all new casinos were being planned for the Cotai Strip, a name on which the Sands corporation holds a US-registered trademark. There was a small delay while Cotai was created: the entire area is reclaimed land from the stretch of sea that used to lie between the two main islands of Macau, Coloane and Taipa, whence ‘Cotai’ gets its name. This made things nicer for developers, since the non-reclaimed land regions of Macau are for the most part fairly steep and hilly, what with being composed of rocks in the middle of the sea and all.
This gave them room to build the Venetian, which is the second-largest building in the world after Boeing’s factory in Everett, Washington, which itself covers more area than Disneyland. Jumbo jets appear to be the standard measure of large buildings: the Venetian Macau can hold more than 90 747s, according to its own press materials, and has 1.2 million square feet of convention space, 1.6 million square feet of retail space — much of it located in ersatz replicas of Venetian plazas; St. Mark’s Square, up on the second floor, has Esprit, Nike, and Swarovski outlets — as well as 550,000 square feet of casino space downstairs, making it the largest casino in the world. There are 800 gambling tables, 3400 slot machines, and a 15,000 seat arena for entertainment and sporting events. Beyoncé is playing there in November.
This still doesn’t really describe the size of the place. It is like one of those nightmares where you keep walking and walking and walking and never get anywhere, or like a Doom level, or an optical illusion. It just goes on and on and on in every direction, and just when you think you’ve gotten to the end of it you see an escalator upstairs to the Piazza San Marco. Where you can buy Guess jeans, chocolates, and scotch at the duty-free stores. Walk to the end of that and take the escalator down and you’re back in the convention and hotel area, which combines the timeless beauty of Venice with the tackiness of Las Vegas and the overwhelming awfulness of an airport. Loop around back towards the casino floor and you pass a video wall showing a short piece about the making of the Venetian, with the statistics I quoted above flashing over time-lapse construction videos set to a pounding Jerry Bruckheimer soundtrack:
800 GAMBLING TABLES
3400 SLOT MACHINES.
Back in the casino area it’s packed. Almost midnight on a Tuesday night and it’s packed. I don’t see a single empty table, and the aisles are full of people walking around (I’m not saying that this this mobile casino review is hot but I think my description really explains how packed it was), and the smaller performance area off to the side is chock full with a crowd watching some Cantonese cover group. Most of them seem to be from Hong Kong, but all of the signage is in the simplified characters used on the Mainland, and mainland high-rollers are loudly represented all around the casino, largely in the “high-stakes blackjack area,” whose name seems to have been calculated specifically to attract these guys, would-be big spenders who do their best impressions of Chow Yun-fat in The God of Gamblers, the squint, the grin, the flourishes with their gold Zippos.
After a couple of circuits of the place without any sign of the guy I was supposed to meet, Li and I called it quits and headed back through the casino towards the exit marked ‘bus depot.’ We passed a few more closed duty-free stores — their Phillippino employees were just pulling down the metal shutters as we walked past — and got to the restaurant area. I hadn’t had dinner, and so we ducked into McSorley’s Ale House, a kit pub plastered with Auld O’Irish knickknacks. I got a salad – it was only salads and deserts, the Philippino bartender informed me in almost perfectly unaccented English – and a pint of Tetley’s.
There’s a fun, very free translation of the Rubaiyat into Chinese that renders the verse
Oh, threats of Hell and hopes of Paradise —
One thing at least is certain — This life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The flower that once has blown forever dies.
碧落黃泉皆妄語, Bìluò Huángquán jiē wàngyǔ,
三生因果盡荒唐. Sānshēng Yīn-Guǒ jìn huāngtáng.
濁醪以外無真理, Zhuóláo yǐwài wú zhēnlǐ,
一謝花魂再不香. Yī xiè, huāhún zài bù xiāng.
The third line, 濁醪以外無真理, is supposed to translate “One thing is certain and the rest is Lies,” but more literally means “Outside of Wine there is no Truth,” and this was what came to mind as I sat in the American-managed fake Irish pub there in the middle of the post-Portuguese Cantonese version of a Las Vegas interpretation of Venice, and thought to myself that at least the beer was real.
And now they are calling our flight.