I just spent a week in Macau and Hong Kong, the West's last two possessions in Asia. There, I heard an Indian joke from Filipino writer Charlson Ong, "You Brits think you can just come and take our chicken biryani and chicken tandoori? No, we're coming with you!"
A great irony of colonialism is that many of the colonized nations have managed to stay more coherent, intact and true to themselves than the colonizers, so that seven decades after the Indians kicked out the Brits, for example, India is still essentially India, if not more so, while England has become relentlessly less English. Despite all the physical and psychological violence of colonialism and its aftermath, Morocco, Algeria, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have retained much more of their heritage than France, incredibly.
Ong and I were in Macau as guests of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators conference. Preparing for my trip, I went on Duolingo to learn bits of Portuguese, a totally unnecessary task since through several days of walking many miles through various Macau neighborhoods, I didn't hear Portuguese once.
I asked a Macau-born taxi driver, "Do you speak any Portuguese?"
"That means 'You're welcome,' right?" In Cathedral Parish, I did see some Portuguese schoolchildren in uniform, for the Escola Portuguesa de Macau was there. Since these girls were sitting on benches and minding their own business, I didn't inch up to overhear what waxed from their mouths. News, "Vietnamese-American creep arrested in Macau for aiming unclean ear at terrified white teens, now recovering in hospital."
At Hou Fung Cafe on Alameda Dr Carlos d'Assumpção, there was a tall and hefty waitress who appeared to be Macanese. The rest of the staff were obviously Chinese, as were all the customers. On the menu, there were "Portuguese Specialties," so I tried the bacalhau and mashed potato casserole, then Portuguese fried rice, which contained bits of a Portuguese sausage, onion, tomato and a single black olive.
One of the conference organizers was Portuguese Helder Beja, but he's a recent immigrant who arrived long after Macau had been returned to China. Whites on the streets were likely to be tourists. There are more Filipinos in Macau than Portuguese, I'm sure, for I saw Pinoys all over, working in hotels, casinos and bars. At the American themed Roadhouse, there were Filipino bartenders and a Filipino band, singing Dire Straits, Eric Clapton and other classic rock hits. (A side note: as others in our group sat at tables, I found myself at the bar with Ed and Ravi Shankar, and though none of us were white, we were Americans, damn it, and American men tend to sit on high stools at the bar. Born in Detroit, ethnic Chinese Ed began each day with oatmeal, which he had to buy in bulk in Macau.)
Long a Cantonese city, Macau is now swarmed by mainland visitors, mostly provincials, judging by their tacky clothing, but that's true of most casino visitors anywhere. On Rua de São Domingos, I stood near a middle-aged man in matching T-shirt and sweatpants that were like black velvet paintings, with a lurid yellow sun, tigers and roses, and a large black purse draped around his neck. A woman wore a salmon colored hoodie emblazoned with a young white girl sticking her tongue out sideway, "YOU'VE GOT TO GET SID OF THE DRAINS EN YOUR LIFE. ONLY DEAL, WITR FOUNTAINS." Did I just see a yellow jaguar on a white T-shirt, with "THANK YOU HAVE A NICE DAY" in primary colors? The bare shouldered peekaboo blouse with fluffy arm holes was clearly in fashion. Large man in a pink muscle-T, "BIGGER THAN SATAN BIEBRE [sic]." Slurping noodles, women squatted next to baby strollers, with the boy toddler sporting that familiar military crew cut.
Suckers all, they're enthralled by the grand settings, so swarm into casinos to squander their hard earned Yuans, or they splurge at the many glittery brand name boutiques, with some boasting tall and handsome white greeters in suits. Wandering wide eyed through faux palaces, these peasants are happy to be fleeced, so they can go home and boast of having been to Macau, where there's the Palazzo Ducale, Rialto Bridge, Saint Mark's Campanile, Place Vendôme, Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower, etc. They have been to something like Europe. And America, too. At Joyride, they can manspread in a convertible and chomp on a burger, hot dog or an authentic ice cream sundae. They've seen it all.
In December of 1966, Macau Chinese demonstrated then rioted against their Portuguese overlords. The mob toppled the statue of Colonel Vincente Nicolas de Mesquita and broke the arm from one of Jorge Alvares. They tore oil portraits from the walls of City Hall, and flung books and records onto the street, and set them on fire. After eight protesters were killed and 212 injured by police, four Chinese warships appeared offshore and thousands of Red Guards threatened to invade. Forced to back down, the Portuguese governor signed a letter of apologies under a portrait of Mao Zedong, no less. Afterwards, Portugal's foreign minister described his country's role in Macau as "a caretaker of a condominium under foreign supervision."
Vox populi, so these folks got to be Chinese in Macau, without suffering under a Chinese government. The Cultural Revolution didn't rape them.
In Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and everywhere else they're left alone to do business, Chinese have always thrived, and for the longest time, the showcase Chinese city was Hong Kong, and many will argue it still is, with some claiming it's simply the best fuckin' city anywhere, period, ever, for it is as sophisticated and beautiful as any, with all amenities readily available, and perfectly safe. Until very recently, that is.
Hong Kong is livelier than Singapore or Tokyo, has much better weather than London, and is not blighted by the types of run down or dreary neighborhoods you must dodge in New York or Paris. Granted, it has no world-class museums, but few live in a place to be near great art. Restaurants matter much more to daily living, and Hong Kong is second to none when it comes to satisfying chowing, and we're not just talking Cantonese, of course. On a brief stroll through SoHo, I passed mostly packed restaurants offering Persian Fusion, Peruvian, Greek, Italian, Italian American, French, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Japanese, Portuguese, American Smokehouse and Californian dishes, etc.
On High Street in Sai Wan, the range was more limited, but still staggeringly diverse and impressive, with even a Vietnamese craft beer available. I took the train to some generic shopping mall in Tsing Yi. There, I could choose from Taiwanese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, American steaks, Western Seafood or Italian, etc. For less than $9, I had a pretty good plate of fettucine with steak strips and mushroom in a pesto sauce thickened with parmesan. Compared with the pasta I had been eating in Vietnam, this was nirvana.