Macau–A Near Encounter

Macau is the setting in the first draft of my novel. At this point, I have to ask myself how did this happen? How did I get involved in a place that few of my contemporaries know a whole lot about? People are only recently learning that it is a “gambling mecca”.

The first time I ever heard of Macau was In the late 70’s when I was serving on an aircraft carrier in Southeast Asia. One of our port calls was Hong Kong, then a British Colony on the South China Sea that had been “leased” to Britain by China as a result of the Opium War. Britain held onto this colony, and governed it as an important part of its overseas Empire. Hong Kong was surrounded by China, then embroiled in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. It was often described as a British enclave. As we pulled into the beautiful Hong Kong harbor, I learned there was another  lesser known enclave administered by the Portuguese.  I use the word “administered” because that is the term everyone seems to use to describe that strange relationship. Macau (sometimes spelled Macao) was clearly part of China. The Portuguese made it clear that Macau was not a colony in any way shape or form. The Portuguese administered Macau very loosely, and a sort of laid-back live-and-let-live philosophy seemed to take hold. Gambling was tolerated and allowed to flourish. Chinese gangs, called Triads flourished. The Catholic Church, as a result of the Portuguese influence in Macau became an important part of this society. I understand that Portugal wanted to give Macau back to China and actually tried at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Legend has it that Mao Tse-tung refused to take it back saying something mysterious like “The time is not right.” Macau had a reputation of lawlessness. It seemed like a good place to visit and it was only a one-hour ferry ride away.

The problem was that the U.S. Navy placed Macau in an “off limits” status. No U.S. serviceman or woman was allowed to go there and that was made quite clear to us. The reasons given were that the ferry passed through Chinese territorial waters, and they occasionally boarded the ferries. We were not on good terms with China in those days. The Cold War was in full bloom and “ping pong diplomacy” had not yet begun. Apparently the U.S. State Department did not want to explore the implications of the Peoples’ Liberation Army having an encounter with a U.S. sailor on the Macau Ferry, so it was off limits. I am sure the reputation of lawlessness had something to do with that ban as well, but I was not about to test the issue.

I did make my way to the Macau Ferry Terminal while I was in Hong Kong. It was near the Star Ferry, one of the greatest boat-rides in the world. At that time gambling was prohibited in the United States everywhere except Las Vegas, so the lure of seeing gambling in action was very strong on a young sailor. I had the itch. I was a rule-follower throughout most of my life, so Macau would have to wait until some undetermined time in the future. I actually thought I would never get there, but the world did change over the years, and through a fortunate chain of events, I was able to scratch that itch many times as I grew older.

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