A Study in Contrasts
On Mainland China, which I like to call “The Land of Big Uncle,” it’s common to see a row of cameras over the highway. Travel, you see, is restricted. I was told a Chinese national isn’t allowed to go from Shenzhen to Shanghai without official approval.
After decades of a strict no-travel policy, however, the government is now forcing its citizens to move. Urbanization is the latest trend. During my visit, I saw a number of construction sites where they were erecting half a dozen residential high-rises on a half-acre lot. It reminded me of parts of Southern California, right down to the smog.
To their credit, the Chinese are trying to integrate the country. I stayed in southeastern China, but I saw transplanted Chinese from Mongolia, Hunan, Sichuan, and other distinct culinary provinces. And contrary to popular belief, all Chinese do not all look alike. Some — well, a few — OK, maybe one or two — even had facial hair.
The Guangdong Province, where I spent my time, is an industrial area that’s heavily polluted. Bottled water was a requirement, and the air was so thick, it sometimes felt like I was scuba diving. In this devastated environment, people lived and worked, but few ever smiled.
Most of the humor I found on the Mainland was incidental:
- A waitress in a family restaurant wore a T-shirt that shouted, “Hell yes!” in English — a language few understood. (Foreign-language T-shirts were everywhere.)
- A crowd gathered around a riveting sports event broadcast on TV … of a badminton match. (Where Americans play tennis, the Chinese play badminton — maybe because the courts are smaller — but they play it extremely well.)
- My hotel’s “continental breakfast” featured corn on the cob, which I dutifully ate every morning. (Breakfast also included hard-boiled eggs, noodles and congee.)
Contrast this with Macau, the peninsula colonized and ruled by the Portuguese until 1999. Macau has casinos, Western shops, and restaurants with, gosh, variety. On the Mainland, aside from the meat, the food is really good, but it’s all basically Chinese food. To suddenly see Indian, Thai, French, and Portuguese food … it was like seeing colors for the first time.
Many of you may not realize it, but Hong Kong and Macau are “Special Administrative Districts.” Even the currencies are different (the Hong Kong Dollar versus the Chinese Yuan). Everyone, including Chinese nationals, have to pass through an immigration checkpoint when traveling to and from Macau. By contrast, you don’t even need to stop while driving from Belgium to Germany these days. But Macau and the Mainland are like two different countries, sort of like Texas and the rest of the U.S.
Where I never saw a pleasure boat anywhere along the coast of the Mainland, Macau’s waterways boasted almost nothing but. Where the Mainlanders bent to the task of everyday life, the Macanese celebrated every day with smile. People on both sides of the border were friendly, but the Macanese actually seemed happy.
Many Mainlanders practice religion, but usually out of sight. I saw exactly one Buddhist temple, and it sat on a preserve far from any city. In Macau, one of the major attractions, judging by the swarm of people buzzing around it, was the ruin of St. Paul’s: the façade and crypt of a Jesuit establishment. Yes, even the Chinese wanted to see it.
Here’s the best image to sum up the differences: on the Mainland, I rarely saw a couple holding hands as they walked together down the street. In Macau, I saw two women holding hands, and one wore a T-shirt that pronounced, “All my bitches love me.” And she seemed to know exactly what it meant.
Lessons Learned: In the end, it wasn’t the freedoms or the food or the shopping that drew Mainlanders to Macau. It was the gambling. Just like their counterparts in the U.S., the Chinese have a weakness for roulette, cards, and dice. Maybe it’s a universal phenomenon. If so, that would mean when the Chinese invasion comes, it won’t be with rockets and bombs; it will be with a legal Internet poker game.
Mark H. Bloom is a published writer and editor originally from Salem, MA, aka The Witch City, where the locals encourage you to visit for a spell. Mark now resides in the scenic mountain town of Asheville, NC, where he no longer gambles. Instead, he entertains himself by writing creatively and professionally, editing books, and doing video work. Get in touch with Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.