Sex and fate in Macau

Inspired by a sidewalk fortuneteller, Rolf Potts tries his luck at an erotic cabaret in this Portuguese colony, which will soon be transferred to Chinese rule.

By Rolf Potts
January 21, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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A man who has just spent the last five minutes tailing me down the narrow, cobblestone side streets of Macau has finally managed to block my path. This is my first good look at him, and he seems somehow otherworldly -- his skin a very deep brown, his bristly hair so black it almost looks blue. Were he wearing a turban or a toga or a grass skirt, I might be able to place him -- but in Nike tennis shoes, a white T-shirt and Levi's cutoffs, he looks just plain unusual. He simply doesn't fit into any demographic I've ever seen in American casual wear.

"Sir," he says, catching his breath, "you are in very grave danger."


This is certainly a titillating notion, but I'm not nearly old, rich or remote enough to merit grave danger. Skeptical, I wait for the punch line -- figuring he's probably selling some sort of skin lotion, jade figurine or tourist road map that will save the day.

The strange man leans in confidentially. "I can help you," he whispers. "I can see the future." He looks almost embarrassed as he says this, looking down shyly at his Nikes.


Bemused by his faltering professionalism and impressed that anyone dressed like John McEnroe would try to pass himself off as a fortuneteller, I give in and offer him $5 for a quick summary of my doom. Not moving from where we're standing, he drops to his haunches, spreads some papers out in front of him and asks me the time and date of my birth. I give him the information, and he makes some calculations, scribbling figures onto his paper.

"Very recently you made a promise," he says. "It is important that you make this promise true before you leave Macau, or you will get very sick."

"I can't remember making any promises," I tell him, figuring he's just playing the odds.


The man looks at his papers and shakes his head. "You made a promise that you must keep."

"Sorry," I shrug.

He looks at me solemnly. "Maybe it was a promise to yourself."

As he says this, a nervous pang leaps into my stomach, because -- fate or no fate, doom or no doom -- he's right.


I suddenly realize that I will have no choice but to end my night by attending a sex cabaret near my hotel.

Actually, I'm not even sure if the Guia Nightclub cabaret is a sex show.
But considering that the promotional poster hanging outside the building
features a lineup of male and female performers wearing nothing but grim
grins and leather underwear, I can't imagine what else it would be.

When I walked by that poster this morning, I impulsively vowed to myself
that I would attend a performance later. I make such pointless vows all
the time -- a holdover from the days when, as a third-grader, I would
swear not to step on any sidewalk cracks on the way home from school.
As with my third-grade days, I usually forget about these promises
within a matter of hours.


Unfortunately, my Nike-shod seer has just eliminated that luxury from
this situation. As he gives me my money's worth with sundry
predictions about my future wife and children, my mind races with
possible alternative theatrical uses for leather underwear.

Once he's gone, I realize I don't know where I am. This is not a
problem. Being lost in Macau is like being lost in the Louvre or Narita
airport or the Mall of America: Eventually, I will turn a corner and
not be lost any more. After all, this small peninsula on the western
mouth of the Pearl River estuary covers only about 6 square miles, and
it's hard to ever find yourself more than a mile or so from the gambling
district, the harbor or China.


This is why -- while riding the jet foil over from Hong Kong yesterday --
I circled the major attractions on my Macau tourist map and memorized them,
then threw the map away. Trying to seek out highlights from that 45-minute cram session has lent a quirky sense of discovery to my walking
tour. At times, trying to decide where I want to go next has been like
trying to recall a dream five minutes after waking up.

This contrived disorientation has made my stroll through the old
neighborhoods of Macau wonderfully visceral. The cobblestone streets
here wind past wooden-shuttered homes that have been painted over in
mustard yellows, lime greens, deep reds and pale pinks. Narrow,
laundry-draped iron balconies gird the back alleys, and small,
fruit-laden Chinese altars perch the storefronts below, hazy with
incense smoke. All the little boys here, it seems, own BMX dirt bikes;
all the beautiful young women ride straight-backed on mopeds, coifed in
plastic-visored safety helmets. All the old Chinese men wear
souring T-shirts and sit bare-kneed on wooden chairs, watching TV and
fanning themselves; the old Chinese women sell oranges on the street.
There is a displaced Mediterranean mood here that I haven't experienced
since I visited New Orleans.

Taking my bearings, I head uphill on the cobblestones, sensing that I am
nearing the old stone fortress that overlooks the city. From there, I
should be able to find my way back to the Guia Nightclub. The sun has
already started to go down, so I figure I'd better get started if I want
to appropriately prevent my doom.

I am not the only one with danger in my stars these days. On Dec. 20,
this tiny colony will be handed over to China after 442 years of
Portuguese control. As with Hong Kong two years ago, many seers have
predicted a dark fate for the people of Macau when the communist Chinese
take over. Lisbon has already expressed concern with the Chinese plan
to base troops in the territory shortly after the handover.


Political anxieties aside, however, the hilltop Sao Paulo Monte fortress
is a vision of serenity as I climb the stone battlements at sundown. In
the grass at the foot of the west wall, an old Chinese man is playing a
stringed instrument that resembles a croquet mallet. The music is
twangy, but subtle; peaceful. As if in rhythm to the music, another
Chinese man is going through the deliberate motions of tai-chi, wearing
nothing but boxer shorts and a tank top. I took him for a vagrant at
first -- before I noticed his business suit neatly folded and sitting on
a bench nearby.

In a grassy courtyard on top of the fortress, a family badminton game is
in its waning stages. Every missed shot in the fading light yields a
chorus of giggles from the participants, who for some reason are all
wearing identical yellow ball caps. A stray yellow-capped kid has
wandered from the game and is perched on one of the huge cannons that
line the fortress wall. Three hundred fifty years ago, these cannons defended Macau's
outer harbor from pirates and Dutch invaders. These days, the cannons
are loaded with the castoff garbage of picnickers.

Directly within the firing-line of these cannons stands the famous Hotel
Lisboa Casino -- a symbol of both prosperity and problems for Macau. My
map-less wanderings took me there last night, and I lingered for over an
hour in the high-stakes blackjack and baccarat rooms, where sleepy-eyed
Hong Kong businessmen impassively placed wagers bigger than my annual
income. On street level, the back lobby brimmed with prostitutes --
Chinese and Russian, Filipina and Slavic -- all of them made-up and
mini-skirted, pacing with contrived nonchalance, ready to intercept
hotel-bound high-rollers.

Despite recent efforts to reform Macau into a family-friendly "Asian Las
Vegas" (a marine park and wax museum are in the works), gambling and
prostitution remain the top tourist draws. Correspondingly, triad gang
violence is Macau's only consistent international news item. Sixteen people
were killed here in mob-related activities in 1997, and the violence has
intensified as the handover date approaches. According to a small item
in this morning's newspaper, a security guard found an undetonated
Soviet-made hand grenade near the Hotel Lisboa taxi stand about 14 hours
before I showed up.


Following the horizon to the left from the Lisboa, I spot Guia Lighthouse
perched atop a granite hill overlooking the casino district. Built in
1865, it is said to be the oldest lighthouse on the Chinese coast. Its
image is one of the official symbols of Macau, and appears on the
one-pataca coin. Though I doubt the similarly named sex cabaret will
ever appear on the local money, it is located a mere stone's throw from
the more famous landmark. Orienting myself by the lighthouse, I abandon
the fortress and start down the hill.

I am starting to get nervous about the cabaret show. Though in theory I
firmly believe there's nothing wrong with a little red-blooded voyeurism,
I never manage to fully enjoy myself at go-go bars and strip clubs.
Somehow, I can never look at the dancing girls without wondering how
strange and absurd male sexuality must seem to them. Without the
influence of certain hormones, striptease is nothing but dadaist ballet
-- an inconsequential disrobing set to music: theater of the mundane.
Even a full-on sex show is -- at its most basic essence -- nothing more
than a couple of people doing their job. Thinking about this tends to
ruin all sense of fantasy for me, leaving me about as titillated as a
spectator at the drive-through window of a Burger King. Thus, I fear that
I'm about to spend a lot of money just to feel uncomfortable for an hour
or so.

The walk to Guia Nightclub is not as simple as it seemed from the
fortress, and I arrive there late in the evening. As I approach the
front door, I notice three police cars parked in front. A tuxedo-clad
Chinese man who appears to work for the nightclub is talking with
several police officers outside. He doesn't seem to be arguing, but his
grin is forced -- as if he learned to smile from his own nightclub
promotional posters.

Taking a deep breath, I walk into the nightclub, secretly hoping the
police have shut the place down for the rest of the week. Past the
foyer, I peer into a dimly lit room of tables. It is completely empty.
The only soul I see inside the nightclub is the evening-gowned female
ticket-taker, who acts a bit startled when I walk up to her window.


"Is the show canceled?" I ask her.

"No," she says. "We still have show."

"But where are all the people?"

She points over to a staircase and I head downstairs. I am secretly
convinced that the only other souls who could possibly come here tonight
would be a creepy lineup of regulars. However, instead of finding a
handful of vacant-eyed lechers, I go downstairs to discover a dozen or
so Southeast Asians in their 20s. They are all dressed in sweats and
T-shirts, and they chat casually with each other at tables near the
front. Grateful for the buffer, I take a seat in the back.

Sitting in my dark nook, I finally begin to relax. Up by the stage, the
young Southeast Asians joke and flirt with each other, and I am
encouraged by their nonchalant mood. The simple curiosity that struck
me when I saw the nightclub poster this morning is starting to come
back. I even feel a bit sheepish for ever having felt nervous about
coming here.

Perhaps the encounter with the Nike fortuneteller really was fate.
Perhaps the "sickness" he was talking about merely referred to anxiety.
Perhaps this is a sign for me to embrace impulse and reject my

As I am thinking this to myself, the ticket-window lady comes downstairs
and says I owe her $50. Before I even have a chance to bargain with
her, she whirls around and starts barking orders at the
Southeast Asians. The room empties out in a matter of seconds, and I
realize with a sudden start that the carefree kids at the
front of the room were the exact same crew I saw grinning out at me from
the Guia Nightclub promotional poster. The ticket lady flips a switch,
and vents along the wall begin to blast cold air. Techno dance music
begins to thump out from the sound system.

I am the only customer here.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Of all the forces that regulate my life, cowardice is certainly the
most efficient. I am standing on the Guia Lighthouse hilltop, yet it
seems like just an instant ago that I first felt the panicked urge to
flee the Guia Nightclub.

As with the nightclub, I am the only person here. The lighthouse
viewing deck features a spotting scope, and I am slowly scanning the
city for signs of life. All I can find is a smattering of yellow-lit
rooms and slow-moving cars, but I can appreciate the quiet dullness of
it all.

Perhaps it is the yellow-lit rooms and slow-moving cars of
moment-by-moment existence that hint toward the only real fate: a
mundane sort of un-fate, actually, that buoys our lives as we
continually look around for something that we can call destiny.

In a few months, these yellow-lit rooms and slow-moving cars will become
a part of communist China -- but sometimes it's best to ignore the dark
warnings and simply hope for the best.

I did, and it has already saved me $50.

Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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