Macau: Background information when reading The Ballad of a Small Player

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The Ballad of a Small Player

by Lawrence Osborne

The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2014, 272 pages
    Jan 2015, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

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Macau Penha HillLike Hong Kong, Macau (also spelled Macao) is a "Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China" (SAR), but is a fraction of its size - about 28 sq km, (11 sq miles) compared to Hong Kong's 1,100 sq km. The terrain is mostly flat and has a humid, subtropical climate. It is located approximately 40 miles west of Hong Kong, borders the South China Sea to the south and east, and China, specifically Guangdong Province, to the north. It consists of Macau Peninsula and the islands of Taipa and Coloane, and is a very dense urban landscape. Only 2% of Macau's land area is cultivated.

According to the CIA World Factbook, it is estimated that Macau will have a population of approximately 588,000 people in July 2014. By then, roughly 92% of the population will be made up of people of Chinese ethnicity, and a little under 8% will fall into the rather nondescript "other" category, which includes people of Macanese ethnicity – people of mixed Portuguese and Asian heritage.

In the 1500s Portuguese traders and merchants settled in Macau, making it the first European settlement in the Far East. In 1557, the Chinese empire (the Ming Dynasty) rented Macau to Portugal as a trading port. It was run by the Portuguese under Chinese authority for over 300 years, until December 1, 1887, when Macau became an official colony of Portugal. (Interesting fact: The Portuguese are responsible for bringing chili peppers to Asia and thus introducing the spicy fruit to Sichuan cuisine.)

Ruins of St. PaulIn an agreement signed by China and Portugal in 1987 – the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration - sovereignty would be transferred back to China in 1999, and Macau would become a "Special Administrative Region" of China. Under this "one country, two systems" arrangement, Macau maintains autonomy in all matters except foreign affairs and defense, and will continue to do so for 50 years; as does the former British colony of Hong Kong which was returned to China two years earlier in 1997 following the expiration of Britain's 99-year lease.

Because of Portugal's strong ties to Macau, it is very common to see a European influence in the culture, architecture, and food. Some of the most popular tourist attractions have western features, such as the wave-patterned mosaic of colored stones in Senado Square, the Ruínas de São Paulo, the remains of a Jesuit cathedral built in Macau in 1602, or any number of courtyards and buildings in Macau's plazas.

Macau CasinosThe economy of Macau depends largely on tourism and gambling with the majority of visitors coming from either mainland China or Hong Kong. According to the CIA World Factbook, "Since opening up its locally-controlled casino industry to foreign competition in 2001, Macau has attracted tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment, transforming the territory into one of the world's largest gaming centers… By 2006, Macau's gaming revenue surpassed that of the Las Vegas strip, and gaming-related taxes accounted for more than 70% of total government revenue." The currency of Macau, the pataca, is "closely tied to the Hong Kong dollar, which is also freely accepted in the territory."

Macau CasinoIn addition to gambling and tourism, Macau's economy depends on the export of clothing, textiles, electronics, footwear, and toys. The CIA Factbook explains, "Macau continues to face the challenges of managing its growing casino industry, risks from money-laundering activities, and the need to diversify the economy away from heavy dependence on gaming revenues." In 2013, the economy expanded by more than 10%, and as of January 2014, Macau entered into the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with mainland China, which "facilitates trade in services, including finance health, social services, sports, and tourism."

Macau Penha Hill taken by WiNG.
St. Paul's ruins taken by Whhalbert.
Casino in Macau taken by Diego Delso.
Casinos in Macau taken by Photnart.

Article by Elena Spagnolie

This article was originally published in April 2014, and has been updated for the January 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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