Fate over the long weekend led me to a leper colony.
I recall an old colleague some time in the late 1980s enthusing about a trip to Macau. Her party had done a very popular thing at that time and hired a Mini Moke, a little car that looked like a hybrid of a jeep and a golf cart. These were the days when Sleaze City was officially designated as ‘sleepy’ and traffic was light; it was the height of adventurousness to cross the narrow causeway between Taipa and Coloane islands – now surrounded by the reclamation housing the Venetian and other gaudy mega-casinos – to explore. They had a great time, she said, except that at one stage they got lost and accidentally drove into this small, isolated village where people with lumpy faces and missing fingers came out to stare before she and her companions reversed out and fled.
Over 20 years after making a mental note to check it out, I finally visited. It is now abandoned and semi-dilapidated, and screaming out to be renovated as some sort of luxury bohemian free-love pottery-and-beads handicrafts settlement. Set on a wooded hillside on the east coast of Coloane, it is a gently curving strip of five concrete bungalows with verandas. Each has two rooms of around 10-12 feet square, complete with a corner toilet in a waist-high partition. The cells are quite light, with windows on three sides and a front and back door. Ample space for vegetable patches at the rear. If they each housed a single leper, they would have been quite pleasant. At the far end of the village is what was probably an administrative centre and clinic; beyond that is Our Lady of Sorrows, a practical A-frame 1960s church.
The admin building, still partially in use, looks like it dates from the 1930s; the bungalows were probably built a bit later, possibly on the foundations of earlier structures (their stone podiums have filled-in cellar windows). This is guesswork: in keeping with the fear and social stigma surrounding the disease, there are few details about the place. According to its official history, the local Rotary Club helped provide a reservoir in the 1960s. (It also mentions a nearby juvenile reformatory, which seems to live on in a more up-to-date guise in the village of Ka Ho; other undesirable facilities dumped on the neighbourhood include a cement works and scrap metal yards – though Macau seems to have more of the latter than it has casinos.)
Where have the lepers gone? Not far. The modern(ish) old people’s home at the south of the colony (up from the entrance from the road) seems to house them.
We would all like to say that we have been to one of these mysterious and frightening places. It’s one of those useful things you can drop into the conversation when someone at a dinner party starts to go on a bit about whether Tiger Woods’ family problems will affect his game: “You know I was wondering exactly the same thing the other day when I was over at the leper colony.”
So how do you get to this one? By the standards of compact little Macau, it’s actually quite difficult to access. They put it here for a reason. The key is Ka Ho (九澳) village, which has an occasional bus service and which taxi drivers know. It is within walking distance of the Westin resort, though you probably wouldn’t want to go both ways on foot, and certainly not on a hot day – this is Macau’s alpine district. Or maybe they still have Mini Mokes.
Nice view of the airport runway too.