Most Hongkongers are familiar with the ferry ride to Macau from the Shun Tak Centre in Central or from Harbour City in Kowloon. Some may even be aware of the forthcoming service to Sleazeville from Tuen Mun in the New Territories. But how many know about the Wanchai-Macau route?
It is a long way from the airline-style, air-conditioned, 70-minute journey across the Pearl River Delta. The boat is a small, single-deck version of the Star Ferry, with hard benches and no windows; the trip takes less than five minutes, and a return ticket costs just HK$20.
The explanation lies in China’s unfortunate poverty of place names. Pick one of a dozen or so adjectives (above/below, east/west/north/south, black/white, sandy/woody, etc) and a similar number of nouns (hill, lake, river, field, market, etc), and it seems you can put a label to most towns in the Middle Kingdom. There being no shortage of small bays along the coast, it is hardly surprising that there is a Wanchai not only on Hong Kong Island but just across the water to the west of peninsular Macau.
Is it worth a detour? If you like that kind of thing. The small town – essentially a suburb of Zhuhai – is a dusty, mainly ramshackle, semi-developing old fishing settlement. Once you cross the gleaming waterfront reclamation road, you find several main streets with a bit of action going on, including the usual tree-lined strips of sidewalk fruit sellers, hardware stores and grimy houses that typify glorious old Cantoland. It is hard to believe that gleaming Sin City is just a few hundred yards away.
The really authentic, crumbling bits are being demolished. (Zhuhai is ceding a piece of land just south of here to Macau for a university campus and plans to create a casino-free tourism hellhole next to that, so see it while it lasts.) Denizens of Lockhart Road will be interested to know that booming disco music was playing behind the blue door down an otherwise deserted and uninhabited alleyway. But there is more to this place than meets the eye.
The ‘signage’ hints at a rich history full of dark secrets. Termites and rats destroyed. Sexually transmitted disease cured. Missing person sought. Drugs will ruin your life. Whole donkey banquet. And a wide variety of other exotic and no doubt succulent and tasty meats (plus more donkey if you want) available.
Some of these offer a clue about Wanchai’s current role. Just south of the traditional town centre are two exciting themed concept hub areas: Seafood Street and Macau Street. The first is a long strip of stalls selling fish, mollusks and crustaceans, facing a similar strip of bring-your-own marine wildlife restaurants. The deal is that as you buy your wriggling, splashing lunch, rival girls tug, beg and plead with you to enter their establishment to have it prepared.
(Those aren’t really pink worms – just things that look like pink worms.)
Macau Street has a selection of shops selling those nasty powdery almond cookies Mainlanders buy as souvenirs of their visit to the former Portuguese colony. It also has an approximate, small-scale version of the famous St Paul’s façade. Just round the corner is a warehouse packed full of dried seafood stalls – all selling an identical range of salt fish, fins and artificially coloured preserved prawns and conpoy. Back on the waterfront, tour buses line up so people can join the round-Macau cruise – a seaborne trip down past the casinos, around Coloane and up to the other side of the gambling city for a closer view of the tower and the grotesque New Lisboa hotel, both clearly visible from here.
In other words, this little town has become a destination for Mainlanders who would like to visit Macau proper but do not have the exit visas and money required, and who will make do with a bit of extreme Canto-cuisine instead. A place for people who might be hard-up financially and unsuccessful in life, but at least they’re enjoying themselves. Does that remind us of somewhere?