Strolling through a supermarket in a quiet, tourist-free residential neighbourhood of Macau over the weekend, I saw shelves of drinks, packs of toilet paper and, in the hardware section, safes. Small, hotel-room safes, medium-size safes, and huge safes you would need a pick-up truck to carry away. The weirdest thing was the price: a decent-size one suitable for an adequate stash of bullion goes for just HK$1,999, which can’t be a huge amount more than the box’s scrap metal value.
Meanwhile, in a nearby bookstore, something at the other end of the spectrum of price-to-usefulness ratios: the Encyclopedia of One Country Two Systems. No fewer than 2,700 entries (apparently), totaling 180,000 characters, indexed by Pinyin, brush-stroke number and category. A labour of love, no doubt. It is all about 1C2S as the concept applies to Macau, a city with a population just one-fourteenth that of Hong Kong. Presumably, our own One Country Two Systems Research Institute is still working on the Big Lychee’s version, which will be even more challenging to transport than one of those safes.
The highlight of the weekend was a concert by the Macau Orchestra. An innocent bystander might think that, being smaller than, say, Shatin, Macau probably doesn’t have a very good orchestra, if one at all. It is fair to say that the ensemble does not exactly rank as one of the world’s greatest, but never underestimate the spending power of the Macau government when it tries desperately to boost the seedy little town’s non-casino cultural attractions. They have, after all, museums devoted to wine, postal services, fire services, the grand prix, antique electronics, Lin Zexu and handover gifts. The troupe has a full complement of mostly Mainland and Eastern European musicians, who play with gusto.
The concert, Reflections of the National Spirit, was about as corny as you can get: Vaughan Williams, Copland and Bartok (and, for no extra charge, Samuel Barber’s inevitable Adagio), though – interestingly – no musical embodiment of the wondrous Great Wall or Sons of the Yellow Emperor. It was partly an opportunity to see inside the modest but charming Dom Pedro V Theatre, which was built in 1860 and must have seen its share of Portuguese petit-aristocratic finery in its colonial heyday.
Which brings us to the exquisite bit. The highlight of the evening (not counting the female viola player whose twisted ankle required her to valiantly hop on and off the stage) was Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No 5. The one that’s so well-known Joan Baez did it. Scored for eight cellos (they borrowed a few) and a soprano, it is essentially late 19th Century Rio de Janeiro street music done in the style of Bach, and perfect for an evening in a faded, sub-tropical, once-Lusitanian backwater.