Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Macau's 'Whore Wars' and other juicy morsels

I have yet to set foot in Macau since it became Las Vegas-by-the-sea-on-steroids, with its Wynns and losers, its shimmering Mirages and shifting Sands, its addled Adelson monuments to dubious taste and its massive, mounting stacks of cash. I prefer to recall the sleepy Portuguese enclave of yesteryear, a place of cheap wine and lunches that lingered, of pousadas and cobbles and decaying colonial charm, siestas, fiestas and gigantic garlic prawns.


LEAL SENADO SQUARE: MODELLED
AFTER JIANG ZEMIN'S COMBOVER
So many memories: jumping on the jetfoil at 3am on a whim after a long night in Wanchai, lazy feasts at Fernando's, DJ-ing in front of a crowd of almost 2,000 people at a crazed rave party and being given a hand-painted t-shirt by my one and only groupie (short, bad teeth and unfortunately male). I look back less fondly on a night spent in the emergency ward after some local lothario decided to assuage his jealous rage by smashing a heineken bottle over the head of one of my best friends.


My last trip to Macau was just before China gave the nod to get kitsch quick. Back when Stanley Ho was the only game in town, the Hotel Lisboa the ugliest edifice for miles, and instead of Cirque de Soleil there was just the circus of the Leal Senado, with its princelings and potentates and their port-soaked posturings. It was to the Lisboa that I was drawn for a story which originally appeared in Australian Playboy and the SCMP's Postmagazine, and which involved an altogether different species of 'ho'.


GET KITSCH QUICK
Pitched battles were erupting almost nightly between mainland Chinese prostitutes and their Eastern European rivals and between the gangs that ran them. At stake was the coveted hunting ground of the Lisboa. I spent several days skulking in shadows and doing my best impersonation of a John, fascinated by the ups and downs of the world's oldest profession, risking the wrath of gimlet-eyed pimps.


I still treasure the expense form I submitted upon completing the story … a pithy document requesting reimbursement for some thousands of Hong Kong dollars, painstakingly itemized, with each ledger entry simply stating 'prostitute'. Here is the story:


THEY venture out at dusk in packs, jackets flapping like bat wings as an icy wind roars out of the north. They swoop and chirp and chatter, sending out sonar pings as they swap notes on last night's pickings. And as blackness swallows the sleepy Portuguese enclave that recently became part of China, they are drawn to the nectar of the improbable rococo confection that is the Hotel Lisboa; a beacon of bad taste that eclipses the rest of Macau's dizzy neon free-for-all.

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT WARNED THEM
NOT TO TAKE THE ORANGE SUNSHINE
The Lisboa resembles a wedding cake mated with the mother ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You wonder what fevered acid flashback inspired its architect. You almost expect doe-eyed aliens to glide silently from its belly. Instead, I find sloe-eyed Vera and Katerina loitering near the side entrance, sporting scowls that might clot their mascara.

It's unseasonably cold for a spring evening. They'd like nothing better than to step inside, where it's warm and awash with cashed-up chumps. But they can't. Vera and Katerina come from Minsk, and have become unwitting combatants in Macau's 'Whore Wars'. It boils down to a triad turf skirmish. One faction of the powerful 14K gang controls the mainland Chinese prostitutes who flock down from the border and get the run of the fertile corridors inside the hotel and casino. Another gang has dibs on the lucrative trade in exotic ex-Soviets - many of whom, with their blonde manes, endless legs and strange accents are as alien to the locals as anything from Steven Spielberg's oeuvre. The Russians are permitted to trawl the dark lanes outside the Lisboa but must not dare cross its portal.

HOW MUCH FOR THE
PORTUGUESE BREAKFAST?
The result is a demilitarized zone of sorts, policed by pimps in cheap suits and huge tattoos. Sighs one veteran hotelier: 'Every so often you get some new girls who don't know the rules. They go inside the hotel and the shit really hits the fan. Cat fights. Scratches. Girls clobbering each other with mobile phones. Every so often there's a token crackdown and they round them all up, but it's always back to business as usual within a day or two.' Indeed, the world's oldest profession seems one of the few industries immune to the changes sweeping post-handover Macau. The tide of thugs kneecapping and shotgunning each other over casino rake-offs has been stemmed. The lugubrious Portuguese civil servants nodding off into plates of chorizo after three hour lunches have been replaced by local toadies. Even the gambling monopoly of Dr Stanley Ho, which long seemed carved in stone, is being dismantled. But prostitution thrives.

BIG PIMPIN': THE WORLD'S
TALLEST JOHN
One local journalist explains: 'In Macau, only pimping is illegal. So you find that hookers are extremely aggressive because they don't fear being caught. They will even wait outside the lifts in the Lisboa and when a man enters, they jump in with him.' Vera, 23, and Katerina, 25, don't seem that desperate tonight. They register at least four distinct expressions in the seconds after I approach them: Smiles. Calculation. Confusion. Hostility. When I explain my purpose is other than sexual, the shutters slam down. They might be young, but they are hard. After we settle upon suitable remuneration, they agree to answer some questions.

How long have they been in Macau? 'Three weeks'. How's tricks? 'Business is good'. What about the Chinese competition? 'Fucking bitches,' snarls Vera. 'They are not as beautiful as us,' sniffs Katerina, who has sky-blue eyes and golden hair swept up into an elaborate coiffure. 'Chinese men go crazy for us,' she adds, looking down at the fishnets criss-crossing her long slim legs. Groups of women, always in twos and threes, mostly blonde, drift past, hips swaying. 'It's safer in groups,' Katerina adds.

I SEE YOU BABY 
Same place, another night. I'm talking to Nadezhda. Tall, blonde (but with black roots), a former chemistry student from Vladivostok. She becomes more communicative after I fish a crisp HK$500 note from my wallet. I wonder if it's the most money she's ever made standing up. 'Come. It's safer to talk over here,' she says, leading me into the dank shadows beneath a flyover. The stale urine stink adds an acrid edge to the conversation. I ask her about the demilitarized zone and the mainlanders. 'Yes, it's true. They hate us and we hate them. That's just the way it is. They get the best places to work, but we are more beautiful than them.' Is it dangerous? She smiles. 'Are you joking? After Vladivostok, this is like heaven.' Nadezhda charges HK$1,000 to $3,000 a trick, depending on the customer and how many other girls are vying for attention. When her visa expires in a week, she plans to go and work in Bangkok and Japan, and then perhaps another crack at Macau.

NEIGH HO, NEIGH HO
IT'S OFF TO WORK WE GO
Inside the Lisboa after midnight, the dark heart of Dr Ho's empire is beating furiously. His monopoly on gambling in Macau stretches back decades and the oft-married Septuagenarian's vaguely spectral presence reaches into all corners of life here. The decor is equal parts ostentation and desperation; scuffed marble, dusty chandeliers and toilets where the paper is dispensed one sheet at a time. Bellhops in red lederhosen hover by the doors in search of tips, amid a swirling miasma of sweat, lust, fear and greed. The floor plan is circular - a fleshly carousel of feminine wiles. Round and round they go, trolling for tricks. I start to feel dizzy, the clickety-clack of high heels becoming hypnotic. Successful girls usher inebriated men into lifts. The rest set out on another lap. I can't manage to get a single one to speak to me.

DOES MY BUM LOOK
HORRORSHOW IN THIS?
Helen Kwok, the hotel's marketing manager, says she worries about the flagrant importuning of punters but 'there's not much we can do'. Local laws are toothless and there's too much money sloshing back into the economy for anyone to lose any sleep. One senior hotelier says Russian gangsters followed their countrywomen to the enclave, leading to dramatic and bloody shootouts between these interlopers and the local triads.

Feeling dirty and fed up with the whole scene, I retreat to my hotel's bar. All around are clusters of Slavic looking women, with heavy make-up and cheekbones that could slice you open. The Canadian band, straight-faced, strikes up Boney M's Rah Rah Rasputin. It's hard to tell if it's a rebuke or a salute.

12 comments:

  1. Great stuff. I have fond memories of the Lisboa in its heyday - the Hunter S. Thompson inspired carpets, the '70s Swedish skin flick panelling, and the completely unnecessary gilt trimmings everywhere. While the sexual carnage you describe so well was rampant round the hotel doors, there was a special "dance show" going on in the theater where the performers wore nude suits. Yes, that's body suits that made them look naked, complete with pasties and fuzzy felt pubes that covered their real bits. Good times.

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  4. One of my strongest memories from (post-handover) Macau, is of walking down an alley on the way to a Cantonese restaurant at 4am, and having to run the gamut of 50 hungry-eyed hookers. I was with Shane and Zenny. Shane - enlarged by an after-gig high - went quiet and actually moved closer to Zenny, and took her hand reflexively, as much for protection from the estrogen tsunami swamping us as to show he was off the menu. Under his breath and out of the side of his mouth he said "Can you feel that?" Yes I bloody could. For the length of that alley we were nothing but fresh meat being stripped from the bone by scores of dark predatory eyes. One of the girls was dressed like a Victorian doll complete with ruffles and stockings, and walked across our path with a theatrical air of feigned purity, in utter contrast to the murderous sexuality assualting us.

    At the end of the alley was a crazy-eyed Russian, standing legs apart with arms folded like a sex hardened soldier, and several kinds of corruption in her hundred yard stare. She planted herself directly in front of us and mowed us down with her eyes. We had to change direction to walk around her. She never moved. It was one of the most bizarre few minutes of my adult life.

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  5. Great stuff Ken ... it's a weird old place all right. Flesh that out for sojourneyman

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