Meet Me in Macau

I set my first novel in Macau for a number of reasons that seemed obvious to me at the time but seemed to confuse almost everyone else I pitched the story to. Then again people who buy thrillers (and espionage in particular) are discerning readers who demand a higher standard in facts and figures so here’s the who, what, where, and why on Macau.

What is Macau? Macau is a Special Administrative Region of China (SAR) that joined the Republic in 1999 at the conclusion of the treaty between China and Portugal. Like the former British colony of Hong Kong it operates on a one country, two systems principle that aims to preserve the distinctive aspects of Macanese law and culture while still making it a part of the China state. Back in 1995, when The Coercion Game is set, the handover date is starting to loom large in everyone’s mind but perhaps not as large as the handover date for Hong Kong (1997). Anyone who remembers that period will recall a lot of hysteria about the encroaching Chinese menace and the prospects of economic collapse in Hong Kong and the wider region.

Where is Macau? It’s a peninsula and island network near the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, situated about 37 miles southwest of HK and 90 from Guangzhou in China. It’s always been deeply connected with trading and the sea and the name ‘Macau’ is derived from the Temple of A-Ma, goddess of fishermen. The present and technically more correct Chinese name for Macau is “Àomén” (澳門) which translates as either ‘Bay Gate’ or ‘Inlet Gates’.  A quick tour around of the place to see the many docks and small jetties confirms the essential truth of that name.

Who are the Macanese? The peninsula was settled by Portuguese traders in the sixteenth century and became a trading port, originally as a safe harbor to berth their ships, and later gaining the right to erect structures on shore, then the Fort, and finally run the place. Their descendants have a unique blend of Portuguese food and customs with the best of classically Chinese cuisine. You can choose between pan de leite, pork buns, or noodles as you wish. There’s also a local language (Patuá) that reflects that blend but realistically Cantonese and Portuguese are the most commonly spoken languages. The closer you get to the casinos the more English you’ll hear as well. That blend of mercantile spirit and its position across the historic border with China means that today Macau actually brings in more gambling money than Vegas.

When is the story set? I set The Coercion Game in nineteen-ninety five because it’s a key year for Macau. There’s a definite escalation in Triad violence, the old weather station at the Fortaleza do Monte becomes a museum, and the authorities stepped up their efforts to clear up crime and corruption in Macau before the handover. The airport in Macau starts flying to Europe as well, rather than just the Asian region, although at this time most travelers would have gone to Hong Kong for international flights.

So why did I pick Macau? Well the story of the Umbra Sumus arc is that there are people out there who were deeply concerned about the decline of western influence balanced against realists who wanted to move on into the modern world. Macau was the perfect setting for that story, contrasting the student riots of 1966 with the fallout from Portugal’s own transition to democracy following the overthrow of the Estado Novo dictatorship in 1974.

It’s this potent blend of cultures, people, and the transition from one order to another that makes Chris Lee’s job that much harder in The Coercion Game. MB.