Macau Pow: The Punch of the Hotel Lisboa
The genius of the hotel is that it performs several functions simultaneously. It shelters, nourishes, becalms, entertains, and replenishes, all at once. Historically, restaurant culture and tourism grew out of the hotel, not the other way around. The modern hotel, girdling the planet in ever-larger chains, is a microcosm of all the things that human beings want when they are liberated from the chains of sedentary domesticity — including the comforts of sedentary domesticity.
While I am in Asia, I am often based in Bangkok. The city has the best hotels in the world, but there is one thing they lack. Gambling is illegal in Thailand, and so to find a hotel that includes baccarat or poker in its list of amenities, you are well-advised to head to Macau. While writing my book Bangkok Days, I discovered the Hotel Lisboa, the most profitable hotel casino in the world and the personal creation of octogenerian Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho, ballroom dancer extraordinaire and Asia’s richest wine collector. To judge by the décor of the Lisboa, Ho is mad. It looks like an orange meringue pie, scrambled with a vast tit. No matter. The rooms are wonderfully vulgar, dejected punters on losing streaks can get “hot-cold” blow jobs in the sauna, and there are antique jade galleons for sale in the lobby. By now, I have a standard routine when staying there.
I sleep all day, of course. The hotel is perfectly designed to elide night and day. At eight p.m., exactly, I put on my darkest suit and take the elevator down from the seventh floor of the hotel. It is the hour of the “second shift,” and the revolving doors turn like turbines as crowds from the Chinese mainland pour through them and hurl themselves towards the labyrinth of casinos scattered throughout the hotel. Seven million dollars a day in revenues. I always feel that I am making a grand exit every time I leave my suite and descend to the casinos. I am ready to play Asia’s favorite game, baccarat, at smoky tables of fourteen players in conditions of superstition-fueled hysteria, regulated only by electronic boards (one for each table), which indicate the way the winds of Fortune are blowing. This is an I Ching hotel, dominated by superstition, mystery, irrational calculation.
In the elevator, we meet the mainlanders. Brutal factory managers with rubella faces and cheap suits who smoke continuously, their eyes little lusty slits that suck everything in and spit it out again. The women in white cowboy boots and sequined jeans. Trashy, but weirdly sexy. They don’t exactly look like they are having fun, not in our robust occidental sense. They look like they are out to scalp the world. This is life and death fun, after all — Chinese fun — and it is not fun unless you are winning more money than you make every week working at the Shenzen paper clip factory that enslaves you. On the ground floor, they stand by the Throne of Pharoah, a reproduction chair from Tutankhamen’s tomb, and a large vertical oil painting with its title provided: La Mere Abandonee. A woman with a lyre sighing over a baby sleeping in a wheeled carriage. What do they make of such things?
The Chinese know all about suffering. But this scene of rural misery from nineteenth century France does not arouse their curiosity at all. They turn their backs to it as they wait for the elevators. Is it “bourgoise?” They carry bags of gaming chips and cans of winter melon tea. Their breath smells of oyster sauce. I buy a cigar in the underground mall filled with Piaget watch stores and shark fin vendors and go back up to the biggest of the casinos to start my night dancing with the goddess of luck, Guan Yin. This in-house casino is called the Mona Lisa. I’ve noticed that Guan Yin and Mona Lisa have the same, faint, slightly sinister smile.
As it happens I am very interested in the goddess Guan Yin. In India, she used to be a he, and his name was Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion. The Chinese, like the Thais, turned her into a goddess and associated her with luck, even gambling luck. Her image is everywhere at the Lisboa, serene and all-knowing. Her name is translated as “she who listens to the sounds of the world.” But will she make me lucky as I gamble my nights away inside this psychotic hotel which acts as her shrine?
The Lisboa is a remarkable hotel in the way that it synthesizes many human cravings. Nothing is judged, nothing is unavailable. It purrs like a great machine of human pleasure. It’s certainly novel to be able to go straight from your room to your in-house casino with a cigar and brandy in hand without committing a crime.
I play Fish-Prawn-Crab dice for an hour, then baccarat, forgetting myself completely. In Asia, it’s the baccarat punto banco variety, not chemin de fer, so it’s a game of absolutely zero skill and pure chance with only small odds in the House’s favor. It’s a fast, high-wire game that grates on the emotions. The game of kings and princes remodeled for the Chinese mass market.
After the predictable disasters, I move off down the elevators to the Crystal Palace, another casino. It is like descending into an ice grotto. Waves of glass shards fall from the ceilings in shades of green and orange. I lose and lose. At $100 HK a hand it’s easy to lose hundreds in a few minutes. From there I navigate in total solitude to the Club Triumph and the Lisboa Hou Kat, a place that has a secretive feel to it, like a buried palace in Crete from the time of Linear B, with a circular room of leather sofas and tangerine trees with good luck envelopes. The Chinese seem to have a mastery of intricate secrecy; the Lisboa is a vertical honeycomb which confuses one’s innate sense of privacy.
At the top of the Lisboa lie what are called the VIP rooms. These are a labyrinth of small high-stakes “pits” arranged around atriums, corridors, and gardens of their own. It is a world apart. Inside the rooms of the Neptune or the Fortuna, or dozens of others, you see startling apparitions. Old men with scarred faces smoking cigarillos behind rope cordons as they play alone, young gangsters in sharkskin suits and Tiffany rings, lounging on Louis XV sofas, portraits of English aristocrats on the walls rendered by Chinese artists, their eyes and noses weirdly misrepresented. Some of the rooms could have been lifted out of Casanova’s Venice, with baccarat replacing faro. There are grated fires and sashed curtains. The fires are real.
Elsewhere reproduction Renoirs loom on the walls. Bright red armchairs seem to have dropped out of the surrounding Alma-Tadema paintings of ancient Rome. Laughing maidens gamboling down flowery slopes. Here, in the four innermost rooms, the bets are a minimum of 10,000 up to a maximum of two million. Three plays at a time, usually, and there is a separate entrance leading into the hotel so that the high-rollers are encouraged to roll right out of bed and into the VIP rooms with sleep in their eyes.
You go here when you want to lose a lot of money, and you don’t mind losing a lot of money. I will go here at midnight or later, when I know I won’t mind the biting losses, and I will sit with a bad brandy or a tumbler of Royal Stag Indian whiskey and play 1,000 HK hands with the thugs.
As I am the only gwai lo there, I am treated as an oddity, but I can count in Cantonese, and I can therefore play in that unspeakable language. I can therefore lose quickly, to cries of “Zaau gei!” Because the hotel admits virtually no natural light, I quickly lose all sense of time and place. I am inside Stanley Ho’s ego, not to mention my own, and this makes it an expensive place in which to idle.
How expensive is a night at the Lisboa? Well, that depends on what you consider indispensable and how bad your luck is. Either way, the hotel caters to you. If you lose everything, you can go down to the Noite e Dia café in the circular basement mall and drink a cup of Ovaltine, served by girls in grey leather capes. You can gaze at the relojherias and the Mongolian tarts who won’t have you and wait for the dog races to come on at 7 a.m. It isn’t as bad as losing in Las Vegas. If you win a lot, on the other hand, you can go to the lobby and buy a Chinese seismograph or a gilded peacock from Garraud’s of London. Or for that matter, a jade figure of Guan Yin herself. If you win so badly that you are suicidal, you can do what I do: go for a late dinner at the Robuchon outlet on the sixth floor.
There, a mushroom soup appears, combining almonds, berries, purple gorse flowers and pieces of blossoming thyme. On the ceiling, “stars” come on, flickering on and off like a night sky, and I order a bottle of Kweichow Mountain 1927, the most expensive Chinese wine ever made. True, this makes the whole experience entirely unaffordable and therefore worthwhile. But then again, the Lisboa is horribly vulgar, and so am I. Sometimes, one needs a hotel that matches one’s worst, not one’s better side. The Lisboa is my perfect match. The rooms are pretty good, too.
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