The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

“There is no politics quite as vicious as academic politics…” —Kissinger (apocryphal)

While on vacation in Laos, I got word that one of my old professors was denied tenure and will not be teaching at Columbia anymore. I didn’t have much of a relationship with him, and I’m sure he has no clue who I am. Yet to my surprise, the news really affected me.

This week I am going to apply to a new Princeton-in-Asia post, and I’ve had to think about that whole future thing. I’ve always wanted to do some combination of teaching, writing, and saving the world, and being a professor always appealed me. I guess it still does to a certain extent. But…

when Owen Gutfreund, a fifty-one-year-old expert on urban sprawl and the director of the Urban Studies program at Columbia, was denied tenure, it reminded me how ruthless academia is. Not only was he the director of the department who had been at Columbia for over a decade, he wrote a “groundbreaking” and accessible book on sprawl—which, out of modesty, he didn’t assign to his classes—as well as countless academic articles. On the one hand, his lectures were packed, and on the other, he loved to talk with students one-on-one. While I was waiting for a slice of pizza, he overheard me talking about a couple of urban studies classes, and he quizzed me about my experiences. He really cared about his program, and he listened to my blathering with genuine interest.

Professor Gutfreund is married, middle-aged man who has no idea where he’s going to be next year. He’s done everything he could as an instructor, administrator, and a scholar. I’m sure Owen won’t become some invisible adjunct for the rest of his career, but still, he has to uproot his family (if he has one) and face an unknown future. For someone so involved with local urban issues, it will be hard for him to leave New York.

There’s a glut of cheap labor with Ph.Ds in the liberal arts, and, with a dwindling number of jobs, universities can take for granted the fact that they can keep hiring accomplished lecturers for low-pay. I’m sure Owen’s replacement will also be talented and wonderful. That is until they also refuse to award him/her tenure.

Hey, who ya callin’ an oxymoron?

Macau is a spatial oxymoron. It’s relaxing and stressful, elegant and tacky, sleepy and exciting—as W.H. Auden put it, it’s a real “Portugal-cum-China oddity.”

The first day in Macau we explored the center city by following the Lonely Planet’s recommended walking tour. It took us to all the main sites on Macau’s hilly, cobbled streets: the old Portuguese fort that overlooks the city, the remains of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and past a delicious gelato place. After these cool but touristy sites, the book reads something like, “and you might want to walk around this area of town.” This was one of the more interesting parts of Macau, and yet, all the tourists had disappeared. I guess mainland tourists don’t use Lonely Planet. We wandered around abandoned buildings, construction sites, and fancy hotels. At one point, we were even followed by a particularly cute stray dog.

That night, we went to the casinos. Our favorite was undoubtedly the Grand Lisboa, which is supposed to look a 44 story lotus but looks more like the hilt of giant, neon sword—one that might’ve been designed for Liberace. At the bottom of the casino is a 4-story, neon Easter Egg that advertises coffee shops. I don’t know the architects, but I’d let them remodel my bathroom. Inside of the Grand Lisboa, all the walls are covered with ornate gold trim, there’s a nine million U.S. dollar Qing dynasty horse head, and there are massive chandeliers made of hundreds and thousands of crystals. But what really made the casino was the baccarat. I still don’t know the rules, but after seeing a table with a typo, we just had to bet on “Palyer.”

After doubling our money by betting on the typo, we headed to another of Stanley Ho’s casinos across the street, the Casino Lisboa. Though jam-packed with thousands of people, we were probably the only gwailos (literally white ghosts in Cantonese) in the casino. Everybody else seemed to be intense, chain-smoking mainlanders, who were here to seriously gamble. No one smiled at the Casino Lisboa. It also took us over half an hour to find the tiny, understocked bar. The interior had ornate, gold trim and plush, red carpets, but the gold had browned and the carpets reeked of smoke. It was run-down, crowded, and decadent. I loved it.

After the old Casino Lisboa, we headed to the Venetian, which has more floor space than four Empire State buildings and is the second largest building in the world. Inside, it has three imitation Venetian canals replete with gondolas. But frankly, the Venetian was lame. It had none of the quirky opulence of the other casinos or even the amusing typos; it was just a massive Disneyland for gamblers. We could only console ourselves by doubling our money playing roulette.

The next day we explored Coloane—one of the two main islands of Macau. It was full of sleepy areas and delicious places to eat. We wandered around looking at the Portuguese-influenced buildings, walking into a Buddhist temple, and spending all the money we’d won (and then some) on some world-class Portuguese cuisine. Despite the grey, windy weather, we also strolled along the black sand beaches that we had all to ourselves. In our explorations, we even stumbled into the middle of movie set. If you see two confused Americans in the background of a big-budget French movie (supposedly) set in Brazil, it’s probably us. Also, if you see a big-budget French movie set in Brazil (I can’t imagine there are many), it’s actually Macau.

With great food, run-down casinos, and at least one really cute stray dog, it’s no wonder Macau has overtaken Vegas as the world’s top gambling destination.

The Death and Life of Asian Cities

At first glance, Macau has a lot of similarities to Hong Kong. After all, they’re just a ferry ride away from each other. Macau—like Hong Kong—is a Special Administrative Region that was recently handed back to China from a European power. The two regions are even geographically alike. One part of Macau is connected to the mainland, while the rest consists of islands. Macau—like Hong Kong—is famous for its worldclass cuisine. Macau—like Hong Kong in the 19th and 20th century—was once the most significant entrepot in Asia.

But as soon as you step off the ferry, you realize that Macau is nothing like Hong Kong. It’s not just that Iberian mansions overlook neon, Chinese baroque casinos, but rather, it is in the textures of Macau that make it so radically different from Hong Kong. It’s the pastel yellow stucco and the white crown molding of the Portuguese architecture; it’s the peeling paint and rusty chains; it’s the rococo gilding in the Hotel Lisboa that has been discolored from decades of chain-smoking gamblers. Hong Kong is smooth and sleek, while Macau has varied textures, often layered on top of each other.

Nothing in Hong Kong ever becomes old. Even its historical monuments are kept looking new. In Hong Kong, you have to really search for surfaces that tell a story, but in Macau, you can read the textures everywhere. Some of the houses in the quieter parts of Macau are slowly decaying. In Hong Kong, you never see rust beneath cracking white paint. You never see abandoned buildings where a thick layer of dust has built up on the window sills, and you certainly don’t have empty lots that people use to dry their clothes. Land is simply too valuable. It’s not that Macau is struggling economically; on the contrary, next to an abandoned building maybe a brand new, expensive condo financed by the Chinese nouveau riche. It’s just that Hong Kong’s textures reject history, narrative, and death with its spotless glass and polished metal, whereas in Macao, the lifecycle of the city is all around you. In the textures, you can witness the births, injuries, surgeries, and deaths of places. Hong Kong stands as a continuously transforming monument to the current instant of global capitalism, making it much more difficult to read the city’s stories. But in Macau, the layers of paint, metal, and dirt reveal history and narratives. In 1836, a traveler wrote that Macau was already an “old tarnished place” and less “of a port than a museum.” Nearly two centuries later, it is still an “old tarnished place,” but it is in the tarnish that the city has become a museum.