The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Consider the Bunny

There was no such person as Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe was an invention of hers. A genius invention that she created, like an author creates a character,” Richard Avedon

In the most famous portrait of Marilyn Monroe, she stares downwards and to her left; her mouth slightly open. Her shoulders slump, and a few errant blonde strands of hair stick out against the dark grey background. In contrast to her famous white dress blowing up, her dark sequined dress weighs her down as she takes an exhausted moment to collect herself. For that moment, she’s not the Marilyn Monroe of her own invention; she’s Norma Jean, the lonely woman whose mother was institutionalized and whose father was never there. Both the tragedy of her life and the strain and brilliance of her creation can be read into the Richard Avedon shot. She’s no longer just a pin-up; she’s fully human with all the accompanying the emotions and messy story-lines.

It was with this photo in mind that I decided to attend and photograph Macau’s Playboy Bunny Hunt. There would be 15 women trying out to be a bunny for the new Playboy Club in Macau. I assumed I wouldn’t need the genius of Avedon to capture the accidental candor of young women in the draining task of embodying a character that exists to excite men. I pictured a number of local girls eagerly and sometimes awkwardly trying to please everyone as they struggled to be a Playboy Bunny, an invention every bit as a much as Marilyn Monroe. Though Playboy’s characters are a bit—and I never thought I’d use this adjective to describe them—flat, without the decades of Playboy’s presence in the cultural milieu, it would’ve been very difficult for a local Chinese girl to perform the Bunny role.

When I arrived at the Sands Casino, however, the potential bunnies were hid away for most of the night while Playboy had shipped in Bunnies from their Las Vegas club. Dressed up in the once iconic ears, fluffy tail and fishnet stockings, these Bunnies were true professionals. It’s a classic photo trick to take a smiling—often boring—photo of a group, and then wait a beat or two for people to relax and take another shot when they’re not expecting it. But these Bunnies never let down their guard. Often looking back at an event, you realize that you missed the moment that would’ve made that killer shot. Not this time. These were objectively gorgeous women, but I didn’t get a single interesting shot of their faces since I didn’t once see them out of character. The Bunnies were machine-like in their charm.

How did Avedon capture the Marilyn moment? After all, she was the ultimate pro at continuously living out her character. There’s one—almost definitely apocryphal—story that he had one of his assistants burst into the studio and say he had just runover a puppy. The moment she heard the sad news, Avedon snapped the photo.

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.