Notes from an author: Joanna Kavenna on Macau

The ‘Las Vegas of the East’ provides surreal inspiration for an absurdist thriller set in a dystopian world of big tech.

By Joanna Kavenna
Published 31 Dec 2019, 06:00 GMT
Joanna Kavenna.
Joanna Kavenna.
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

When I first went to Macau in January 2000, it was a quiet place with low-rise buildings and a few casinos, surrounded by fields and housing blocks. In the old Portuguese areas there were cobbled streets, yellow churches with green shutters, pink and white civic buildings in the Pombaline style. The Portuguese established a trading post at Macau in the mid-16th century; the area was handed back to China in December 1999. I remember sitting by a fountain eating custard tarts, a local delicacy. We went to a small, family-run casino, where bets were a pound or two and elderly women handed out marmalade sandwiches. I had an unprecedented run of luck, which paid for dinner at a restaurant in São Lourenço.

I recently went back to Macau while visiting my relatives in Hong Kong. We went there from Taipa on the Cotai Water Jet. The engine hummed and the white sky merged with the white waves. Boats surged out of the mist, then disappeared again. It felt as if we were heading into a dreamscape, the boundaries dissolving between past, present and future. On Macau’s Cotai Strip everything was gigantic: the skyscrapers, the roads, the hotels and the empty spaces awaiting development. We passed the Galaxy, a monumental gold and white edifice, adorned with glittering cupolas, and the Morpheus, a 40-storey hotel, its glass windows encased in a silver exoskeleton. At the centre of this extraordinary building was a large hole, as if it had been punched by an angry giant.

The whole place was outlandish, like a fairytale retold by J G Ballard. Macau has been called the ‘Las Vegas of the East’ and this is reasonable enough. Many of its buildings are replicas of those in Las Vegas and many of these are owned by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation. However, Macau is more surreal, because its copies are copies of copies. We stayed at a gigantic hotel called The Venetian — a copy of The Venetian in Las Vegas — itself an imitation of, well, Venice. I wandered through malls and corridors, up and down escalators and eventually I reached the Grand Canal. Not the real Grand Canal, but the unreal Grand Canal. Or, one of the unreal Grand Canals.

“Everything was gigantic: the skyscrapers, the roads, the hotels and the empty spaces awaiting development. We passed the Galaxy, a monumental gold and white edifice, and the Morpheus, its glass windows encased in a silver exoskeleton.”

by Joanna Kavenna

There was a gondola moving slowly on (real) water, beneath an idyllic (fake) twilight sky. We ate dinner in a place called Dinner — such clarity seemed admirable in this unreal city. Then I walked again, hoping to ascertain if there was any end to Venice. The Venetian is the seventh largest building in the world, and after a while, I began to think it was infinite. But it turned out the end to Venice was Paris or, at least, The Parisian, another copy of a copy, with a half-scale Eiffel Tower looming above.

This citadel of fakes seemed strange at first, but then I began to wonder if it was so strange after all. This in itself felt even more strange. At the time I was writing Zed, a novel about our contemporary hall of mirrors — the fakes and deceptions of the online and real world combined. Fake avatars online, fake oppositions, fake news, fake facts. Virtual realms, the Internet of Things; the unreal seeping into the real. One day soon, I thought, there will be a virtual reality version of The Venetian. We’ll put on our VR devices and travel to VR-Macau, to be conveyed down the VR-canal. But why stop there? What about the real-virtual as well?

Perhaps one day they’ll build a new Macau, a complete physical copy of the old one. Everything will be faked from floor to ceiling: the Morpheus, the Galaxy, The Parisian, The Venetian, all copied from copies of copies. Like urban planning inspired by M C Escher. Arriving by boat, across the dreamscape, the white sea merging with the white sky, you might not even know which Macau you’d reached. Would it even matter?

Later, in the High Stakes casino, where the minimum bet was $3,000, one man lost $500,000. He stood, shaking his head, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened. In a casino in Venice, a Dream Man asked everyone to place their bets. A gondolier conveyed his gondola along a lovely canal, under an idyllic twilight sky. Dinner was served in Dinner. Sometimes reality is far stranger than fiction. 

Zed by Joanna Kavenna is published by Faber. RRP: £16.99 (hardback).

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Find us on social media


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved