By Paul French
Every so often, a novel that captures the essence and flavors of the modern China experience is published — yet seemingly totally escapes the attentions of the devoted China reading crowd. They praise and discuss, absorb and dissect other, often distinctly inferior, novels, while Lawrence Osborne’s The Ballad of a Small Player has attracted no attention and fallen through the cracks of the Sinology drain. Yet Osborne has written an acutely observed novel detailing one part of the contemporary China experience and he deserves to be widely read. In fact, I’m going to just go right on and out and say it — Osborne’s novel is the best on contemporary China since Malraux’s Man’s Fate (which, rather depressingly, means we might have to wait another 80 years for the next one!)
Macau, the former Portuguese colony off the coast of southern China, is a distinctly little written-about place. It deserves more. In the 1930s, Macau gained a reputation for sin and wickedness, epithets that have long lingered over the place. The American noir writer Sherwood King wrote If I Die Before I Wake in 1938. The book became the basis for the Orson Welles-Rita Hayworth film The Lady From Shanghai in 1947. In the novel, Elsa Bannister, a White Russian of dubious reputation, born of refugees in Chefoo, on the China coast, explains her past: “Chefoo is the second wickedest city of earth.” The first? “Macau,” she exclaims, without a moment’s hesitation. Auden and Isherwood agreed. Visiting in 1938, Auden wrote in his sonnet Macau (included in their 1939 travelogue of their joint China trip, Journey to a War):
A weed from Catholic Europe, it took root …
And grew on China imperceptibly …
Churches beside the brothels testify …
That faith can pardon natural behaviour.
During the war, as a Portuguese colony, Macau remained neutral and a haven for smugglers, adventurers, and pirates. Afterwards, the colony got right on back to its traditions of gambling and sin. James Bond creator Ian Fleming arrived in 1959 to report on the enclave for The Sunday Times and research his book Thrilling Cities (eventually published in 1964). He encountered gamblers, prostitutes, and the model for his character of Goldfinger (probably written on the plane home and published in 1959), a certain Pedro José Lobo.
The movies saw Macau as a festering pit of corruption and the dissolute. French writer Jean Delannoy captured pre-war Macau’s seediness and lost souls in his 1938 novel Macau – L’enfer de jeu (Gambling Hell in English). The beautiful Parisian starlet Mireille Balin smoldered wantonly in the movie version with Erich von Stroheim in 1939. Josef von Sternberg returned to the Far East as a setting (having done Shanghai with Dietrich two decades previously in Shanghai Express) for his 1952 movie Macau with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. Von Sternberg, and his co-director Nicholas Ray, showed the place as hopelessly Orientalist noir, a vision that’s still around.
But since then Lisbon has handed back Macau to Beijing and the old casinos of the Lisboa and other numerous Fan-Tan parlors have been Las Vegas-ed and come to outshine even Nevada gaming houses in terms of revenues. Want to know by how much? Consider this — in 2013, one Macau casino, the Galaxy, raked in US $38 billion in revenues, more than six times that of the entire Las Vegas Strip. A handy little earner for the Party, though the unwholesome reputation has stuck — no anodyne family-themed entertainment for Macau, thank you very much. It’s a place that knows what it does and does it to excess: gambling. The mainland Chinese have poured out of coaches on day trips from Guangzhou with fat rolls of renminbi that may or may not be kosher; the high rollers have landed their private jets at Macau International Airport and been whooshed by tinted-window Rolls Royce to the VIP rooms on the top floors of The Galaxy, The Venetian, or The Cotai Strip; Bond came to visit in Skyfall. But literature has largely left Macau alone.
Lawrence Osborne goes a long way to correcting this omission. The Ballad of a Small Player follows “Lord Doyle,” an Englishman with a chequered and criminal past (nothing glamorous — just robbing old ladies with dementia of their life savings) holed up in Macau’s casinos and hotels, gambling away his ill-gotten gains playing Baccarat punto blanco (China’s favored version of Baccarat and, as Osborne notes, “that slutty dirty queen of casino card games.”). Lord Doyle slowly slips into oblivion and bankruptcy — Lady Luck has done a bunk. For those who know Macau, the landmarks all make an appearance — the Lisboa, Clube Militar, Fernando’s Restaurante — but it’s also the novel that most atmospherically, and accurately, captures the neon haze of the Macau gambling addict’s night-time-only card-obsessed miasma. It’s a midnight stroll through the strip from the garish architecture of the new Asian-money casinos, the relics of the old Macau with the ashtrays piled high and the chicken bones discarded on the floor next to the still-active spittoons in the lobby of the old-school Lisboa, the micro-managed pits of the super professional American casino operators at The Sands and Wynn Macau.
If you’ve ever done Macau properly (not the tourist Stations of the Cross at Leal Senado Square, A-Ma Temple, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, but really … properly … done it), you’ll instantly appreciate Osborne’s milieu. The insane lure of the tables, the call of the pits, the highest high of betting on the turn of a card and winning (Baccarat punto blanco is a high-risk win-all/lose-all game), the crashing low of losing, watching a mini-mountain of chips either shoveled your way or swished aside by a discreet croupier into some other bastard’s pocket. All followed by sinking into food at Fernando’s or high-priced, but large-measure, drinks in the bar at The Venetian. And then giving it a final go before sunup and maybe, just maybe, coming out even and getting a great night’s sleep bathed in the early morning’s harsh sunlight through the hotel bedroom window. The casinos are everything in Macau — cathedrals for the dissolute who value only money, risk, and chance. There are many, many of us, if we’re lucky enough and can rustle together a few patacas, who simply cannot resist it. We will be Osborne’s most avid and knowing readers.
For the less tempted. Those blessed with the ability to leave their wallets in their hotel rooms, put their credit cards in the in-room safe, and simply wander through the gaming halls and observe the tables and the pits like the acrophobics who gather at ground level to watch roller-coasters and trapeze artists, this novel takes you into the minds of those you see sitting, chain-smoking, comped with Champagne, feasting on tid-bits served at the table to stop you walking away and thinking better of your folly. The players. It’s also the story of those you don’t see — the high rollers in the VIP rooms you won’t ever get to sniff. From the start we are plunged into this Macau:
At midnight on Mondays, or a little after, I arrive at the Greek Mythology in Taipa, where I play on those nights when I have nowhere else to go, when I am tired of Fernando’s and the Clube Militar and the little brothel hotels on Republicca. I like it there because there are no Chinese TV stars and because they know me by sight. It is one of the older casinos, archaic and run-down. Its woodwork reeks of smoke, and its carpets have a sweet rancid sponginess that my English shoes like. I go there every other weekend night or so, losing a thousand a week from my Inexhaustible Fund. I go there to scatter my yuan, my dollars, my kwai, and losing there is easier than winning, more gratifying. It’s more like winning than winning itself, and everyone knows you are not a real player until you secretly prefer losing.
Sadly, Graham Greene, a man those old-time, down-and-dirty casinos were made for, never made it to Macau (he wanted to, but his mistress at the time declined the invitation). Osborne is a worthy successor. Lord Doyle crashes and jumps the hydrofoil to Hong Kong, where again he slips into the humid neon haze of Tsim Sha Tsui and the trippy hippy retreat of Lamma Island’s more drop-out side. Back in Macau, on a make-or-break gambling orgy, Lord Doyle must win or become a beggar. Osborne details the irrational exuberance of the addicted gambler, the sure belief that the cards will come out right, the chips will pile up, the luck will turn, even as the opposite occurs. The cards are opium, booze, and sex all rolled into one — a massive dopamine hit to the neurotransmitters.
Osborne gets the small stuff, those little, seemingly casually discarded descriptions that morph into a clear picture. In Macau it’s the tangy cigarette smoke of Zhongnanhai’s, the oily grubbiness and sweaty paraffin smell of the used yuan notes, the cheap white pleather boots of the Mongolian prostitutes. It all adds up, along with Lord Doyle’s insane life-or-death binge at the tables, to a magnificent short novel that captures the hype and hope, the seediness and despair of modern day Macau.
Ultimately, gambling is usually a metaphor. The ups and downs; good luck, bad luck … I’m not totally sure what the metaphor is in the case of The Ballad of a Small Player. Faustian bargains are certainly made, as they routinely are at card tables. It could all be partly a dream; maybe an opium-induced illusion. You could make an argument that gambling is a metaphor for China’s rise, as Lord Doyle learns in Macau, “when you are on a roll you must roll and roll…” But then when you get a roll in life you’ve really got no choice but to roll and roll too … until you crash, and then you’re really tested — Lord Doyle, China, you, me.