The evening sun gave a ruddy tint to the waters already yellow with Pearl River silt and, here and there, flecked white by the wind. The Macao ferry churned along. Behind us the peak of Lantao, for once free of cloud, rose against a pastel sky, green merging into mauve on the higher slopes. Around us, large brown-sailed junks tacked to and fro, their nets dragging deep into the water. Nearer shore, where the rich mud was stirred by our propellers, we passed shallow draft boats with long fishing rods from which scoop nets were suspended, all, like ourselves, headed for the harbour.
As we arrived, sunlight glittered on the scarlet, green or blue tiles of the gay Portuguese villas set beyond a seaside boulevard lined with shade-giving trees. The spire of the bishop’s palace, the lighthouse tower and the gaunt facade of the ruined San Paolo church were silhouetted against the sky, from time to time, caught, as it were, “in a noose of light” like the sultan’s turrets of old.
The Bella Vista Hotel was quiet and comfortable. Yannang and I were given every courtesy and a twin-bedded room which, even though still very hot, had a passable view and a fan. We took dinner on the balcony. Just below us lay a dance floor illuminated by glowing Chinese lanterns, a stage set fit for ballet. The late evening cast a salmon-coloured light upon the scene beyond which the yellow waters, patchily blue here and rose pink there, stretched away towards the growing haze before Lantao mountain. A dark cloud lay long fingers along the horizon and, from behind it, rose the pale disc of the moon and a timorous track of silver petals decorated the sea.
I ordered a bottle of Friesca, a light vino bianca of enjoyable flavour and we lifted glasses to one another and to the moon, which, for a moment, was poised above them before sliding down, drowning in the golden aura of the wine, a coin now glowing dully at the bottom of our glasses. For a long time, as has become our habit together, we sat watching the colours fade and the moonlight taking their place. The full moon soon spread its splendour over land and water. Becalmed junks at sea beyond the harbour entrance became tall, black towers, mysterious and beautiful.
Yannang broke the silence, “This is like one of Li Po’s poems. He loved wine under the moon and, in almost all of his poems, one or other of them and often both appeared. In one poem he sits alone drinking with his shadow. We are luckier than Li Po for we do not need our shadows!”
I knew the poem from Arthur Waley’s translation and I told Yannang about old Khayyam of Persia who, in his wistful way, also loved moon and wine. “And when thou with shining foot shall pass...” The warm wine filled our veins with romance. Time stood still. We went out into the town.
Compared with Hong Kong, Macao is a quiet place; little cobbled squares and steep sea-glancing lanes give the place a Mediterranean air. The bright coloured buildings, towers and spires, the sound of church and monastery bell, dark-robed roman priests walking the streets, are all unmistakably south European. Even the Chinese, with their dark eyes and black hair, seem not out of place against such a backcloth and it is only when one turns a corner into a narrower street, pungent with the smells of cooking and burning joss sticks, that one finds oneself again in China.
We noted how friendly were the Portuguese police and the Chinese people, how the African soldiers lounged about in the shops. The Portuguese seem to ‘fraternise’ very easily with indigenous people and many of the ‘fan kwai’ could speak Cantonese. Yannang remarked how the Cantonese seemed less careworn than in HK, less worried, more friendly and not so talkative. It was all very relaxing and I found, too, that my companionship with Yannang and my presence in a Chinese crowd drew barely a glance. In Hong Kong, I am often an object of attention whenever I mingle with the Chinese with or without a Chinese companion. Yannang said it seemed as if tension between the different sorts of Chinese people was also more relaxed here and that Europeans and Chinese accepted each other more easily. Although the British administration is reputedly more efficient and less corrupt than the Portuguese, it has never quite mastered the art of informal interracial friendship. Britishers love their cliques, their select clubs, their homes as their castles to themselves and the Chinese have never bothered to penetrate such exclusive preserves, being content with their own sense of private superiority. The small size and almost rural atmosphere of Macao is easygoing by comparison and business rivalry and cut-throat competition less marked.
In the Piscina night-club we found the bath full of swimmers, a magic show with an attentive audience and, on the roof, a dance floor well covered by Chinese couples.
“How stiff they look!” remarked Yannang, as we sat sipping an iced coffee apiece. “Are they really enjoying themselves? They look almost unhappy!”
To my surprise I realised that Yannang had never seen Western dancing before. I tried to explain that dancing is often expression in movement alone and that to show one’s feelings amongst so many might be felt embarrassing.
“It all looks rather carnal,” he said, watching the narrow-slitted dresses of the girls sliding up their legs. “What is it like holding a girl so close when you dance? And which is more important, the girl in your arms or the rhythm of the dance?”
“I am afraid that can only depend on the dancer,” I replied. “Certainly the two essential drives behind dancing are sex and the sheer bodily delight in rhythmical movement but when the whole atmosphere of the dance is put together it creates something beyond either. When one is dancing well it is like flying and to fly well one needs a good partner. If she is beautiful and moves with grace, the flight is romantic, like that of butterflies in the sun.”
I had to admit that the stiff, expressionless dancing of the Chinese was dull to watch. Their rhythm was poor and few of them were giving themselves freely to the music; the long expanses of hesitant leg and wobbling, female buttocks were barely aesthetic. Ballroom dancing needs flowing dresses that hiss through the air on a spin turn. Back at the Bella Vista, we watched Portuguese couples dancing to Latin American rhythms beneath the light of the lanterns. They swirled around with grace, abandon and mirth and Yannang then understood what I had told him.
We sat on the seawall; the air was still; Chinese voices murmured in quiet conversation nearby; occasionally a vendor would add a shriller cry; the waters lapped on the stones a few feet below us. We clasped our knees in our arms and gazed at the moonlight flickering on the sea, wriggling and twisting like a mass of little seaworms shining with iridescence and dancing blissfully on the surface. I told Yannang about the palolo worm which, at certain states of the moon, rises to the surface and dances its fertility rites there.
“Really, I prefer this silence to the gaiety of the dance halls,” said Yannang.
I agreed. “There are those whose chief delight lies in soft lights and sweet music but you and I belong to that other group, the lovers of new-mown hay and stars. Here too we can watch the moon worms dance! Life is a poem, you see.”
“At this moment – yes,” said Yannang thoughtfully.
Once more we sat on the balcony sipping wine in silence. The last few couples were lingering on the dance floor and, although I knew this was one of the last times we would be together, I was not troubled by the thought. In the wonder and beauty of the night our companionship was perfect, the moment ethereal and untarnished, the moonlight holding us in thrall.
The last dancers bade each other farewell; the band packed up and went; earth fell silent. Around three o’clock the moonlight faded and we retired to bed. At Yannang’s request I read a poem for him before we slept.