A trip to Macau is a sure to change any ideas you may have had about this tiny corner of Asia. If you view Macau as the “Vegas of the East,” as the casino advertisements would have you believe, then you’re missing the real Macau.
Others derive their opinions of this former Portuguese province (until 1999) from old movies — a stereotype that includes dingy waterfront cafés and dangerous alleys where all manner of trouble takes place.
My image of Macau was a mix of both. Macau is only 37 miles (59 km) from Hong Kong, where I was, making the temptation to visit too hard to resist. On the fast jet boat, I knew I was entering a new learning curve as the modern ferry whizzed along the shipping lane. Before we docked at Macau’s new ferry terminal, we watched an American video and the attendants took orders for food and beverages.
Macau is an intriguing and unique blend of Europe and Asia. The influence of the Portuguese weaves itself through the fabric of Chinese life, producing a unique culture all of its own. Baroque churches and colonial mansions are found side by side with Chinese temples.
Start exploring Macau from the top. St. Paul’s, perched on a hilltop, is most spectacular when illuminated against a night sky, but during the day it provides a panorama of the city. The facade of St. Paul’s Cathedral is Macau’s icon. The Cathedral dates back to the early 17th century and is the remains of the first Christian church in China. Like everything in Macau it, too, is a blend of East and West. It was designed by an Italian Jesuit and built by Japanese Christian stonemasons who had fled persecution in Japan. A fire in 1835 destroyed all but the façade, which illustrates the history of Christianity in Asia including biblical quotations in Chinese.
Next to St. Paul’s is Fortaleza de Monte, a good place to reflect on the defensive role it played against Dutch assault in the 1600s. And, now part of the fort is the Macau Museum where one can get an overview of the energy that came together to form Macau. Exhibits illustrate life over the past four centuries here, emphasizing the multicultural character of the city created by the coming together of people of different faiths and lifestyles, resulting in a distinctive Macanese culture.
From St. Paul’s, descend the steps and wander slowly into the heart of the city. Brush shoulders with the Mancanese as they go about their daily routine. Stop to watch almond cookies being made. Try some — yummy! If you need a rest, stroll down a side street where you will discover little courtyards. Sit on a bench under a tree and you’ll think you are in a small town in Portugal.
Continue into the heart of the city and to Senado Square with its wave-patterned stone mosaic that is symbolic of the blending of East and West. Stop in the 17th century St. Dominic’s Church with its magnificent altar, decorated wooden ceiling, and religious art museum housed in the old belfry.
Along the Pua Almirante Sergio, it is easy to find a restaurant to sample Macanese food that brings together the best of Portuguese, Chinese, Indian and Malaya cooking. Try a typical dish like African chicken or Linguado Macau sole accompanied, of course, with a fine Portuguese wine.
The classic Chinese temple of A-Ma rests at the base of Penha Hill. Its name derives from Tin Hau, Queen of Heaven, or the Honored Mother. Myth has it that a poor girl saved a fishing vessel on which she was traveling from the ravages of a storm. In tribute to her this temple was built and is a place of pilgrimage for Macau’s fishing community.
Another temple dedicated to the power of female intervention is the Kun Iam Temple, built in honor of the Goddess of Mercy. Kun Iam’s statue gracefully towers over the Ecumenical Center of Eastern Religions and is a place where people of all faiths can rest, reflect and meditate.
But Macau is much more. It is colonial neighborhoods, quiet parks, sandy beaches, hiking in the woods, duty-free shopping and festivals. Nothing highlights the multicultural nature of Macau better that its festivals — from Chinese New Year to the Feast of the Drunken Dragon, from the Macau Arts Festival to the International Music Festival, from the Macau Open Golf Tournament to the Macau Grand Prix.
And, of course, there is the gambling for which Macau has long been famous. The city is said to have the widest range of casino games in the world. Try your luck with baccarat, blackjack, roulette, boule or feed your coins to what the locals call “hungry tigers” (slot machines).
Visitors arrive on day trips from Hong Kong and leave vowing to return the next time to spend more time. Land reclamation means that “Mazing Macau” is constantly growing and changing. Macau may be small in size, but it’s big on variety.
If You Go
Almost 500,000 people call Macau home. It is a special administrative region of southeast China and consists of the Macao Peninsula and two offshore islands in the South China Sea to the west of Hong Kong. The Portuguese established a trading post here in 1557 and Macau became a free port in 1849 until 1999 when the Portuguese handed the province back to China.
Macau Government Tourist Office