Given the opportunity to visit a city nearby, if even for a day or two, I’m always in. On my days off, I took the opportunity to see the former colony, and as a Portuguese-American, I find it very much impactful.
I live equidistant from Hong Kong and Macau essentially and it’s only about a 150 kuai (US $24) round trip to get to either, so it’s really not that bad, and only a few hours on the bus plus customs. The border crossing at Hong Kong is way more hectic, partially because of economics and partially from geography. First, there’s just more people going into Hong Kong every day. Secondly, when the British acquired territory from the Chinese in the 1800s (if ever there was a euphemism) they got the New Territories a huge swath of land which is now unsettled park land.
That means you still need to travel a far distance after crossing into Hong Kong which means there’s buses everywhere. In Macau, when you cross the border, well there it is. There’s everything. When I first got through customs there’s a massive sign with instructions and do’s-and-don’ts, solely in Portuguese. Many signs were only in Mandarin. I heard people speaking Cantonese. And of course there was the universal crutch of a language that is English. So that’s when I realized that gambling is more pervasive than I thought here, not merely confined to the casinos. In Macau, you also engage in the perpetual roulette of tongues.
Every road sign is in Portuguese. Virtually every government building is in Portuguese. The “Historic Centre of Macau” is all Portuguese buildings. (Don’t you dare spell it “Historic Center,” Wikipedia will have no idea what you mean.) Sometimes you walk down a winding, cobblestoned street with zero Chinese characters, approach a rotary, and see old stone buildings and fountains and think, well I feel like I’m in Europe. Thing is both times it will happen, you walk another twenty yards and realize that Macau is intensely Chinese. Make no mistake about it, there is very little that is Portuguese about this place. Certainly the history is imbued with it. But the casinos began around the 60s with a Chinese monopoly on them.
Little Bit of Macau’s History
After the Carnation Revolution of 1974 in Portugal, the fascist government led by Salazar fell, overtaken by a more liberal regime and overseas territories worldwide were granted autonomy by the empire. Some faster than others.
Many African areas became entrenched in civil war quite quickly. The Portuguese tried to give Macau back in the 70s, but China said the time wasn’t right. Hell, Portuguese Timor became the last European territory in Asia to be relinquished in 2002.
While the question of Hong Kong was incredibly complex, and today still feels very, very British in more than a few ways, the so-called “Question of Macau” wasn’t as complex.
Sure, gambling complicated things, and it was technically Portuguese soil til 1999, but it was a much easier handover than Hong Kong then. Further, whatever happens in 2049 with Macau, it will almost certainly be an easier transition than with what happens in Hong Kong, two years prior to that.
There are some interesting times ahead in the next three decades over here in East Asia, to be sure.
The Vibe of Macau
Anyways, enough history. In some ways Macau actually feels like Hong Kong. There’s a different air about it (at times literally), especially compared to the rest of South China and Guangdong Province.
Mainland China in the area is incredibly new, except maybe Guangzhou, so a lot of the apartments that look they were built maybe 50, 60, 70 years ago look similar to HK (as opposed to say Zhuhai or Shenzhen). Very narrow streets with air conditioning units that rain dirty condensation down on you.
Buildings with sun-faded facades with the inside almost certainly nicer than the outside. Old ladies’ undergarments drying outside the windows. Lots of traditional Chinese characters. Lots of languages. Interspersed European areas and influence and restaurants. Old churches scattered throughout city center. Driving on the left. (I don’t get that one at all.) Streets that meander every which way, flipping a big old finger to the streamlined grid of other modern cities. Hilly beyond belief.
How Portuguese is Macau?
For as Chinese as I say this place is, I spent most, approximately 85%, of my money on Portuguese food, and it was actually damn good. Get ready! Super Bock, pato frito, pão portuguesa e manteiga, espresso (sem Sambuca), pasteis de nata, bacalhau lagareiro, chouriça assada, azeite de oliva, Sagres.
This was over the course of two meals mind you. I’m not an animal. I think the one I missed most was the olive oil. (As opposed to the massive containers of lord-knows-how processed high-fructose vegetable, corn, canola oil they use in Chinese food.)
I found a few Portuguese restaurants and they all looked quite good, but if I came here once I was getting my fix. If I come again, I’ll find some sort of fusion place.
Thing was the cod was damn good but didn’t quite taste the same as home (or in Portugal.) Presumably to keep the food fresh on long voyages, the cod (as Vo has down a million times before) is dried, salted, and then reconstituted from what I’m used to (or resuscitated as Vo says!)
No idea why, but the cod wasn’t as salty as I was used to be was still fantastic and it did have the extra Tim Tebow virgin olive oil liberally drizzled everywhere. The second restaurant I found was on the island of Taipa, so I’ll start my long journey of the day from the last place I was at.
Geography of Macau
Taipa isn’t actually an island – anymore. Because Macau is absolutely tiny, (11 square miles, or smaller than the size of Springfield) but is an international city and has 4-5 times the population of our lovely city, it is actually the most densely populated region in the world.
While there are other parts of the world that seem more crowded or have more densely populated regions (Guangzhou’s subways, Hong Kong’s Central/ Admiralty section, New York City during rush hour, to name a few) they also have areas that are sparsely populated (Guangzhou’s suburbs, HK’s New Territories, Staten Island), so they consider Macau the most heavily populated “region” — as in a major division within a place. I guess.
Taipa used to be an island, centuries ago, when the Portuguese settled. There used to be three main islands: Macau Island, Taipa, and Coloane. Macau is now a peninsula, having land filled in with mainland; Taipa and Coloane now form one island, with the filled in area called Cotai (clever right?!)
And Macau Airport is a completely manmade island off the coast of Taipa. So three islands became just one, as well as a peninsula. So I was waiting at a bus stop on the southernmost part of the peninsula waiting to go to Taipa just to see it and I had absolutely no heading.
As fate would have it, a nice Nepalese man was on the same bus, was getting off at the same stop, and knew of a phenomenal Portuguese restaurant on the way. And there I was having my final (delicious) meal in Special Administrative Region that is Macau. After, I headed back to Zhuhai.
Walking around Macau
So, time to back track through the 9 hours of my life prior to that. I got into Macau around 10 in the morning and walked for essentially the entire time. I must’ve walked a double digit amount of miles. For a tiny island, there’s a lot to see and it can take a while especially if you have no real heading, and only get a city map randomly from a guy eating a bowl of noodles on a hillside halfway through the adventure. I started essentially by seeing all of the historic center.
There’s this absolutely gorgeous park (The Gardens and Grotto of Luís de Camões), formerly owned by an old Portuguese businessman, dedicated to an old poet, given to municipal ownership, and now it exists as a place for old woman to practice singing awful songs, old men to smoke, reveal their bellies and gamble (dominoes?), and most important, where all the elderly can stretch and shamelessly slap their hamstrings for minutes on end.
In all seriousness it’s quite nice, very shady, hilly, and breezy, the last one being important as by the time I summited the place, I was coated in a nice slime of perspiration. (Macau isn’t any cooler than Guangdong as it turns out.)
Near the park was an old cemetery with plenty of Americans buried in the early nineteenth century from places like Boston and Utica, NY. Just a little hometown love (Mary, you live in Utica right?) brought to us by all the lovely deception and fledgling capitalism introduced to the world by our forefathers. (All in jest, they were most likely lovely men, held in high regard. Am I being slightly irreverent?)
Near that was a place called Casa Garden (brilliant name) which now hosts the Oriental Foundation, using the wonderfully insensitive catch-all term the Old World gave to anything east of and different from them. (In all fairness, I think it’s only not politically correct in the US, but I digress.)
Inside though was a collection of African art, much of which was from West Africa, but also plenty from Mozambique, the birthplace of Eusebio and the only country in the world in which there is a firearm on the flag. (Good work.)
Buildings of Macau
With no fewer than a million churches in the city I decided that I would find a reason to see them all. The first was the church of St. Anthony, the patron saint of Lisbon and the namesake of two decent members of my family.
Getting in a quick prayer for my Tony kinship, I moved on to the Ruins of St. Paul’s, a church whose incessant desire to disappear forever only to be saved from the brink of extinction by piles of tax money is most admired and mimicked by none other than China’s very own panda population. (The pandas would give a round of applause in acknowledgment but they’re too busy sleeping and dying.)
A multitude of fires over centuries, a couple of redesigns and rebuilds, and a last ditch buttressing of the facade, means that only the very front of the original church remains as well as (you guessed it!) some ruins. Quite cool though in all honesty.
Right near the ruins is also a small Buddhist temple, and a reminder of the crossroads this place used to be. Churches and temples are strewn about the whole city often arm-in-arm, and so the smoke from the spools and sticks of incense burning in the temples wafts up and merges with the incense from the churches, creating a massive cloud of religious devotion.
Again right nearby was the Monte Fort, the old fort the Portuguese built with cannons facing specifically the water, presumably useful at a time devoid of skyscrapers, manmade reservoirs, and land reclamation.
In the seventeenth century it saved the city from Dutch invasion so I guess it had a modicum of practicality at some point. Nowadays, it’s easy to wonder how on earth this could be useful as a fort, which is exactly why they changed it from a wildly antiquated military building to a museum of the city just a few decades ago.
After that, I decided to talk a walk clear across the city to see the water on the east side of the city, even though the place is a peninsula and I could’ve easy just seen the water that was right next to me. On the way I saw a massive hill (which reminded me of Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium park) with a huge lighthouse on top, and despite how romantic I think they are, I had to concede to see it only from afar, as I was running out of time and energy at this point just four hours into my walk, and had only seen but a small amount of the city.
So I continued walking all along the water for miles, and saw the starting line of the Grand Prix, the Fisherman’s wharf, the construction/maintenance of a science center (with bamboo scaffolding obviously) and a very modern statue that was a mix of the Virgin Mary and Guanyin, a traditional Chinese deity, symbolic of the cultural fusion.
I swear the amount of new age “Portuguese” influence is more a front of multiculturalism by the government as opposed to any lingering colonial effect. Granted Macau is governed (theoretically) by a regime detached from mainland, the economy is largely dependent on tourism, and European flair certainly helps that. So they try to Luso-fy everything. (Yeah, I just coined the term Lusofy. Heard it here first folks! maybe) Putting Portuguese everywhere makes it more appealing.
Anyways, I finally walked through park after park, by casino after casino, and made it to the city’s Cathedral, which was starkly different from the highly heralded European counterparts. It was quite pretty, but lacked the ornamentation of many of the world’s “beautiful churches.”
Either because they lacked time or skill or resources, it was a little underwhelming. But the best part was the nearby Cathedral Cafe which delivered one half of my aforementioned Portuguese feast and served as the location of the only two people I heard speak Portuguese in ten hours. (save the TV, which had the volume muted. It also showed clips around the world, news and sports, which conveniently and obviously was only related to anything and everything Portuguese.)
I also went to a place called the Moorish Barracks, an old building housing soldiers from Goa that could handle the tropical weather (who apparently were called Moors, they say?) It changed from a barracks to a customs house to a maritime administration building. So I headed in, and asked when they closed
They didn’t speak a lick of Mandarin, English, or Portuguese so that proved a struggle. So they let me know I had an hour. I grabbed a pamphlet and headed into the first room. “Nihao!” they screamed, I can’t go there. So I tried the second of three hallways. “Nihao!!!” They screamed again. Nope couldn’t go there. So I asked if I could go in the third hallway, up the stairs, anywhere?! Nope.
This famous building that they have listed on the maps and everywhere and is part of the Historic Centre of Macau only has one part open to the public, an entrance hall as big as my apartment with two desks and an old, yet tiny cannon. Cool building but incredibly underwhelming as a tourist destination.
Next was another smattering of churches and the beautiful Senado Square where a hustle and bustle moved about old churches, Chinese mansions, and aromatic bakeries atop old cobble stone paths and under metal/stone arches.
Passing through an old Portuguese favorite, Lilau Square, I finally made it to the peak of Penha Church, the first large, primarily stone church I saw, and though fairly beautiful, it closed a mere three minutes before my arrival so my imagination serves as my only notion of what’s inside.
A Portuguese-American in Macau
Nonetheless, situated on the top of a hill in the southwest part of the peninsula, I could see out to the islands, out to the sea, out to the bridges and the boats and the birds and the setting sun, and out to an amazing part of the world, highly contested and incredibly important for centuries on end.
I generally romanticize both the oceans and our historical figures by trying to put myself in their moccasins, so this was a fairly powerful moment staring out into a corner of the globe as central to the history of my grandparents as Goa or Malacca, Lisbon or Ludlow, Harrison or Boticas.
As a butterfly effect ripple started to play out in my head, I was intensely thankful for all that I’ve been blessed with and increasingly excited for whatever adventure I’d be fortunate to encounter next. Luckily for me, I wouldn’t have to wait too, too long.
And moving on….
I walked all along Barra Hill, the area I was in, and got fairly lost in what must have been an area in which I will never be able to afford property. Presumably, it was casino owners, government officials, and wealthy mainlanders based on the gated yards and car brands.
I made my way back down the hill and found the A-Ma Temple, the most likely origin of Macau’s name. Apocryphal or not, the story goes that the Portuguese landed here and intrigued by the temple, asked what the name was and heard what sounding like Macau, a name (mis/re)spelled for years.
Anyways it was a cool spot, several areas of worship comprising the whole place. It was built on a hill with enough incense burning to blind a man, and after nasal sensory overload, I rested in the square down below and caught a bus to Taipa, the end of my journey but the beginning of this particular story.
Last Vignette of Macau
The Fisherman’s Wharf is clearly an area they’re building up into malls and nice shops and such on the water. It’s not quite done I believe, but they were some shops and such along the way, and I saw some kebab, my favorite quick food from Paris, so I figured why not. I approached them in English, and struggling to understand me, they brought out their daughter who was studying English. Realizing that her English is crap, I went for Mandarin, and figuring out that my Mandarin is just about passable, they got mad and surprised at me for even trying to speak in anything but Chinese.
So essentially I got yelled at for speaking English. Alright, that’s all I can remember, and probably the most I’ve ever written about such a short period of time in my life. That was four pages on maybe 10 hours of my life, at times tiring but undoubtedly meaningful.
Have you ever been to Macau? Let me know what you think in the comments below!
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