An hour West of Hong Kong across the Zhu jang (Pearl River) Estuary lies a bicultural gem known as Macau, a former colony that once belonged to the Portuguese and one of the last European colonies in the far east. This hidden delight boasts a culturally rich and varied history as the traditions of Portugal and China married. Eclectic cuisine and exuberant nightlife are features of its Portuguese-tiled streets and bilingual signs in Portuguese and Cantonese add to the spice and character of a city of three eras. Architecture from old Chinese temples, to 17th century European Baroque-style buildings and soaring skyscrapers gives the city a fascinating real-life timeline.
An island originally, this humid, sub-tropical region is the most densely populated in the world. The island historically molded with a sandbar extending out from the mainland to form an isthmus that juts out into a delta into which flows the Zhuijang Estuary. Land reclamation more than four hundred years ago turned the area into a flat terrain peninsula upon which lies the city of Macau. Connected by a curious undulating bridge, the Macau Peninsula lies further north of the conjoined islands of Cotai, famous for its casinos, Coloane for its European-style colonial villages and Taipa for its ancient Macanese architecture.
Belonging to the Portuguese Empire for almost five hundred years and then only recently becoming an autonomous region of China, Macau was officially the last European colony within Asia. The story of Portuguese colonisation of the region starts in the 16th century when it was handed over to them by the then Chinese Ming Dynasty for temporary use as a trading port. It was used to this effect up until 1887 when it officially became a Portuguese colony.
Macau’s colonial history has turned it into a vibrant and colourful city, with the hetrogenous elements of its society melting into a unique, harmonious middle-point between the orient and the occident.
Macau’s historic centre in the peninsula which has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site consists of some twenty-five locations within the city that act as a mirror to its intercultural past. Among these locations are Senaso Square which houses the Baroque style Macau Municipal Council building and the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral from which only a façade still stands, elaborated with a dragon, Chinese Lions and the Virgin Mary.
Walking down Largo do Senado’s buoyantly tiled streets and seeing a string of European looking cafés which infuse the air with the aromas baked bacalhau (Portuguese style cod), caldo verde (Portuguese vegetable soup) and grilled sardines, you could actually be forgiven for thinking you were in Portugal itself.
However, it won’t be long till you’re reminded that you’re in Far East when you get a waft of stir-fry curry crab, traditional Macanese chili shrimps and the incense burning form from the old A-Ma temple. This temple, which was built by native fishermen during the Ming Dynasty for the purpose of worshiping the sea goddess, is actually thought to be where Macau originally got its name from, Macau itself being a Portuguese translation of Maa Gok (Pavilion of the Mother).
However, Macau is not only about history. In the last 20 years the city has adapted to changing times and now also features a bustling metropolis of not just tall, but impressively ornate skyscrapers as well as a plethora of modern, neon-illuminated casinos. In fact, this culturally hybrid city has now even eclipsed Las Vegas to become the gaming capital of the world. The Grand Lisboa Casino could perhaps be the most impressive and audacious modern structure in Macau. Built to the shape of the flower on the city’s emblem, this grandiose building also doubles up as a hotel with restaurants on the ground floor.
For all intents and purposes, Macau is something different. With its many historical quirks, it is a shining example of a city that has grown up from the earth and blossomed, fed by years of rich culture and heritage, each era adding an extra dimension to the city, like the petals of a lotus flower unfolding in the morning sun.