More Than The Las Vegas of the Eastby Cheryl Pendry, PassPorter Featured Columnist
Last modified 4/24/2008
There can't be many places in the world that so thoroughly mix the cultures of two very different nations from two different continents. Macau is one of those few places.
Located in China, although classified as a Special Administrative Region the same as Hong Kong, Macau was handed back over to the Chinese in 1999 by the Portuguese, who had ruled the area for 500 years. With no visa required to visit the city from other parts of China, that makes it a very popular day trip from Hong Kong, but it's also a huge attraction for the mainland Chinese. The reason is simple; Macau is now known as the Las Vegas of Asia, and with very good reason.
If you arrive on the regular ferry service from Hong Kong, which takes just over an hour, the first sight that will greet you is the Sands casino. You don't have to go far before you see billboards for other famous-name casinos, such as the Wynn, Bellagio, and MGM Grand, so the link to Las Vegas is soon obvious. This is something that is only going to keep growing, with around 27 million gamblers visiting Macau last year from mainland China. It's easy enough for them to get here, with complimentary shuttle buses offered from across the border. And it's a short trip, with China easily seen just a short distance away across one of the rivers around Macau. With that sort of potential audience, it's no surprise to learn that more casinos are being built all the time.
But there is much more to Macau than just gambling. The city has a fascinating history and everywhere you look, you can see the influence of the former European rulers, from the street signs written in Portuguese and Chinese, to the Mediterranean-style buildings that are littered throughout the different districts.
The history really starts at the A-Ma Temple, dedicated to a Taoist sea goddess and completed in 1488, as this is where the Portuguese first came ashore in the early 1550s. They quickly adopted the name for the city they had discovered and, eventually, A-Ma became Macau. Today, the temple is still standing and attracts people wishing to pay their respects. The sensation you get here when you walk in, like many of the other temples we visited in Hong Kong, is one of serenity. You're also greeted by an intense aroma of incense, which can easily overwhelm you.
Fast forward to the early 1600s and a church, Sao Paulo, was built in Macau, but the site they chose was obviously not a good one. Not long after it was constructed, fire ripped through the building. Undeterred, the church was rebuilt and stood proudly on the site for the next 200 years, until history repeated itself and fire broke out again. This time, they were able to save some of the building and, in particular, the main facade at the entrance, but it proved impossible to re-build the rest of the church, so today those ruins are all that remain.
It is an odd sight to see what is essentially one wall of a building, just standing there, propped up. It's a great shame, as you can see from the detail on the brickwork just how exquisite the whole church must have been. The intricate stone carvings were created by Japanese Christian exiles and as a result, the carvings have some unusual features, such as skeletons; not what you're used to seeing on a church.
Walk down the steps in front of the church to the square beyond and you're in the heart of Macau, the Largo do Senado or the Senate Square. The most stunning feature is, unusually, right beneath your feet. The whole square has been paved with a bold Portuguese wave pattern mosaic. Not only is it exceptionally striking, it also helps to create the atmosphere of a Mediterranean town.
That impression is helped by the fact that the square is surrounded by some beautiful buildings, one of which is St. Dominic's Church, which dates from the early 17th century. Its cream and white exterior is typical of exactly the type of churches we saw during our Mediterranean cruise, and we did find ourselves feeling as if we were on a shore excursion from the Disney Magic as we stood in the square. We're not the only ones to be impressed with the historic center of Macau, as it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, as part of that listing, there are plans in place to demolish some of the less desirable buildings a little further away and replace them with more squares and replicas of historic buildings. It's very refreshing to see that the government here obviously takes its history very seriously and wants to preserve it for future generations and visitors.
There are many other glimpses of the Portuguese impact on the city, from the beautiful Governor's residence to the city's number one souvenir, Portuguese egg custard tarts - and having sampled one, I can see why most people who come here feel the need to try them and then leave with some. They were exceptionally good!
But one of the final gifts the Portuguese left for Macau was the Kun Lam statue, a popular Buddhist goddess, on the seafront. It's an intriguing piece of art and perhaps a fitting final gift for the former rulers to hand over.
It is possible Macau is at a crossroads. It is clear that there is a will to preserve it's very unique history, but it is also clear that the vast majority of visitors who come here are heading for those big-name casinos, which will just continue to multiply. While the casino guests of course bring money into the economy, it's a shame that most of them remain blissfully unaware of what else Macau has to offer - and I'm very glad we took the time to discover that for ourselves.
Updated 4/24/2008 - Article #164
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