Collision of cultures
Macau is as modern as tomorrow but its Portuguese past is surprisingly accessible
MACAU is no longer a European entrepot exiled in the South China Sea; it left Portuguese hands in 1999, two years after Hong Kong reverted from Britain to China, in what writer Paul Theroux wittily dubbed ‘‘the Chinese takeaway’’.
But, paradoxically, Macau is a colony still. It’s the only part of China where organised gambling is legal and casinos are the new ruling masters. There’s no escaping the little territory’s round-theclock passion for gaming — four inviting text messages from casinos arrive on my phone as soon as I step off the ferry from Hong Kong and switch to global roaming. Complexes of casinos, malls and hotels rule the skyline, stretching the design rules, encompassing all known architectural styles, from Italian palazzo to demonstrative Dubai high-rise. The Grand Lisboa is shaped like a lotus, the former Portuguese holding’s national flower, although it equally looks like a tower of stacked ballet tutus; there are canals and gondolas and a faux St Mark’s Square at The Venetian, and the new Galaxy Macau estate on the Cotai Strip, with its shiny cupolas and thrusting contours, looks freshly transplanted from Las Vegas.
Bigger is better, glossy and glassy is considered classy. In the soon-to-open category along the eastern side of the Cotai Strip are edifices as eye-poppingly big as the 4000-room Sheraton Macau; the convention market is heavily courted, the dice roll until dawn and beyond. But it is relatively easy to give the tables a miss like me, you reckon gambling for the birds.
Turn your back on the modernas-tomorrow madness and stretch your wings in other pleasant and accessible ways. The collision of cultures in Macau is truly fascinating and picturesque: colonial churches and civic buildings — some gussied-up in lemon and pink with white trim, others crying out for a makeover — stand side by side with temples wreathed in incense wafting from great cones that hang like hooped skirts; little shrines to neighbourhood deities crammed into crevices; and nooks selling Chinese herbal medicine (long queues at Tai Sing Kung on Rua de Palha for ‘‘hangover tea’’).
Macau was peaceably acquired by the seafaring Portuguese and 450 years of mutually beneficial trade means the Iberian and Chinese influences have coexisted with an ease rarely seen in colonial settlements long since returned to the original owners.
The (comparatively) dishevelled Coloane, joined to Taipa by the Cotai Strip and reached from Macau proper by bridge, remains small in scale, with old-fashioned streetscapes, a whiff of pungent shrimp paste in the air, and a sense of what Macau must have been like in its (first) heyday.
The food reminds me of The Philippines, a melding of European and colonial flavours, increasingly by way of China. The Macanese stalwart of African chicken in piri piri sauce, touted at most restaurants, is entirely a if, is colonial construct, as are other ‘‘local’’ dishes appropriated from Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau and even once-Portuguese Goa and Malacca, imported by homesick expatriates.
They call the cuisine Macanese and it’s as much a hybrid as its people, typically Eurasian, with names that speak of mixed blood and strategic alliances. The Por- tuguese settled here in 1557, arriving with strongly held Catholicism, which still is a looming presence on the streetscapes with their grand edifices to saints Michael and James and our ladies Guia, Carmel and Fatima, all belltowers and fiercely guarded relics.
Street signs often suggest ageold folklore: Rua dos Bem Casados, for example, hints that at least one well-married couple were once in celebrated residence.
Shop signs continue to reflect a multicultural heritage and often a bet two ways on their wares: Pastelaria Koi Kei, for example, sells Portuguese custard tarts alongside peculiarly Chinese chicken buns.
At just 30sq km, with a population of about 550,000, Macau claims the title of the world’s most densely populated territory; it punches above its weight in terms of visitor numbers, with an astonishing arrivals tally of 25 million in 2010. To understand a little more about the one-time colony’s history, visit the excellent multistorey Macau Museum at the lofty Mount Fortress, almost within the shadow of the tiered stone facade and broad 66-step staircase of St Paul’s, most of which burned down in 1835. St Paul’s is Macau’s most photographed landmark but it has the odd propped-up feel of a movie or stage set.
The museum, however, is lively and lovely, with interactive exhibits and installations that include a restored 1965 pedicab, historic streetscape of oriental shophouses and arcaded colonial buildings, traditional puppets (characters have names such as Big Red Northerner and Deity of Fukien), Chinese opera costumes, odd betting possibilities such as cricket fighting, and a display of a Macanese cha gordo, or high tea, with more than 20 dishes and always served on ‘ ‘ cheerful social occasion’’ (I am not sure about the turnip pie). The classic little cafe at the South Gate entrance is a convivial place to pause for coffee.
The Grand Prix Museum is also great fun and right next door is the Wine Museum, both in the basement of the Tourism Activities Centre ( Rua Luis Gonzaga Gomes). My guide, Joao Sales, insists we go to the Grand Prix Museum first. ‘‘We mustn’t drink before we drive,’’ he laughs, pointing out that entry to the wine museum includes a tutored tasting (tickets for the two can be purchased as a package; there’s a special offer of free admission to both until December 31).
The Grand Prix Museum was opened in 1993 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Macau Grand Prix, a Formula 3 event that takes place on a twist-andturn street circuit, similar to that of Monte Carlo (November 17-20 this year). The displays include cars and motorbikes, and tributes to past and present stars of the event, among them Ayrton Senna.
In the Wine Museum there are recreated cellars, old equipment and winemaking utensils, typically Portuguese blue-and-white tiles decorated with wine motifs and comely maidens bearing baskets of plump grapes, and an abundant collection of vintages, with a showpiece 1815 madeira.
Fans of colonial architecture will love the Taipa Houses Museum ( Avenida da Praia), a parade of five peppermint-andwhite 1920s shuttered buildings, once residences for senior civil servants. They used to face the sea, as the translated Beach Avenue address suggests, but now the view is of a waterlily-dotted lake adjoining the reclaimed Cotai Strip precinct. One of the buildings, House of the Portugal Regions, includes a comprehensive assembly of mementoes of the colonial era.
And just when you thought you’d experienced all manner of museums, there’s ( truly) the Pawn Shop, Fire Services and Public Security Forces museums — and entry to all three is free.
Colonial flashbacks? Hail the 1870-built pink and white arcaded Clube Militar de Macau ( 975 Avenida da Praia Grande), which has a buffet lunch spread or set dinner menu for $HK128 ($16), or a la carte dishes such as seafood rice. Members have access to a spacious lounge but the grand and airy dining hall, with ceiling fans and display cabinets of celadon china, is open to all.
In similarly historic surrounds, enjoy the sunset with a copy of James Clavell’s novel Tai-Pan and a glass of vinho verde on the high terrace of the Pousada De Sao Tiago, an inn built into the foundations of the 17th-century Barra Fort, complete with cannon emplacements and arched windows, on Avenida da Republica overlooking the inner harbour and the Pearl River delta.
It has just 12 suites, a minuscule number compared with Macau’s contemporary hotels, and a tiny chapel (dedicated to St James, patron saint of the Portuguese army) that is a popular venue for weddings. The food at its La Paloma restaurant is Catalonian, perhaps as a tactical counterpoint to Macau’s Portuguese dining possibilities; there’s a delicious paella Valenciana and wafers of Iberian ham carved from the bone. Afternoon tea is served on the terrace, too; Portuguese tarts reign.
It is my lucky morning. Giant pandas Kai Kai and Xin Xin, who are often snoozing, are rolling around in their translucentroofed five-star enclosure at the emphatically named Macau Giant Panda Pavilion at Seac Pai Van Park, biting and pawing each other, even doing tumble-turns down the grassy slopes and falling off their wooden ‘‘respite platform’’ into the bamboo, much to the glee of hundreds of tourists.
Retail? Antiques shops abound in the streets that zigzag away from the bottom of the steps of St Paul’s. Seek out the helpful Cherie at Mobilias Va Ngai (28 Rua de Sao Paulo), a little shop piled with camphorwood boxes, bronzes and Chinese collectables. This is the historic heart of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage precinct; take time to tarry in Senado Square with its old buildings and pavements tiled in ocean-blue and white waves. Check galleries for reproductions of paintings from the 1800s by George Chinnery or sketches by Auguste Borget; the scenes of tiled-roof temples, fortified hillsides and coolie-hatted fishermen and hawkers look worlds removed from today’s Macau.
There are duty-free designer goods by the barrrowload at the big malls in the casino complexes; the Milan Station store downtown specialises in pre-loved luxury goods.
Great fun for dinner is the tiny O-Manel (90 Rua de Fernao Mendes Pinto) on the edge of Taipa Village, where the Portuguese owner-chef serves house specialties such as clams in lemon sauce with lashings of garlic and aromatic herbs, and traditional cod, or bacalhau. It is a six-table eatery with tiled floors, red tablecloths, beamed ceiling and a down-home feeling; there’s a twin restaurant next door run by the same management (the two have separate entrances, oddly).
Antonio (3 Rua dos Negociantes, Taipa) is a Michelinrecommended restaurant of great charm (like O-Manel, it is tiny, so dining here feels snug and in-theknow). Chef-owner Antonio Neves Coelho is a showman who has been known to open wine bottles with a sword, and his signature dish of Portuguese seafood rice ( call it paella at your peril) is served with gusto, as are tableside-cooked crepes suzette.
Wing Lei at Wynn Macau (Rua Cidade de Sintra), a huge casino hotel, serves arguably Macau’s best Chinese food, dished up under the guard of a wall-sized crystal dragon in a bright scarlet setting that resembles a Shanghai Tang showroom. Be sure to finish with chilled green-tea crystal cake and a cup of lychee and jasmine or white peony tea.
Best snack has to be a flaky egg tart with caramelised sugar glaze from Lord Stows Bakery (1 Rua do Tassara) and its around-thecorner cafe in Coloane Village (with a branch at The Venetian). Englishman Andrew Stow opened his bakery in 1989 and by the mid-1990s his Portuguese custard tarts with a special creamy twist were the talk of Macau. In March 1995, he ran an egg-tart eating competition in which the winner demolished 14 tarts in two minutes; now there are franchises in Hong Kong and other Asian cities. Stow died in 2006 and the business is now handled by his dynamic sister Eileen, who lives in Coloane Village in a restored red-painted temple house.
The most glam newcomer in this universe of new is the Banyan Tree Macau, where the top-floor Belon Oyster Bar & Grill, presided over by Barcelona chef Matias Martinez, serves inventive food in the prettiest silvery-white space imaginable. This 245-suite five-star property, with 10 resortstyle pool villas, sits within the Galaxy Macau development on the Cotai Strip; its neighbours are the Japanese-owned Okura (410 rooms) and the huge Galaxy (a jaw-dropping 1500 rooms). This is a casino-driven city within a city, but within the all-suite Banyan Tree all is cool and relaxed, with relaxation lap pools in every suite and a serene spa dotted with bamboo groves and water features.
And for the grand finale, The Venetian hosts Cirque de Soleil spectaculars but, better still, the Packer-owned City of Dreams stages The House of Dancing Water, which is big, brash and blinking marvellous. Despite being almost physically dragged along, I find myself enjoying this sometimes nonsensical frolic of high-divers and flying motorbikers, even if I am seated so scarily close to the watery stage, I am supplied with a hand-towel.
Children would adore this show, as they would any number of Macau extravaganzas. It’s all a bit Vegas with a dollop of Disney, and a jot of history peppering the mix. The result is surprisingly engaging, just like Macau itself. Susan Kurosawa was a guest of Cathay Pacific Airways, Banyan Tree Macau and the Macau Government Tourist Office.
Macau’s skyline, above, encompasses a wide range of architectural styles; Kai Kai and Xin Xin relax at the Macau Giant Panda Pavilion, left
A former colonial residence at the Taipa Houses Museum