Col­li­sion of cul­tures

Ma­cau is as modern as to­mor­row but its Por­tuguese past is sur­pris­ingly ac­ces­si­ble

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

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.

PIC­TURES: PHO­TOLI­BRARY (MAIN); MA­CAU GOVERN­MENT TOURIST OF­FICE (BE­LOW); SU­SAN KURO­SAWA (TOP LEFT)

Ma­cau’s sky­line, above, en­com­passes a wide range of ar­chi­tec­tural styles; Kai Kai and Xin Xin re­lax at the Ma­cau Gi­ant Panda Pav­il­ion, left

MAGO-WORLD-IM­AGE

A former colo­nial res­i­dence at the Taipa Houses Mu­seum

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