Split the difference
A collision of new and old in fastgrowing Macau
The signs on the street hint at Macau’s multiple personalities but don’t reveal the charm to be found inside. “Casa De Cha Long Wa” says an ageing Portuguese sign, just above a second banner, in Chinese script and equally old, also welcoming patrons to Long Wa Tea House, a wonderful corner of old Macau that sits just across the street from a busy produce market.
Atop a tired set of stairs, it is a sprawling space of plywood booths and folding chairs where tea and yum cha delicacies have been served for decades. Busy from early morning, patrons no longer bring their caged birds here but a fading photo of Mao Zedong hangs on a wall and at weekends artists continue to gather at the old tables to practise their crafts.
With its faded turquoise walls and enduring atmosphere, Long Wa Tea House is like an Eastern version of an old Italian cafe, and not what we expected when we arrived in this commercial corner of Macau earlier in the morning, headed for the distinctive brick Red Market opposite, where locals buy fresh fish and vegetables.
Then we leave the market via its back entrance, cross a little side street, past outdoor vendors selling bunches of flowers and racks of cheap clothes, and the appearance of the original signs to the tea house hint at yet another version of this surprising city.
Macau, former Portuguese enclave and, since 1999, Special Administrative Region of China, is not always what it seems. With its ever-expanding skyline, the first sight for many visitors arriving from Hong Kong via fast ferry are skyscrapers and the seemingly endless parade of cranes that tell of the settlement’s continuing construction boom.
This is not just a place of newness, but of renewal and long traditions, where Chinese and Portuguese influences sit as comfortably together as the shiny new casinos and old villages. The most densely populated country or dependent territory on Earth, with 640,000 residents crammed into 30sq km, Macau is a place of showy archi- tecture and carefully restored Macanese houses, threestar Michelin restaurants and tiny takeaways, and a melange of cooking styles that boost its gastronomic credentials. Contrasts are among Macau’s greatest allures. One minute it is an old teahouse, where the air of past decades lingers below slowly turning ceiling fans. The next it is Disneyland, or Asia Vegas, on steroids.
Macau excels at flashiness, and that is especially obvious in the newish Cotai district. A few years ago, this area did not exist. The 5sq km on which Cotai and its many edifices now stand is reclaimed land, and it links two of Macau’s previously separate areas, Taipa and Coloane. A fourth district, the Macau Peninsula, is the commercial hub. It is hard to imagine the first of the new breed of casinos opened on this once non-existent piece of land just a decade ago.
Ruins of St Paul’s, left; Long Wa Tea House, below; buildings on Senado Square, bottom