Split the dif­fer­ence

A col­li­sion of new and old in fast­grow­ing Ma­cau

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - FIONA HARARI

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

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