CHINA: CUL­TURE SHOCK IN MACAO

MA­CAU, OR MACAO, MIGHT BE SMALL BUT IT PACKS A REAL PUNCH AS A TOURISM HOTSPOT.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY DAVID MCGONIGAL

Ma­cau, or Macao, might be small but it packs a real punch as a tourism hot spot.

My first visit to Macao was long be­fore it was re­ab­sorbed into China in 1999. Back then, we went to a view­point in the Por­tuguese en­clave to look across the short dis­tance across to the then-closed world of the Mid­dle King­dom. To­day, Macao is part of China, but re­mains unique.

Macao is small enough that it’s easy to see in a few days. It con­sists of a penin­sula and some is­lands (less than 30 sq. km in all) at the mouth of the Pearl River, south­west of Hong Kong. Like its neigh­bour, it’s an au­ton­o­mous part of China: it was a Por­tuguese en­clave for al­most 450 years un­til it re­verted to China two years af­ter Hong Kong. It’s now a Spe­cial Ad­min­is­tra­tive Re­gion, so it re­tains its own le­gal sys­tem and has its own cur­rency (the pat­aca) and lo­cals hold Macao pass­ports.

WHY VISIT?

There are sev­eral rea­sons vis­i­tors are drawn to Macao. The best known is to gam­ble: Macao is sev­eral times larger than Las Ve­gas in terms of gam­bling rev­enue. Un­like Ne­vada, the gam­ing takes place be­hind closed doors so it doesn’t ap­pear as ubiq­ui­tous as on the Ve­gas Strip and there­fore may be bet­ter suited to the non-gam­bler who just wishes to use the fa­cil­i­ties that casi­nos present.

Other draw­cards for the many other vis­i­tors in­clude the chance to ex­plore Macao’s be­guil­ing past as a cul­tural melt­ing pot – and to eat the unique cui­sine that has come about from meld­ing di­verse el­e­ments from China and Europe. In both these ar­eas it cer­tainly does not dis­ap­point.

While al­most all of Macao’s 650,000 pop­u­la­tion is Han Chi­nese and only two per cent are Por­tuguese, there’s still a strong Por­tuguese in­flu­ence across Macao. That’s not only in the sig­nage and the ar­chi­tec­ture, but also in the food.

CHINA’S GATE­WAY

Marco Polo is cred­ited with re­turn­ing to Europe to re­port on the great wealth and cul­ture of China. From the 16th cen­tury, Macao and Hong Kong were the sole trad­ing links be­tween China and the world. Bri­tain dealt through Hong Kong and Por­tu­gal through Macao. Both trad­ing ter­ri­to­ries grew to be fab­u­lously rich – Macao still has one of high­est lev­els of wealth in the world.

In 2005, the whole his­toric cen­tre of Macao was in­scribed onto the UNESCO World Her­itage list. No won­der it has ap­peared as the back­drop in many movies: In­di­ana Jones, James Bond and Johnny English have all vis­ited. A short walk from the port takes you past the build­ing where Ian Flem­ing met the role model for Goldfin­ger and on to Se­nado (or Se­nate) Square with its dis­tinc­tive wave-pat­terned mo­saic.

The nar­row, me­an­der­ing pedes­trian way leads past in­nu­mer­able shops and food stores to the fa­cade of St Paul’s Church, first built in 1580 and de­stroyed by fire in 1835. The church is Macao’s most no­table his­toric fea­ture, and the richly Ital­ianate struc­ture is perched, pic­turesquely, at the top of a per­ma­nently crowded set of stone stairs.

BIRD’S-EYE VIEW

The best view­point over the city is from the top of the

338 m Macao Tower where there are ob­ser­va­tion decks and restau­rants plus sev­eral ad­ven­ture ac­tiv­i­ties. If you’re re­ally brave you can take the high­est com­mer­cial bungy jump in the world.

From up here, you can see that Macao re­mains a rather dis­jointed des­ti­na­tion. There’s old Macao at the tip of the penin­sula from where a cou­ple of long bridges lead to Co­tai where most of the casi­nos are lo­cated. Co­tai is ef­fec­tively de­hy­drated ocean: much land­fill has been added to fill in the area be­tween Taipa and Coloane is­lands.

Fur­ther out lies rel­a­tively un­de­vel­oped Coloane, in­vari­ably re­ferred to as ‘Macao’s lungs’ where you’ll find the clev­erly de­signed Macao Gi­ant Panda Pav­il­ion where vis­i­tors can see gi­ant pan­das liv­ing in close to their nat­u­ral habi­tat. Macao In­ter­na­tional Air­port lies off­shore on more re­claimed land. Loom­ing over all, main­land China is as close as an ad­join­ing sub­urb.

BED­DING DOWN

Choos­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion in Macao comes down to why you’re here. If it’s for his­tory you should stay on the penin­sula, the old part of town. For those seek­ing ab­so­lute lux­ury, the Sof­i­tel at Ponte 16 is ex­cel­lent. If you’d like to stay within his­tory, there’s the bou­tique 12-room Pou­sada de Sao Ti­ago built inside a 17th cen­tury Por­tuguese fortress.

The casino strip on Co­tai fea­tures some truly mon­u­men­tal ho­tels. The 3000-room Vene­tian Macao has a replica of

Venice’s Cam­panile Tower at the front. Some 330 lux­ury brand shops (sorry, Shoppes at Vene­tian) are built around an indoor canal where you can take a gon­dola ride. The newer 3000-room Parisian Macao next door has a half-sized Eif­fel Tower at the front. Down the road, the new 1700-room Wynn Palace of­fers a ca­ble-car ride around an ar­ti­fi­cial lake with foun­tains and a light show. It’s all over-the-top but good fun.

FOOD AND CUL­TURE

While Macao has a typ­i­cally bustling Chi­nese street scene, it op­er­ates at an al­to­gether slower pace than Hong Kong or the big cities of China. So, in a way, it feels like a wel­come step back in time.

The blend­ing of Por­tuguese and Chi­nese cul­ture has per­me­ated the food scene, too. In Ibe­rian unity there’s a Span­ish in­flu­ence, too, and they all come to­gether to form Ma­canese cui­sine, which makes it a very spe­cial des­ti­na­tion for food­ies.

For Ma­canese cui­sine, visit Restau­rante Litoral just around the cor­ner from the A-Ma Tem­ple in charm­ing Macao Old Town. The restau­rant is dec­o­rated in Por­tuguese style and has a long his­tory in hos­pi­tal­ity: a fea­tured dish is spicy African chicken from a fu­sion of Por­tuguese colonies world­wide.

The de­light­fully light Macao Por­tuguese egg tart is a lighter vari­a­tion on the orig­i­nal Por­tuguese pas­try. Visit Lord Stow’s Bak­ery in the rus­tic fish­ing com­mu­nity of Coloane Vil­lage, where an English­man, the late An­drew Stow, melded English and Por­tuguese egg tart recipes.

Wynn Palace’s Wing Lei Palace serves Can­tonese dishes at a su­perb level of taste and pre­sen­ta­tion. While the decor is so op­u­lent that it’s rather off-putting, the cui­sine is im­pres­sive, both in taste and pre­sen­ta­tion.

Taipa Vil­lage boasts tra­di­tional nar­row lanes and cob­bled streets. It’s where you’ll find An­to­nio Macao, a Por­tuguese restau­rant that is well re­garded by lo­cals and crit­ics alike. The wines and many of the in­gre­di­ents are im­ported from Por­tu­gal and you’ll find din­ing here a fun night of good food and wine.

For the trav­eller seek­ing an un­usual des­ti­na­tion, Macao can be a des­ti­na­tion in it­self or the per­fect add-on to a trip to Hong Kong or main­land China. One can al­ter­nate be­tween the trans­posed world won­ders of the Co­tai casi­nos to the strong traces of the colony’s trad­ing days down­town. The food alone is rea­son enough to plan a Macao hol­i­day. •

Open­ing im­age: Ru­ins of St Paul’s Church. Clock­wise from be­low: City park; Macao by night; Panda pav­il­ion.

Pho­tog­ra­phy David McGonigal.

From left: Coloane vil­lage; Lord Stow’s Bak­ery egg tart.

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