Macau beyond the roulette wheel

More than a decade after the Portuguese left Macau, their 450-year-old legacy lives on in fusion with the Chinese, creating a culture that is distinctly Macanese.

Peer across the smoky gambling tables and the lines of slot machines in Macau’s crowded casino halls, and there is little doubt as to what the greatest attraction is for the majority of the 28 million people who visit this Special Administrative Region of China each year. Yet beyond the neon façade, Macau has much more to offer.

The Portuguese controlled Macau for almost 450 years and in that time built churches, fortresses and grand homes in the distinctive architectural style of their motherland. When Macau was returned to China in 1999, many locals expected the new rulers to gradually erase the legacy of the European colonial days. But Chinese authorities quickly realised that Macau’s unique heritage holds enormous potential to promote the region as a tourist destination. In the last decade, the Chinese have renovated many buildings in their original Portuguese style, installed typical early 20th-century Portuguese streetlights and made every effort to celebrate Macau’s colourful history.   

A stroll through the historic district’s narrow cobblestone streets makes it easy to see the fusion of Chinese and Portuguese that created such a distinct Macanese culture. Shops selling fresh egg tarts that could have come straight out of a Lisbon bakery are found alongside stalls with bak kwa, wafer-thin slices of marinated dried meat; colonial European buildings are decorated with bright red Chinese lanterns; even within the Catholic churches there are paintings of the Madonna and child, both with unmistakably Asian features and dressed in flowing Chinese silk robes.

Street signs meanwhile display names in Cantonese and Portuguese, with the two versions not always sharing the same meaning; the Portuguese wanted to commemorate historical figures by naming streets and alleys in their honour, but the Chinese did not always hold them in the same high esteem.

The most prominent landmark in Macau, beyond the garish glitz of the modern casinos, is the ruin of St Paul’s Church, a 17th-century Jesuit church that was destroyed by fire in 1835. All that remains is the elaborately carved façade, which dominates the skyline of old Macau, with the long set of steps leading up to the church crowded by Chinese visitors posing for photographs using it as a backdrop.

Above the site of St Paul’s Church and overlooking the South China Sea is a stone fortress, also built by the Jesuits in the 17th Century to defend Macau from attacks. The building now houses the Museum of Macau, a comprehensive collection of artefacts from before and after the arrival of the Portuguese. There are 16th-century maps, reconstructed streets made up of typical Chinese and Portuguese houses and cultural items such as puppets that shine a light on old Macanese life.

The most striking exhibit is a recreation of a cricket fight, demonstrating how the Chinese would bet on the outcome of a battle to the death between the two insects. The crickets were even tickled with a straw stick before a fight to increase their aggression. A champion cricket was feted as a hero and would be buried in a special casket after it had fought its final battle. Perhaps this display provides the strongest hints as to the roots of Macau’s gambling culture.

For a long time the Portuguese allowed Macau to decay slowly, reluctant to invest more than necessary in this distant outpost. Yet in the run-up to the handover of Macau to the Chinese in 1999, the Portuguese government took a renewed interest, keen to ensure a lasting legacy once their time in Macau was over. Cobbled streets, for so long put together with spare rubble from the city’s crumbling buildings, were renovated with the same high quality stone used to pave the streets of central Lisbon. Old buildings were restored to their former glory. Public statues were erected to commemorate Portugal’s role in Macau’s history; the most prominent example being the Friendship Statue at the foot of St Paul’s Church, featuring a Chinese girl handing a lotus flower (a symbol of purity) to a young Portuguese man.

Chinese visitors to Macau have embraced the island’s Portuguese heritage, with a strong interest in trying Macanese cuisine, a fusion of Chinese and Portuguese influences. At Restaurant Litoral,  southwest of the historic district, diners tuck into African chicken, a fiery dish brought to Macau by Portuguese sailors and made using spices such as chilli and paprika that they collected on their lengthy sea voyage to Asia. The Espacio Lisboa restaurant (Rua das Gaivotas; No 8 R/C) in Coloane village is popular for a leisurely lunch break, offering such authentic Portuguese dishes as garlic prawns and bacalao (cod) fishcakes. 

Most accommodation in Macau is geared towards providing instant access to the casino floor, but visitors looking to get away from the hustle of the strip can stay in the Pousada de Sao Tiago, a 17th-century fortress that was originally built to defend Macau against local pirates. It was acquired by local tycoon Stanley Ho in 2004 and renovated to create 12 suites overlooking the harbour. While the rooms are thoroughly modern, the entrance to the property is through a long stone tunnel that remains just as it was 400 years ago. The hotel’s Chapel of St James, built within the original fort, is a highly sought-after venue for weddings.

The obsession with gambling in Macau is so strong that it is easy to speculate that many visitors would not even notice if the city’s historical and cultural heritage was quietly removed overnight. Yet, look a little closer and it is clear that even more than a decade after the Portuguese left Macau, their legacy carefully and faithfully lives on.