Flowers and Swords Greet Morning in Macau

by Steven K. Bailey, May 10, 2004 | Destinations: Macau / China

Like many Asian cities, Macau is at its best in the early morning. In the hours bracketing dusk the air feels both cleaner and cooler. Sunlight slants low across the streets, bringing out the vivid colors of the city -- the red of the A-Ma Temple, the yellow of St. Dominic Church, the gold of the goddess Kun Iam statue along the waterfront. The pace of life -- never all that fast in Macau -- moves along at a pleasant pedestrian speed. Shutters mask the shopfronts and few vehicles cruise the streets. Even the 24-hour casinos are relatively subdued. This is Macau's golden hour, and as those who know the city well will tell you, there is no better time of day to wander its narrow cobbled streets and ornately tiled plazas. If any city warrants setting your alarm clock for an early morning stroll, Macau is surely it.

At the dock-front border post down on Rua do Almirante Sergio the immigration officers stifle yawns as they hear the putt-putt of outboard motors breaking the dawn quiet. They watch as a steady stream of small sampans cruise across the Inner Harbor from China. As is true of so much in Macau -- the roads, the cars -- the sampans look miniaturized, with frisbee-sized rubber tires dangling from the sides to protect their hulls. The sampans dodge the fishing boats anchored in the harbor and pull up to the floating wharves of the border post.

Up to a half-dozen mainland Chinese jump from each of the tiny square-hulled sampans to the dock. Each passenger will have paid three patacas for the river-taxi crossing (about 38 U.S. cents). Many carry market goods or work uniforms in plastic bags, and though heavily loaded, move dexterously from the sampan to the wharf. Nobody falls into the water, which is choked with scraps of styrofoam, clumps of uprooted river weed and other flotsam floating on the tide.

As they do every morning at seven a.m., several larger vessels chug across the river loaded with fresh-cut flowers. These square-bowed ships resemble landing craft, and when they dock an invading army of women flow down the gangplanks to the wharves. Except for the boat crewmen and the immigration police, there are no men in evidence. Every woman carries a shoulder-pole that resembles a weighing scale. Baskets filled with fresh-cut flowers hang from each end of the scale, their weight evenly balanced. This mass unloading proceeds rapidly and with little hindrance from the police, who give the women's travel documents only the most cursory examination. By 7:45 the ships have returned to China and the women have cleared the open-air customs and immigration building. On the street outside the women load their flowers up on blue flatbed trucks and head off to markets throughout the city.

Not everyone in Macau has gone to work yet, however. A morning tai chi session has begun over at the plaza on the corner of Rua de Malaca and Rua de Luis Gonzaga Gomes. The concrete rectangle sits beneath the city's Guia Hill lighthouse, which watches over the tai chi practitioners like a protective guardian. Sifu (meaning "master") Ping Sau Ling wears a pink silk tunic and pants, and though in her fifties, leads her students with a supple grace. The master's early morning lessons are free and open to anyone interested in learning. She begins with the tai chi sin fan dance, a series of graceful movements that she punctuates by snapping open a large rice-paper fan. Next she wields a sword in a ritualized tai chi duel with a fellow master, a routine that is more dance than fight. Both masters swing and swirl their large silver swords in stylized slow-motion arcs, and the rising sun flashes bright white off the blades.

At 8:30 the master and her disciples head off for work on their motorbikes. Many will stop on the way for breakfast, as is true of most everyone in Macau. This is a city fond of good food and drink, after all, and breakfast is no exception. On the narrow lanes leading from Senado Square the city's Portuguese community -- Macau was a colony of Portugal from 1554 to 1999 -- meets for breakfast at cafes such as U Barril. There they share the latest news over Portuguese coffee, pastries and sandwiches. Meanwhile Cantonese school kids and adults with Western tastes stop in at one of the McDonald's stationed strategically throughout the city.

The more traditionally minded locals stop in at the Long Wa Teahouse, located on the second floor of a nondescript building opposite the Red Market on Rua Norte do Mercado and Avenida do Almirante Lacerda. Reminiscent of old China, the Long Wa has tiled floors, wooden booths and cracked white tea cups and pots. Ceiling fans whirl overhead, since air-conditioning has never been installed. The almost exclusively male clientele sips tea, reads newspapers and converses in high-decibel Cantonese. Some men have brought their brightly colored songbirds in ornate wooden cages, and their warbling calls compete with the swelling traffic noise coming through the open windows like an unwelcome guest. Bonsai plants adorn the balcony of the Long Wa, which offers a view of the flower stalls outside the Red Market. There the women who came over from China that morning sell their flowers to morning shoppers.

By midday many of the flowers are sold and the magic of the morning hours lost to the searing heat of noon and the acrid tang of traffic fumes. Overhead the sun burns the sky white. By 2 p.m. the Long Wa has served lunch and closed for the day; McDonald's has stopped serving its breakfast menu. If business has been good the flower-market women begin packing up for an early return to their homes in China. Their empty shoulder-baskets swing lightly as kites in the wind, though in just twelve hours they will be laden with another predawn cargo of flowers. Meanwhile, in offices, shops and kitchens around the city tai chi students eagerly look forward to the next morning, Macau's most magic hour.

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