Macau...Old World Charm Collides With High Tech Aims!

by Wah Heng, Jun 26, 2004 | Destinations: Macau / China
I'an Hua San Temple

I'an Hua San Temple

I'an Hua San Temple

If you want just one word to describe Macau, it is wondrous. After having visited a number of cities in Asia I can safely conclude that Macau is one of the Continent's most tourist-friendly places. Macau is compact and most of the historical sites and other places of interest are within walking distance of each other. The local people comprising 95% Chinese, 3% Macanese (mixed Portuguese with Chinese or African blood) and the rest Portuguese --- all who exude much warmth characteristic of Latin laid-back style and fun-loving temperament. In terms of safety and cleanliness it perhaps ranks just a rung below Singapore where discipline is, efficiently and effectively, state-imposed.

Most foreign visitors enter Macau using Hong Kong as the gateway via an hour long ferry journey (which provides round the clock service) from the Macau Ferry Terminal in Hong Kong Central or China Ferry Terminal in Kowloon's Tsim Sha Tsui. Alternatively a smaller number fly straight into Macau International Airport. I, however, took the route least traveled. I came in through China's Zhuhai City after spending a week in Jiangmen City. My three hour-journey from Jiangmen to Zhuhai's suburb of Gongbei which lies at the door steps of Macau, took me past Zhongshan and Zhuhai districts, which have been enjoying an unprecedented economic boom since the late 1980s.

Gongbei's main bus terminal, housed in a modern complex, is a mere 150 meters from the Zhuhai-Macau customs-immigration complex separated on the Chinese side by a park. The skyline of Gongbei is now dotted with glass and concrete structures which have mushroomed in recent years. Immigration and customs clearance at both stations was a breeze except that one needs just a little bit more patience standing in front of the yellow line to face the temperature scanner to check for feverish travelers as part of SARS control.

Exiting from the Macau terminal building, I eagerly looked for the Barrier Gate which once served as the Macau entry-exit point. It has been relocated to a park nearby. Memories of my first visit to Macau in late 1977 welled in my mind. In those dark days in China entry to the Middle Kingdom was very much restricted. Like most visitors to Macau those days I peered curiously beyond the pastel-colored portico gate into China. All I saw then was a vast expanse of country-side greenery dotted with vegetable farms. The only people moving between the two territories were Chinese farmers who would be supporting over one of their malnourished shoulders a hardy wooden pole with wicker baskets slung on both ends containing vegetables, fruits, fish and meat. They looked morose and melancholic as China was then still chaotic and anarchic. The Gang of Four had recently been arrested (in October 1976) and Deng Xiao-ping China's greatest 20th century stabilizing force had not yet ascended to power until a few months later in 1978.

The first thing I did upon stepping out of the terminal building was to ask two young Macau policemen of Chinese origin directions to my place of abode for the next four days. Speaking in Cantonese, the lingua franca of Macau, I ask them to show me the way to Ocean Gardens. To my surprise they could not understand "Ocean Gardens" in English although it is the place of residence of expatriates and affluent foreigners and locals as it lies prominently at the Taipa end of the 2.5-kilometer Macau-Taipa Bridge. The Ocean Gardens development comprises some 30 over blocks of high-rise luxury condominiums with a regal-looking clubhouse and an office tower sited on a hill overlooking into the city of Macau. They however asked me for its Cantonese name (Hoi Yeong Fah Yeen) or its Portuguese name (Jardins do Oceano).

I soon realized that all the street signs and most of the sign boards are in Chinese script and Portuguese. Hence the next few days I frequently encountered words such as Jardim, Rua, Avenida, Museu, Templo, Igreja, Estrada and Forteleza and soon got to understand what they meant.

Brief Geographical & Historical Facts

Apart from the Peninsula, the Macau Special Administrative Region comprises the islands of Taipa and Coloane in the south. When the Portuguese first occupied Macau, Taipa then consisted of two islands. Eventually, massive silting of the Pearl River (Zhujiang) resulted in one island. Due to the construction of a causeway linking Taipa to Coloane and reclamation of the land along the causeway, Taipa has recently merged with its southern neighbor and the strip of causeway land has become a new region known as Cotai.

At the time of my visit (December 2003) massive construction work was taking place in Cotai. By the year 2005 a 1500-all-suite hotel with casino floors, exhibition and convention center, conference halls, theaters, restaurants, arenas and shopping arcades will be operational. This is the grand show-piece of The Venetian Macau, whose owner, Chairman-cum-CEO Sheldon G Adelson proclaimed Cotai as "The Strip" (Las Vegas' most prestigious address) of Macau. In all The Venetian Macau owns eight parcels of land in Cotai of which the 1500-room hotel complex stands on just one. There is a great potential for the casino as there is nearby the newly opened Lotus Bridge which links Cotai to Zhuhai via the Chinese island of Heng Qin.

Land reclamation began a few hundred years ago during Portuguese era. The present land area of Macau has more than double the small enclave ceded by China in 1557 in return for helping the Ming Emperor to repel pirates lurking in the waters along the South China coast. Macau at that time was occupied by Cantonese and Fujian speaking fishermen. Portuguese galleons had been making visits from 1513 after Alfonso de Albuquerque captured Goa in 1510 from the Muslim ruler of Bijapur and overthrew the Malacca Sultanate in 1511. East Timor was next invaded in 1520. Although it was the earliest foreign settlement in China it was the last to be returned to Chinese sovereignty on 20th December 1999, thus finally placating the Chinese' pride after centuries of suffering indignity and humiliation in the hands of the Europeans and the still much detested Japanese.

Land Reclamation Projects & Landmarks

Visitors would see conspicuous signs of land reclamation over at the southern tip of the Macau Peninsula. The Praia Grande Bay has in recent years been impounded to form two man-made lakes, the Sai ("Western" in Cantonese) Van Lake and the Nam ("Southern") Van Lake. Part of recently reclaimed land will form the 6.5-hectare construction site for yet another new casino, Wynn Resorts. The hotel-cum-casino is close to the venerable and iconic Lisboa Hotel which houses Lisboa Casino currently the largest casino in Macau. At night the glittering multi-colored lights from the hotel's external façade which resembles a multi-tiered wedding cake is a sight to behold.

This casino together with 10 other casinos are owned by STDM (Sociedade de Turismo Diversoes de Macau) whose 40-year old monopoly came to an end in 2002. The majority owner of STDM is Macau's most prominent and colorful personality, Stanley Ho. Also built on earlier reclaimed land nearby is the snub-nose 38-storey Bank of China Building which while ready in 1991 remained the tallest building standing 163 meters (535 feet). Jutting out into the sea on newly reclaimed land is the 20-meter bronze statue of Kun Iam the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. Some Macau people are critical of the statue as they claimed that she looked more like the Madonna. It was designed by a Portuguese lady artist, Cristina Rocha Leira although its 48-bronze plates were crafted in Nanjing. The statue was inaugurated in 2002 by the President of Portugal Jorge Sampaio. The giant lotus flower pedestal houses the Ecumenical Center which provides information on China's major religions.

On the plot of reclaimed land between the two lakes stands the 338-meter (1109 feet) Macau Tower, a communications and broadcasting station completed in 2001. It has a revolving restaurant and observation deck at the top as well as entertainment, shopping, conference and convention hall and restaurant facilities. The owner of this new landmark is Stanley Ho. Close by along the narrow strip of reclaimed land linking Barra, the most south-western and oldest settlement of Macau is the 20-meter Gate of Understanding. It takes the form of three interlocking marble fingers pointing into the sky from a circular platform; it symbolizes the "Spirit of Macau".

Massive reclamation works had also changed the landscape of the Outer Harbor. The Macau Ferry Terminal & Heliport the first visitor landing point of most Macau-bound travelers was built on reclaimed land. The Reservoir next to it is enclosed by part of the Terminal structure as well as the adjacent Macau Grand Prix Stand. Macau's Palace Floating Casino next door is also sited on the same plot of reclaimed land and so is another landmark Lotus Flower in Full Bloom, a 3-meter high gold-plated lotus flower monument standing on a concrete platform within a plaza. It was dedicated by the State Council of China to symbolize the everlasting prosperity of Macau. The plaza leads to the Tourism Activities Center which houses the Grand Prix and Wine Museums. Formula 3 Macau Grand Prix, casinos and grey hound racing have been very much the by-word of Macau. The new 4-kilometer Friendship Bridge traverses the Outer Harbor thus providing a link from the northern most part of Macau at Sun Yat Sen Park (separated by the Canal Dos Patos from Zhuhai) and Barrier Gate via Avenida Norte do Hipodromo and Avenida da Ponte da Amizade to the center part of northern Taipa close to the Macau International Airport which was built on a man-made island connected by two bridges to western Taipa.

To discover the lives of ordinary Macau folks and scenes of Macau from the 1820s to the 1850s head for the Museum of Arts located in one of the buildings which constitute the Macau Cultural Center, built on land reclaimed from the Outer Harbor. Look for the paintings done by Irishman, George Chinnery, the doyen of China Coast artists, who lived in Macau from 1825 until he died in 1852 and buried in the Old Protestant Church nearby. Do not forget to view its rich collection of calligraphy, seals, ceramics, bronze pieces and Chinese and Western art as well as historical pictures and photographs.

Prominent Macau Sights

A "must-visit" place is Macau's most prominent landmark; the ruins of the St. Paul Church which appears on most tourist brochures and post cards depicting Macau.

It was built in 1602 by the Jesuits as a church as well as a religious college. However a fire destroyed everything except what one sees today. The façade with intricate carvings of Christian religious symbols and Chinese characters, grand stairway and the mosaic floor are all that remain. Behind the ruins is a small Museum of Sacred Art which houses historical paintings, sculptures, religious regalia, statues and silver chalices. In the adjacent crypt is the recently unearth tomb of Alessandro Valignano, the founder of the College of the Mother of God. On the side wall of the crypt a visitor can also observe the relics of early Christian Japanese and Vietnamese and foreign priests and lay people who were made martyrs by anti-Christ Japanese and Vietnamese authorities a few hundred years ago. Their names appear outside the crypt.

Walk up the path on the right of the ruins and climb up the adjacent hill to reach Monte Fort which provides a panoramic view of most of Macau. It was built by the Jesuits between 1617 and 1626. Along the ramparts remain several cannons which are directed to the sea. The cannons were only used once in 1622 during the failed Dutch invasion. Located within the Fort is the Macau Museum which provides a good account of the history of Macau.

Another fort worth the walking effort is Guia Fortress which was built in the 1640s on Macau Peninsula's highest point, the Guia Hill which also houses the Chapel of Our Lady Guia built in the 1620s and the Guia Lighthouse built in 1865. The fastest way to reach Guia Hill is to take a cable car ride from Flora Garden located at the north western foot of Guia Hill. There are also two popular trails to the verdant Guia Hill from where one can enjoy a spectacular view of Macau.

Within a short walking distance from Flora Garden is the Mong Ha Hill with the Fortress of Mong Ah at its summit. The cannons and embattlements of this 19th Century fortress did not serve much of their purpose and the fort was abandoned quite soon after. For a while it served as a military barracks for Portuguese soldiers.

At the northern foothill of Mong Ha Hill is the Lin ZeXu Museum, which commemorates the visit of Qing imperial commissioner Lin ZeXu on 3rd September 1839. His visit was to ensure prohibition of opium trade in Macau and to seek assurance of Portuguese neutrality in the differences between China and Britain which eventually led to the First Opium War, 1840 to 1842. Close by, at the foot of the Hill, is the Lin Fong Temple built more than 400 years ago. The temple served as the residence of Lin ZeXu when he made the inspection tour of Macau. A short distance away along Avenida do Coronel Mesquita is Kun Iam Temple which was built in 1627 and dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. Within its terrace garden is a stone table on which was signed the first Sino-American Treaty on 3rd July 1844 by the Viceroy of Canton Ki Ying and US Minister Caleb Cushing.

A good place to rest one's tired legs and quench one's thirst while enjoying the surrounding fascinating sights and sounds is to sit around the main square, Largo do Senado or Senate Square which lies along Macau's main thoroughfare, Avenida Almeida Ribeiro. It is easy to locate the Square as it is next to the Central Post Office occupying an imposing but drab-looking building. A fountain lies in the center of the Square. Keep an eye on the Portuguese wave-pattern of the pavement. Towards the end of the Square is one of the most beautiful churches in Macau, the St. Dominic Church a baroque building built by Dominican friars in the 1590s. In the belfry is the Treasury of Sacred Art which exhibits ecclesiastical art and liturgical objects. Just across the main road is the Leal Senado or Loyal Senate of Portuguese architecture-design. This building was dedicated by Portugal to Macau in return for Macau's loyalty to Portugal during the time from 1580 until 1640 when the Spanish kings usurped the Portuguese throne. The building is now home to the main municipal administrative body. It also houses an art gallery and a library containing old historical books on Asia.

If you are feeling bored take a short stroll downhill from the Square and find your way to the narrow cobble side-street with tiny little shops. You would salivate over the mouth-watering Chinese preserved plums, prunes, olives and apricots and your nasal senses would be tickled by the aroma from the freshly baked cookies made from almonds, walnuts and hazel nuts popular with many overseas Chinese. Pamper yourself with Maxim's buns.

A place to find peace and tranquility within the city is Lou Lim Loec Garden. It was built in the late 19th Century by merchant-cum-scholar, Lou Kau and named after his son. It was designed in classic Suzhou-style of miniature landscapes.The gardens has grottos, lotus and carp ponds, a pavilion, a bridge with nine turns to, according to Chinese beliefs, escape evil spirits which can only travel in straight lines. In close proximity is the Sun Yat Sen Memorial House which is a Moorish-style two-storey structure.

How Macau Got Its Name

One could not say that one has seen Macau sufficiently without visiting the A-Ma Temple and the nearby Maritime Museum. This is because the deity A-Ma, the Goddess of Seafarers gave Macau her name; Macau was previously known as A-Ma Gao or Bay of A-Ma. It was shortened to Macau. The Maritime Museum reminds visitors that China during the reigns of the first three Ming Emperors, especially the third Yongle (Reigned from 1403 to 1424) was the strongest global maritime power.

Emperor Yongle commissioned most of the seven seafaring expeditions led by eunuch Zheng He to places as far as the east coast of Africa. Some of the wooden vessels were very large_ as long as 120 meters (400 feet) and some of the expeditions consist of some 300 vessels with about 27000 people onboard. However the fifth Ming Emperor, Zhu Zhanji (1426 to 1436) suddenly dismantled Zheng He's fleet in 1431 and banned foreign expeditions. China soon closed her doors and became a hermetic country for several hundred years.

From the late 15th Century until 17th Century Portugal rose to become the world's greatest maritime power and built new empires in Brazil, parts of Africa and Asia.

According to Chinese legends, A-Ma who was given passage in one of the vessels saved the lives of all the crew from a violent storm whereas all those aboard the other vessels who refused her passage perished in the storm. On the site close to where the vessel landed the grateful crew built the A-Ma Temple against the foothill of Barra Hill. Just across the narrow street in front of A-Ma Temple is the Maritime Museum which offers an interesting insight into Macau's seafaring past.

Walking southwards towards the tip of south western part of Macau Peninsula which district is known as the Penha Peninsula, one would see the ruins of Fortress of Barra built in 1629. It is a shame that such an important historical structure has been restored and converted into an inn-cum-café, the Pousada de Sao Tiago.This was the most important fort in the initial years of Portuguese rule as it guarded the early settlements of the denizens of Macau. If you happen to be in the Penha Peninsula do not miss the other historical landmarks such as the Dom Pedro V Theater (the oldest European theater in China opened in 1858); St. Augustine's Church (established by the Augustinians, a Catholic monastic order, in 1586); the Penha Chapel (founded in 1622 by the crew and passengers of a ship which escaped capture by the Dutch invaders); the Headquarters of the Macau SAR (the Palace occupied previously by the Portuguese governors); Stanley Ho's splendid mansion and the Consul of Portugal's elegant residence which was previously the Bella Vista Hotel.

Taipa & Coloane Bonus

Do not forget about Taipa and Coloane. Both Taipa and Coloane Villages provide rustic and quiet settings for visitors who want to get away from snarling traffic and maddening crowd. However one cannot avoid the ubiquitous museums, churches and temples. It is bliss to sit down in one of the many cafes to enjoy Chinese snacks or Portuguese egg tarts over a cup of Chinese tea. When one is in Taipa Village do make a point to walk towards the sea. Along Avenida da Praia one will find the Taipa House Museum which has four restored Portuguese early 20th Century houses. They give visitors an idea of how the Macanese middle class lived in the days gone by. The sleepy Coloane Village is even quieter as this is the last frontier of Macau. Many of the quaint houses which are now cafes and eateries face the Coloane Marques Square.

Beyond it lies China separated by a narrow channel. Until the early 1910s this area was a pirate haven. In the Square there is a monument embedded with four cannon balls which was erected to commemorate the vanquishing of pirates on 13th January 1910. Not far from Coloane Village is Alto de Coloane or Coloane Hill. On the summit which is the highest point in Macau there is a 20-meter tall statue of A-Ma made of a type of white jade from China. Standing tall she gazes out intently far into the sea to keep a silent vigil over ships and seafarers day and night. At the time of my visit construction works were ongoing for a temple, a museum and a vegetarian restaurant. Plans have been laid for a cable car link. One should also make it a point to visit the Hac Sa (Black Sand) Beach. Along this beach is one of Macau's most famous Macanese restaurants, Fernando's. It is renowned for seafood, roast pork and suckling pig. I thoroughly enjoyed the dinner hosted by my Macau host SY Lee, an expatriate Malaysian. The food was indeed heavenly!

Land of Fortresses, Museums, Churches and Temples

Macau is considered to be the land of fortresses, museums, churches and temples. At almost every twist and turn one could observe such wondrous sights. I did not do sufficient justice to Macau as I was unable to mention the names of all the museums, churches and temples without making this story too wordy. A good guide to such places would certainly be the various highly useful and informative travel brochures provided free-of-charge by the Macau Government Tourist Office. Remember don't leave your Macau hotel without them!

A New Way to Exit Macau

After four exhilarating days traipsing Macau I left Macau with a bagful of pleasant memories. The exit route taken was in itself exciting as I was one of the early tourists to make use of the new ferry service provided by TurboJet which is partly owned by Stanley Ho, who is an "institution" in Macau. This new service which commenced a month and a half earlier (October 2003) took me from Macau Ferry Terminal right to Chek Lap Kok Hong Kong International Airport. By using this route I need not travel to Hong Kong Island or Kowloon and from there find my way by rail or road to Chek Lap Kok Airport. The direct ferry service took a leisurely one hour to land at airport jetty. Thereon, it's off to Home Sweet Home!

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