Macau: Dedicated to the sea goddess
Trans World Features (TWF)
Macau owes its name to the goddess of seafarers. Today, from a small trading centre in colonial times it has transformed into a glittering city, finds Ranjita Biswas
The cobbled paths around A Ma temple and the historic centre of Macau are designed like waves which were laid during its Portuguese colonial rule that stretched from 1550s to almost this century. Our guide Alorino Noruega said they symbolize sea-waves. Indeed, at one time Portugal ruled the waves with its adventurous sailors, from Vasco da Gama to Magellan, opening up hitherto unknown sea routes and in the process, also helped to expand Portuguese colonies.
Macau was one of the earliest European settlements in the history of East Asia. At that time the strategic location at the mouth of the Pearl River was known as Ou Mun, or "trading gate". Fishermen from Fujian and farmers from Guangdong from nearby Canton first settled here. The locals also called it A Ma Gao, "Place of A Ma", in honour of the goddess of seafarers, whose temple stands at the sea front. In the Portuguese tongue, the name gradually changed into Macau. In 1997 it reverted back to China per an earlier agreement. But like Hong Kong, it is a Special Administrative Region within China.
In 2000, when I first went to Macau on a whistle-stop trip from Hong Kong, the place seemed still unsure how the new identity would work out. It wore an air of a European habitat with great dollops of Chinese influence. Recently when I visited there again, I witnessed a sea change- more of China and less of Portugal now, though the fusion of cultures is still palpable.
Macau today is all a- glitter. The night sky is painted with multi-coloured neon lights atop huge hotels; each star hotel worth its name has a swanky casino of its own. Their foyers offer enchanting techno shows at regular intervals and live performances.
While in 2000 there were a only couple of them like the Grand Lisboa, today there is a casinos galore, some 20 in Macau town itself, seriously giving competition to the Las Vagas strip. The world’s biggest casino Venetian Macao under a permanently blue sky with fleecy cloud (created artificially, of course), the Dream City which greets you as the plane swoops down on a picturesque air strip built around a water body, the sprawling Galaxy which has fantastic ‘Diamond show’ are just a few of them.
Rather than taking a chance at a croupier’s table, we tried placing a small bet at the Greyhound Race, quite a legacy here and has it own fan following. The Canidrome (Yat Yuen) was built in the 1930s and is Asia’s only such facility. The dogs, ready to run after a decoy rabbit, looked scrawny enough but could they run once the race started!
The most significant landmark of Macau is the ruin of St. Paul’s Church (Ruínas de Sao Paulo). The magnificent façade up on a hillock is reached by a wide row of 66 stone steps.
The church stands witness to an era when the island was a seat of western learning in the Orient. The church was built in 1602 adjoining the Jesuit College of St. Paul’s, the first western college in the Far East. Made of wood and beautifully decorated by Japanese and Chinese artisans, its glowing descriptions can be found in early travelogues. It was devastated by a fire in 1835 destroying almost the whole complex. Today, after a restoration project the Ruins have been turned into a museum. It gives an idea of what the beautiful church looked like once.
Nearby is Macau’s main square, Largo do Senado, simply called Senado Square. Cobblestone streets, redolent colonial buildings skirting the square that created an ambience of a laidback lifestyle I found earlier are now flush with shops and shoppers, from food outlets to designer boutiques. It is a good place to sit and observe the bustling scene when your legs refuse to move.
In fact, the plaza which is part of the Historic Centre of Macau that includes some twenty-eight historic monuments and eight public squares is now a World Heritage Site recognised by UNESCO.
Within such a compact area, Macau has an astonishing number of churches, Chinese temples and museums. For the car racing fan, a grand experience is a visit to Grand Prix museum with some of the real car models featured here. Macau is on the Grand Prix circuit and is quite famous. In November the main streets of the peninsula are converted to a racetrack, somewhat like the Monaco Grand Prix .
Attached is the Wine Museum with hundreds of wine collections, some donated by families while leaving for Portugal.
A short cable-car ride took us to a hilly path to the first western-style Lighthouse in Asia from where the city looks fabulous. In contrast, is the Macau Tower, very modern, where ‘sky-walkers’ and bungee-jumpers defy the fear of height.
But a real revelation was the Macau Science Center, showcasing the ‘new’ Macau. It’s very interactive with scope for easy experiments like nutrition balance on daily diet, calculating the percentage of oxygen in your blood, your stamina etc. No wonder, school groups flock here to enjoy and learn.
Macau’s food, loosely called Macanese cuisine, is a delicious mix of southern Chinese food and Portuguese style fused with ingredients from different continents where Portugal had colonies which gives it a unique spicy flavour. Charcoal roasted fish and chicken dishes are absolutely outstanding. A signature dish is Bacalhua, built around the salty cod fish. Another is Galinda a Africana (African chicken) baked in coconut and peanut paste, with garlic and chilli. Macanese Chili Shrimps or prawns split and charcoal roasted are delicious too. A popular snack is Pork Chop Bun, served hot right from the oven by the street vendors.
To round up on a sweet note, you must have Macau’s famous Pastel de Nata, an egg tart with a creamy custard- like filling. Though they are readily available in the market the best is found in Lord Stow’s Bakery in the island of Coloane, which also has a beach called Hac Sa Beach. The area is an old settlement with well-preserved colonial era Portuguese architecture and patterned brick plazas and lovely for walks.
Gold jewellery in 24 carat, said to be cheaper here, silver and other gems like pearl, precious and semi-precious stones are in the shoppers’ must-buy list, it seemed. And of course, for the epicurean, Port wine and Madeira from Portugal, cigars are good collectibles. Olive oil imported from Portugal is also a good buy.
So you have in Macau a good package for a holiday -shopping, gambling, entertainment , great food. And safety. You can walk around the city till late in the night without any problem.