It’s back to the future in Macao, a spectacular fusion of modern architecture and Portuguese heritage, culture and food, writes Judith Elen
I’m skimming across the waters of the pearl River Delta, a Macao innocent. I’ve taken the TurboJet Ferry, a 70-minute express trip west from Hong Kong International Airport, and I feel like a water creature chancing on a mythic land.
Strung along the horizon, red, silver and gold-mirrored towers stand angled, frieze-like against the clouds. Shape-shifting Grand Lisboa, at times a razor-edged lotus blossom, now raises its dragon’s head above the low-rise waterfront.
There are other means of ingress to this intriguing city. Macao International Airport in Taipa connects with several Asian destinations. And the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge – the world’s longest sea bridge which opened recently – extends on pylon legs across the wide Pearl River Estuary, edging my vision as I cross.
Like Hong Kong, Macao is a Special Administrative Region of China and the mainland is so close at points, I feel I could wade across.
The little I know about Macao, so far, involves its high-rise casinos and five-star resorts. They alone – mainly in Cotai and Taipa (near the crossing to Cotai) – are a light-filled wonderland of discovery but, as I am soon to learn, there is much more to this peninsula and its two connected islands.
The casinos are a dual legacy. From the 16th-century, mainland Chinese workers brought their culture of gaming to the Portuguese colony; and in 1847, lucrative taxes in mind, the government legalised gambling.
The 19th-century fantan stalls, not to mention the smoke-filled opium dens that contributed to Macao’s reputation as the Casablanca of the South China Seas, have long given way to glittering casino towers, but Portugal’s historic and cultural legacy runs far deeper.
In Taipa and Coloane Village, the island-districts flanking Cotai to its north and south, Portuguese heritage imbues the bustling streets.
Old blue-and-white tiles record Portuguese street names (now with Chinese characters added); several Jesuit and Dominican churches, washed in pastel yellows and greens, jostle with Taoist temples; and Portuguese restaurants, cafes and bakeries mingle with every genre of Chinese eatery, confirming Macao’s epicurean reputation.
Macao’s glitzy metropolis offers sumptuous hotel and resort accommodations and facilities, the latest technology, and stunning aesthetics in and outside fanciful buildings created by architecture’s great names, such as Zaha Hadid Architects (Morpheus in City of Dreams) and Pei Partnership (Macao Science Center, City of Dreams Theatre).
Venice’s canals and palaces are conjured up at The Venetian. Walls hung with priceless Qing Dynasty carpets radiate from MGM Cotai’s huge atrium, with its glossy golden sculpture beneath a faceted glass dome. And Cotai nights hum with lights and warmth. A gondola glides above orchestrated water jets to a unique dinner show at Wynn Palace’s SW Restaurant. In City of Dreams, audiences are transfixed by House of Dancing Water, a spectacle created by Franco Dragone, rooted in classical Confucianism.
And yet all of this contemporary luxury and casino glitz blossoms on reclaimed land: Old Macao remains traditional, rustic and surprisingly accessible.
A dedicated flaneur, I set out to explore the peninsula’s UNESCO-listed Historic Centre (visit macaotourism.gov.mo for excellent walking tours).
Camões Garden, above street level at Escada do Papel, is dense with narrow paths, historic trees and hanging vines. Few people are here but us “locals” revel in the relative calm.
Neighbourhood women move in synch through tai-chi poses, twisting open fans. Men play cards at a stone table, while a woman sweeps paths with a witch’s broom.
I survey a warren of side streets, metal-grille balconies, brightly coloured washing, tiled rooftops, cement apartment blocks and flowering trees.
Down in those streets, a narrow opening between corrugated rooftops and yolk-washed walls reveals a stone stairway, flashes of scarlet, wisps of smoke and the steep-tiled roof of a tiny Buddhist temple.
On the wall of the yellow house, Calçada do Galo is inscribed in blue-on-white tiles beneath Chinese characters. At the jade-green metal-grille door, a shrine wafts blue smoke through red and gold lanterns, columns painted with gold characters, green porcelain dragons, fresh lilies and encrusted urns.
Traditional Portuguese tile painting (azulejos) is everywhere, including a black galleon and sea monster in awhite cobbled pathway; in the 18th-century senate building, an ornate frieze encloses a flower garden and fountain. White tiles with ink-blue galleons, a tonsured missionary, robed Chinese dignitaries and angels decorate a high wall near Macao’s 17th-century cathedral.
From a terrace behind the Ruins of St. Paul’s elaborate facade, stairs lead up the interior to a high lookout and, below, to the subterranean Museu de Arte Sacra housing antique religious relics.
Looking out, the ruin’s empty arches frame Grand Lisboa’s gold-faceted dragon’s head wreathed in clouds. In front, a brass dragon urn is crammed with joss sticks.
Many-pavilioned A-Ma Temple (on the peninsula’s tip), dedicated to Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and multiple folk deities, pre-dates the city. The first arrivals from Lisbon, asking the name of the land, were told the name of this shrine. Westernised, Ma Ge (Ma Gok in Cantonese) became Macao.
This is Macao’s multi-layered heritage of shrines and churches, deities, buildings and, of course, food.
In Coloane Village, white-washed, heavy-beamed Espaço Lisboa, a one-time pirate hangout and fisherman’s house, is Michelin Guide-listed for good traditional fare.
Flamingo restaurant at Regency Art Hotel in Taipa specialises in Macanese cuisine, especially African chicken with chili sauce. In Taipa Village, O Manel charcoal-grills the morning’s market buys to serve, with other home-style Portuguese dishes, at tiny tables beneath soccer posters.
And, while dim sum is everywhere, Long Wah, redolent of the 1960s, is one of three surviving traditional Chinese teahouses (near Red Market).
Michelin accolades cover 18 starred and nine Bib Gourmand establishments in Macao. Chinese, Portuguese, rustic or finessed, in villages or high-rise temples, Macanese food and culture is indeed a banquet.
Cathay Pacific flies daily from Australia to Hong Kong. For fares and bookings, visit cathaypacific.com. Hong Kong International Airport has five business lounges, including The Pier, with a teahouse, noodle bar, relaxation room and shower suites.
The Sea Express Ferry Terminal, near Arrivals, schedules four daily Macao departures, and airline luggage can be checked through to Macao. Visit turbojet.com.hk.