Shoe-horned onto a rocky headland, Macau is so compact that it is easily explored on foot – and away from the bustling centre, its tangle of lanes and side-streets are often refreshingly empty. It might be surprising to learn then that this little enclave of just over half a million people is the most densely populated strip of soil in the world – irrespective of the busloads of Chinese day trippers who visit for, well, let’s call it the local culture. The figure works out at something over 18,000 residents per square kilometre! When you compare that with Tokyo (traditionally considered the epitome of overcrowding) at 6,000, you start to wonder where everybody disappears to.
Macau’s most jam-packed districts are in the north, squeezed between the historical core and the old frontier with China. This is where tower blocks jostle for space, reaching high for light and air. Some residents are fortunate: they have sweeping views across the Pearl River Delta to Hong Kong.
Other apartments have a less expansive but nonetheless uplifting vista of what was the private pleasure ground of the wealthy Lou family. Originally built in 1870 on a vegetable plot, this leafy retreat eventually fell into ruin like the family’s fortunes. By the 1960s, what was once a sophisticated Suzhou-style garden had become a walled-in weedy wilderness.
The city finally took charge and opened it to the public in 1974 as Lou Lim Ieoc Garden. They restored its rockeries, bamboo grove and pillared pavilion… and probably restored smiles to overlooking locals because they were now able to stretch their legs there themselves, practice Tai Chi or hang caged songbirds in the trees.
European rather than Chinese in influence, the Camões Garden is another of northern Macau’s green oases. This banyan tree-draped hill and grotto became a public park in 1866 after almost a hundred years as the luxuriant backyard of Casa mansion. A bust to 16th century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões was unveiled at the same time and nearby, engraved into a huge, seemingly precarious slab, a sonnet proclaims Macau as a “gem of the orient earth”.
Other parks, including the Vasco de Gama Garden, were laid out in the following decades, but their formal, geometric layout didn’t suit the Chinese who prefer texture over pattern. Fortunately the city found a compromise in which the Chinese garden was treated like an open-air gallery and enhanced with European- style sculpture, murals and other arts. And so another cross-cultural collaboration formed in this city where fusion cuisine and a mixed- heritage community existed centuries before the concepts became common.
One of Macau’s newest gardens, the Jardim das Artes, is a fine example of this meeting of cultures and disciplines. The Art Garden joins up with two other parks to run as a lush, leafy ribbon through one of the city’s least attractive districts, starting at the iconic (and decidedly retro) Casino Lisboa to end with a flourish of fountains at the 20 metre-tall Goddess of Mercy statue that stands in the Outer Harbour. The garden is a sequence of restful, shady areas interspersed with some fine art including a statue of the Macanese poet and playwright José dos Santos Ferreira, who looks straight ahead to Wynn Casino with a mix of doubt and curiosity. But there’s no need for Adé, as he was known, to appear so downcast.
Wynn, like many of the casino resorts, has added to Macau’s growing catalogue of venues promoting both public art and horticultural flair. Take the “Performance Lake” in front of the hotel with its dancing fountain show: this is both a relaxing (and well-used) public park and an enthralling display of watery sculpture!
A more tranquil lake can be found in the south of Taipa island. A row of five traditional Portuguese villas that once looked out to sea and the city’s other island Coloane, now look out over reclaimed land and its Vegas-style strip of casinos and hotels. The lake in front of these villas (collectively known as the Taipa Houses Museum) is a souvenir of the South China Sea waves that lapped against the rocky shore here just some 20 years ago. Adjacent Carmel Garden is a popular spot for newlyweds to pose for their official photos and is the setting of regular horticultural shows.
Macau is often dismissed as a neon-lit spectacle, a place of easy entertainment and overblown architecture. But it is a crowded and historic city that has learnt to value personal space alongside an appreciation of the arts: evident in the many outstanding parks provided for its townsfolk. If you find yourself on one of Macau’s quiet lanes, no need to wonder where everybody’s gone. It probably means there’s an inviting public garden nearby.
Lou Lim Ieoc Garden, Estrada de Adolfo Loureiro, open 6am–9pm daily, free.
Camões Garden, Praça de Luís de Camões, open 6am–10pm, free.
Vasco de Gama Garden, Rua Ferreira do Amaral, open 24 hours, free.
Jardim das Artes, Avenida da Amizade, various opening times – some parts 24 hours, free.
Wynn Peformance Lake, Avenida da Amizade, 11am–midnight daily, displays at 15 minute intervals for approximately three minutes.
Goddess of Mercy Statue – Kun Iam Ecumenical Centre, Avenida de Sun Yat-sen, open 10am–6pm Saturday–Thursday, free.
Taipa Houses Museum, Avenida da Praia, Taipa, open 10am–6pm Tuesday–Sunday, adult MOP5 (about A$0.60), studentMOP2 (about A$0.25), under 12/over 65 free, free for all visitors on Sunday.
Carmel Garden, Avenida da Praia, Taipa, open 24 hours, free.
Other parks & gardens worth visiting:
Flora Garden (Avenida do Sidónio Pais, open 6am–8.30pm, free) is a European- style flower and shrub garden with a small zoo and waterfalls. From here the Guia Cable Car connects with the park at the top of Guia Hill with stunning views across the city. Nam Van Lakes Promenade (Avenida da Republica, open 24 hours, free) leads from downtown Macau to the Macau Tower. Monte Hill Garden (Ruins of St Paul, open 24 hours) leads up to Monte Fort and the Museum of Macau and offers views of the ruined church as well as a chance to escape the tourist crowds.