Everyday thousands, who are keen on punting their luck to become instant millionaire, storm into Macau often touted as Asia's Monte Carlo, or the Las Vegas of the East. Several expansive, neon-lit and glitzy casinos are now the major attraction of this tiny territory neighboring Hong Kong and China. It drives the economy of this former Portuguese colony which in 1999 became a special administrative region of China.
Chinese philosopher Confucius said gambling was morally wrong, but preferable to being lazy and doing nothing. So it became a great pastime for the Chinese and “close to home” Macau emerged as a haven for the Chinese from the mainland and Hong Kong, only 60 km away across the Pearl River. Thanks to China’s “one country two system” which allows gaming in Macau but not in China and Hong Kong.
So on a recent Saturday morning when ferrying to Macau from Hong Kong, an hour’s journey by luxury boat, I discover that unlike mine, mission of most of my fellow passengers is mainly to thin or thicken their wallet at the gaming joints.
I step into Macau, to taste its glorious Portuguese heritage.
The Portuguese after establishing themselves in Goa, landed here in the early 16th century and soon turned the impoverish area into an important trading port, linking Europe with China, Japan and India. During stay for almost 400 years, they bejeweled the village-like land with architectural marvels and developed it like a mini Lisbon. In 1999 the colonial regime ended, but the Chinese administration so far has been quite protective of the region’s European heritage, despite the Portuguese population being only a small fraction of the region’s total number of around 580000. Portuguese is still the official language alongside Chinese; street names and sign posts in two while most locals are fluent in both the lingos plus English.
Hanging like a fruit bat to China, Macau is a peninsula less than 30 square km in size. The administrative region also consists of two islands Taipa and Coloane connected to the peninsula by three ultramodern bridges which symbolically link old with new, antiquity with modernity. The size of the region is increasing with more land being reclaimed and offered to entrepreneurs to build bigger and bigger casinos with other allied infrastructure like hotels, restaurants and shopping malls.
Majority lives on the peninsular where the old part, clustered with piazzas and cobblestoned streets, baroque churches, stone fortresses, neo classical edifices, bustling cafes and inviting shops, doesn’t take much time to proclaim its European roots.
Accompanied by my omniscient guide Aloniro Noriega who migrated to Macau from Goa three decades ago I being my sojourn through the tiled streets of this UNESCO World Heritage listed quarter and notice a unique mélange of Asia and Europe. I find Portuguese pastry shops next to a Chinese dumpling eatery, antique furniture store giving way to a noodle bar , colorful piazza with planter boxes, shutters and bench seats flanking a grey housing estate , European style lamp posts line streets where laundry is hanging on poles from the balconies of impoverish apartments ,Oriental design finding space in Art-Deco architecture and fine restaurants offering a cuisine called “Macanese” that bring the best of cross cultural influences.
The landmark site from the glorious past is the Senado Square said to be the civic hub of the Portuguese colonial empire. Its striking features are the wave- patterned, stone mosaic streets created specially by experts from Portugal and the gorgeous pastel colored buildings. I feel like trundling along the paths of a European settlement and immediately get absorbed by its buzz which tells me this is where Macau’s heart has been pounding for centuries. At one end of the square is the former Loyal Senate and opposite to it is the 16th century built Holy House of Mercy, the oldest charity institution in China region.
It’s well known that the Portuguese introduced Christianity into the region, that’s why the domain is powdered with so many beautiful churches which still play an important role in the life of Macau, maintaining hospitals, schools, old people’s homes and refugee centers.
Founded in 1587 by three Spanish Dominica priests, St Dominic Church draws attention by its magnificent yellow baroque exterior while the serene atmosphere inside gives instant peace. This church is famous for its alter, decorated wooden ceiling and the treasury of statues and other sacred art displayed inside a museum occupying the old belfry. A local tells me that it was from here the first Portuguese newspaper in Chinese soil was published. This church also houses a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, a title for the Virgin Mary due to her reputed apparitions to three shepherd children at Fatima in Portugal. Aloniro takes to another nice little church named after St Francis Xavier, the 16th century Catholic priest whose mortal remains are housed in the famous Basílica do Bom Jesus in Goa.
Macau’s most familiar landmark is the Ruins of St Pauls. Nested at the top of a imposing staircase not far from St Dominic Church, its only the facade of what was originally the Church of Mater Dei built by Jesuits in early 17th century and later destroyed by fire in 1835. However the intricate carvings on the facade are daunting enough to remind modern day onlookers the architectural ingenuity of the Portuguese builders. Chinese dragons in the façade highlighting the cross cultural pattern don’t miss my attention.
Back in the 19th century, the Portuguese in order to boost their income opened doors for gambling which has now become its backbone. There are 33 of them, all operating under a common set of government rules.
The biggest of the lot is the Venetian Macau, a visit to which lists in all tourist itineraries, even if gambling is not their cup of tea. So I’m there as well to get stunned by its pomp and grandeur. With 550000 square feet of gaming space, it’s recognized as the world’s largest casino but for general visitors like me the key attraction is experiencing the ultimate in ersatz tourism – an imitation of eternal Venice with canals and gondolas, glittering sculptures and gildings and replica of St Marks Square.
Bollywood dearly loves this setting. The prestigious IIFA Awards event, which was held here in 2009, returned this year again to match up the venue’s extraordinary gleam with Bollywood’s glamour, the memories of which are still vivid among the Macau locals.
Getting There: One option is to fly Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) to Hong Kong and the take fast ferry to Macau from the airport.
Accommodation: Experience the glamour of Macau in style at Sofitel Macau (www.sofitel.com) located amidst the charms of the Macau’s historical quarter.
More Info: www.macautourism.gov.mo