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Where two worlds collide

A rich blend of Chinese and Portuguese influences, Macau is all set to court tourists, say GUSTASP and JEROO IRANI.


A blend of the East and the West ...

A PIECE of bone from the arm of St Francis Xavier (whose mortal remains are now preserved in a church in Goa) is enshrined in the Church of St Joseph Seminary in Macau. The holy relic is believed to protect the 25 sq. km. former Portuguese colony, on the doorstep of China, from natural disasters. Hence local residents were not surprised when SARS ravaged the region, earlier this year, and Macau remained unscathed: they were, after all, protected by the relic's power!

Separated from its flashier sibling Hong Kong by a strip of water, Macau, which is essentially a peninsula with two islands, is best approached by ferry. Our ferry ripped across the water and in 55-minutes, Macau's skyline, with the Macau Tower soaring aggressively into the sky, shimmered on the horizon. This territory, a mysterious hybrid of the East and West on the underbelly of China, slipped unobtrusively into Chinese hands in December 1999, without the fanfare that accompanied the hand over of Hong Kong by the British.

The former Portuguese outpost has in fact always languished in the shadow of colonial cousin Hong Kong whose New York style glitter and beat are at variance with Macau's more leisurely pulse and rhythm. Destinations move in and out of the sun, and Macau is undergoing a Renaissance. Its colonial buildings have been restored, Las Vegas style casinos with entertainment as their primary focus and Fisherman's Wharf, a new development that will combine shopping, entertainment, restaurants, convention and water sports facilities will give Macau a new lease on life. A rich stew of Chinese and Portuguese influences, the minuscule territory is all set to court tourists and its aspirations are very much on display.

Tired old images of being the gambling den of China have been jettisoned and Macau has sashayed into the 21st Century with big dreams and new-found confidence. Dubious in birth (it was built from the spoils of the opium trade) and precarious in its prime (it had become the haunt of sailors and swashbuckling pirates), Macau's racy history gives it that dash of colour and enigmatic allure. After 400 years of Portuguese rule, the colonizers' bloodlines have been embedded in the makeup of the country to produce some delightful fusions — the handsome Macanese and their glorious cuisine.

During our brief sojourn we tried to find Macau's soul and touched it in serene floodlit churches and Chinese temples where the air was smoky with incense and thick with devotion. It pulsed in the carnival of life in its zesty streets, and in festive parades with evocative names like the Feast of the Drunken Dragon and in flower-filled squares where the young and the old sat on wrought iron benches savouring ice creams under a remorseless sun. In Macau it would seem life is what occurs.

What was once a colonial backwater is now a colourful mosaic where the past and present blend seamlessly. Nostalgia is embedded in the geography of the place. We walked in tight little lanes that joined mosaic-tiled squares rimmed with pastel stucco buildings. A typical Macanese paradox: cross a street and you feel you are in China; cross another and you find yourself in Europe, Portugal to be precise. Lyrical Portuguese street names Avenida da Amizade, Rua de Cantao mesh with Chinese nomenclature such as A Ma Temple and Lou Lim Ieoc Garden.

Everywhere, the former coloniser's legacy intertwines sinuously with Chinese ancestry. Guia Fort was built in the 17th Century and the lighthouse, lit nightly without interruption since the 19th Century, was the first on the South China coast.

Equally fascinating are the churches with their mellow honey coloured facades that glow warm in the sun. The stone façade and a grand staircase of St. Paul's are all that remain of the 17th Century church (the rest was gutted in a fire) designed by an Italian Jesuit and built early by Chinese missionaries with the help of Japanese Christians who had fled persecution in their homeland. Described as the greatest church east of Rome, the façade depicts the story of Christianity in Asia. Other Christian shrines include Sao Domingos Church, with its ornate altar and Penha Church atop Penha Hill which provides sweeping views of the city. In the Chapel of St Francis Xavier in Coloane, the East and the West meet in sweet synthesis — there is a remarkable portrait of the Virgin Mary with slanted eyes holding a cherubic Infant Jesus with a top knot.

Despite the Portuguese bequest, the territory wears its Chinese heart on its sleeve. Its oriental spirit glows in the picturesque Temple of A-Ma with its prayer pavilions, moongates and winding paths. The interior vibrates with the faith and the low hum of devotees in prayer. The richly endowed Temple of Kun Iam is another Chinese treasure. In Chinese style gardens, replete with pavilions and quaint bridges, elderly Chinese do Tai Chi and old Macanese friends greet each other in Portuguese, stopping at times to chat with Chinese friends in fluent Cantonese.

At night the city bristles with energy. The gentler more natural rhythms of the day are elbowed out, and Macau shows its soigné face. The streets become a never-ending parade of long-legged lissom beauties with flawless make up, and its 11 casinos (including a floating one) take on the atmosphere of a carnival. For stylish and serious high rollers, it's party time. We joined the throngs hunched over roulette wheels and black jack tables, and tried our hand at the slot machines that spewed coins with gay abandon for others but not for us.

Sampling a Macanese meal — essentially a Chinese interpretation of Portuguese cooking — seemed more alluring than trying to woo recalcitrant Lady Luck. We slurped caldo verde, a traditional Portuguese vegetable and potato soup; codfish balls; African chicken and huge succulent prawns grilled with peppers and chillies. We washed it all down with Sangria, a heady local cocktail which comprises beer, red wine and fruit punch (Portuguese table wines can be enjoyed in Macau at a fraction of the cost elsewhere). The night was still young, and the territory's happening nightclubs and discos beckoned. Here teenyboppers and 20-somethings swayed to contemporary music with the abandon of youth. Some of us tested the waters at the Crazy Paris Show, the longest running revue in Macau, with a cast of leggy beauties who displayed fascinating footwork in front of lavish tableaux.

Neat, tidy, safe and perfectly suited for walking; what Macau lacks in size, it certainly makes up for in quality. In addition to horse racing, the territory even has a greyhound track where sleek canines race a mechanical rabbit.

In terms of shopping, there are opportunities galore if you are in the market for trendy garments, toys, Chinese silks, antiques and curios. We crossed over to Zhuhai in Mainland China and walked into a vast bargain basement mall. We capped off a wild shopping spree with a spectacular Chinese folklore show where the extravagant sets complemented the beauty and grace of local belles in a setting that replicated the glory of Beijing's Forbidden City.

As we sneaked back to Macau, its monuments were bathed in floodlights. In the glow of a full moon, the city seemed almost off-handedly beautiful. The casinos and nightclubs outlined in neon and fairy lights broke the spell and woke us up to Macau's brassy brittle side. The tranquillity became a mere memory but all we had to do to retrieve it the next morning was to step into the quiet interior of a church or a Chinese temple and feel once again that sense of ethereal calm that this tiny territory bestows on visitors.

Fact File:

... and the Toau square.

  • Though Macau has its own international airport, Hong Kong has better connections out of India. Turbo-jet boats ferry passengers from Hong Kong to Macau in 55 minutes. There is also a helicopter service between Hong Kong and Macau (16 minutes).

  • Indians do not require visas to enter Macau, Hong Kong or the neighbouring Guangdong province of China. Entry permits are issued at all three destinations on arrival.

  • Macau has a spectrum of four star and five star hotels as well as more affordable options. The best time to visit is autumn (October-December) when the days are sunny and warm, and humidity is low. Winter (January-March) is cold but sunny. From May to September, it tends to be a little humid with rain and occasional storms sweeping in.

  • For more information contact the Macau Government Tourist Office, India:


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