May 27, 2012

A Day Trip to Macau

An hour's ferry ride from Hong Kong, on the western bank of the Pearl River Delta, lies Macau.  Originally settled by Chinese farmers who called it "A Ma Gau" in honor of the patron goddess of sailors, A-Ma, it became the first European colony in East Asia when it was taken over by the Portuguese in 1557.  In 1999 it was handed over to the People's Republic of China and is now a SAR (Special Administrative Region) similar to Hong Kong.

For centuries Macau thrived as a shipping and trade intermediary between Asia and the rest of the world.  It was also a major outpost for Western religions with St. Francis Xavier being one of the first missionaries.  This Christian legacy is still quite evident in the many surviving churches and legions of children wearing parochial school uniforms.  With the British victory over China in the 1814 Opium War, Macau's status as the topmost international port was surpassed by the deep-water harbour of Hong Kong.  Macau was demoted to a sleepy fishing town although it played an important role as a refugee center during World Wars I and II and the Cultural Revolution.

It was in the 1960s that Macau earned its somewhat seedy reputation as a mecca for gambling, espionage and crime.  Held for decades under the iron grip of Dr. Stanley Ho, the gaming industry had a major rehabilitation when, as part of the 1999 handover agreement, he lost his monopoly and new casinos were allowed to open.  By 2006 Macau had surpassed Las Vegas in gambling revenue as players bet an average of five times more than their Western counterparts!

This remarkable history and invigorated future intrigued me, so last Thursday morning I boarded the TurboJet along with a couple of hundred not-too-prosperous looking but dedicated gamblers and set off to visit Macau.  From the ferry terminal I took the free shuttle bus to Wynn Macau, the Asian outpost of Steve Wynn's Las Vegas Empire.  Just like its counterpart on The Strip, this casino is a showstopper with marble and gold, hundreds of baccarat tables and slot machines, swanky shops and restaurants and a drop-dead lobby.  Although touted as the most "family friendly" of the local casinos, there was no one at the swimming pool and there did not appear to be the same amusements or shows that Las Vegas has become famous for.  Visitors to Macau casinos are there to gamble.  Period.

I must confess to having a few vices, but gambling is not one of them, so after a look around and a bite of lunch I headed off to explore the old town.  The first sight I came across is not really historic but an integral part of the story of Macau and a pretty amazing structure to see.  The Casino Lisboa is the original gaming hall opened by Dr. Ho in 1965 and it stands connected to its newer, flashier sister, the Grand Lisboa.  A landmark on the city skyline, the soaring golden lotus-flower top with its disco ball base takes glitz to the extreme!

From there I edged my way on the crowded streets lined with jewelry shops to the heart of the old town, Senado Square, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The pastel colored buildings with their iron balconies and colorful tiles were perched on steep hills just like in Lisbon.  Only the signs in both Portuguese and Cantonese reminded me that I was actually in China!

Walking along winding black and white mosaic patterned sidewalks, another vestige of Macau's Portuguese heritage, soon led me to the beautiful Igreja de São Domingos (St. Dominic's Church).  This confection of yellow and cream began as a convent in 1587 and was immaculately restored in 1997.

I continued past a plethora of shops selling pasteis de nata, Macau's signature sweet custard tarts that seemed to be popular with tourists and locals alike until I came to the adopted symbol of the city, the Ruinas de São Paolo.  At the top of the stone stairs flanked by a carpet of flowers stands all that remains of the original Church of the Mater Dei.  Built in the first half of the 17th century, this Jesuit church was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1835 save for the façade and a few bronze statues.

Next to the church but up a very steep hill lies the Fortaleza do Monte, the Mount Fortress.  A stroll along the ramparts offers amazing views of the entire city and it was from here that a Jesuit priest's lucky cannon shot saved the day against Dutch invaders in 1622!

A second fortress beckoned and I wandered back down the hill and through neighborhood streets in search of the Fortaleza da Guia.  It was a little trickier to find than the map indicated but eventually I came to the Jardim de Flora, the Flora Garden and availed myself of the 4 pataca (about 30¢) cable car ride up to the top of yet another hill.  From here I expected to be able to see the fortress and lighthouse and walk back down on the other side but it was not as simple as I had hoped.  I suppose I should have realized that the blacked out signs pointing in the direction I thought I wanted to go were not vandalized but deliberately defaced, as there was no path down the mountain!  Eventually, after navigating steep steps and a roadway that was under construction, I managed to emerge on the waterfront, hot but safe and not too far from the ferry terminal.

The final stretch passed local residents walking their dogs, pushing baby strollers and energetically working out on colorful public exercise equipment.  En route to the ferry the pedestrian walkway passes right over the pit lane for the Macau Grand Prix.  Started in 1953, this is one of the oldest and most popular stops on the auto racing circuit with the most glamorous event, the World Cup of Formula Three, occurring each November.

My adventure was nearly over.  It was time to catch the 6 o'clock ferry back to Kowloon and leave behind this historic and modern, Portuguese and Chinese, mysterious and enlightened mélange that is Macau!

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