Whether you’re one of life’s chancers or one of life’s observers, the kind who leaps into the fray or stands back to watch, Macau has a whole lot to occupy you.
Welcome to Asia’s Las Vegas, with all the glitz, glamour and folly that goes with it. But with one huge difference. Las Vegas was created out of nothing just half a century ago; Macau is a territory with five centuries of rich history, and plenty to show for it.
Beyond the throw of the dice and the thrill of the shows, Macau is a bit of old Europe marooned on the China coast, with sublime Portuguese colonial relics to counterbalance the modern gleam, narrow old streets wending their traditional ways beneath the skyscrapers, and the oddity of Portuguese language signs everywhere. It’s also a place of age-old Chinese traditions, so that Confucianism spars with Catholicism, and a tasty hybrid cuisine is cooked up.
All this comes from a chequered history lasting half a millennium, in which Macau has had two boom times, two epochs of glory – the early days and the present – interspersed with long and languid doldrums when the world almost forgot this tiny appendage on China’sgreat belly.
In the 1500s, it was Europe’s first toehold in China and a mercantile powerhouse. Though trade with Europe was important, Macau’s big thing was the silk trade with Japan, until the Portuguese got ejected in the 17th century and Macau slumped into decline. Then came three centuries as a colonial backwater and commercial eclipse by nearby Hong Kong – until in 1964 the territory set forth on a new career as East Asia’s gambling mecca. The first casino was at the Hotel Lisboa, newly built on the waterfront of Macau Peninsula, its iconic neon-flashing tower now modest amidst a galaxy of gargantuan gambleramas.
Formed by a peninsula and two islands, Macau’s heart both historically and actually is in the peninsula. Here are the harbours that gave the colony its raison d’etre, the government, the central business district the narrow old streets of traditional Chinese Macau, lined with little shops and packed with people until you arrive back at Largo do Senado.
If you’re there at the right time, you’ll come across a vibrant Chinese festival in the Senate Square or somewhere in the old town, because the Macanese have kept their ancestral traditions and fervently celebrate them. Additionally, Portuguese tradition is kept alive in the cuisine which can be found in many restaurants, mixing Iberian and Chinese cooking into dishes found only in this tiny territory.
You get an idea of what the original Chinatown looked like by walking west from the Leal Senado along Avenida Almeida Ribeiro, then turning southwards down an alley. There you find Rua da Felicidade – Happiness Street – a long narrow street lined with little two-storey shophouses, all their woodwork painted red, which is very apt, as this used to be the Chinese red light district.
The waterfront, by contrast, is wholly modern, a rectangular grid-patterned district of high-rises built on reclaimed land. Called Nape, this is a mixed business and entertainment district where gaudy gambling palaces flash their colossal neon come-ons amidst the decidedly sober towers of the corporate world, like painted whores in a banking hall. But go to the far eastern end, leaving behind the world of the sensual and the material, and you find pleasures for the intellect.
Firstly there is a modern cultural complex with concert halls and an art museum featuring an excellent collection of local art works, including a fascinating gallery of historical views of the territory. Further on, you see a strange futuristic complex, its asymmetrical structures clad in shimmering aluminium, jutting out into the sea. This turns out to be the new Macau Science Center, consisting of an interactive science museum and a planetarium – fun for all the family.
Around the complex are great seafront walks, with views out across the Pearl River estuary and over the channel to Taipa Island, which is reached by a choice of three very long bridges arching high over the greasy waters so as to allow shipping – still important to Macau –to pass beneath.
Until just a blink ago, Macau was a natural enclave formed by a peninsula and the small islands of Taipa and Coloane. In a phenomenal story of ever-quickening land reclamation aimed at maximizing the economic potential of its special status, the territory will soon have tripled its size of a century ago to about 32 square kilometres. The sea between Taipa and Coloane has been totally filled in, creating a whole new district called Cotai, whose glitzy Cotai Strip is set to outdo the peninsula as a gambling venue. Designed to draw the two billion potential players of East Asia, the strip’s stand-out is the gigantic Venetian Macao with the world’s biggest gaming floor.
Across a reed-filled marsh – once a sea bay – from the Venetian stands a row of lovely Portuguese colonial villas built in the 1920s as seaside retreats. Now collectively called the Taipa House Museum, painted in pastel green and white, they provide an oasis of old-world charm. To sit on a bench in this historical haven, looking out at the world’s seventh largest building, is the quintessential experience of a territory where the contrast between old and new is as dramatic as anywhere in the world.
By Keith Mundy