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Travel
June 16, 2009

Playground Of The East

Text by Amita Sarwal. Photographs courtesy Macau Government Tourist Office

Macau, venue of the IIFA awards this month, has a gaming history dating back to the mid-19th century and charms with its historic churches, egg tarts and Portuguese sculpture, writes Verve

The TurboJet from Hong Kong crosses the 60 km Pearl River estuary to Macau (also spelt Macao) in just under an hour. The immigration hall is packed with serpentine queues of almost a thousand same-day visitors to the 24 casinos. They come in primarily from Mainland China and Hong Kong. Later, the overnighters drift into Macau, with the sunset.

As we drive along the reclaimed waterfront facing the Fisherman’s Wharf, on our right is the bulbous, coronet-like golden Lisboa backed by the stylised lotus-shaped 52-floor Grand Lisboa tower. Famous Las Vegas-style names like Wynn Macau, Sands, Galaxy whiz past, including smaller inconspicuous casinos.

After a 430-year rule, the Portuguese handed over Macau in 1999 to the Macao Special Administrative Region (MSAR) and granted all Macanese residents Portuguese citizenship. It is not surprising then that the two official languages continue to be Chinese and Portuguese, though increasingly English is being introduced.

All legal gambling operations were until recently under a single government-sanctioned cartel, SJM (Sociedade de Jogos de Macau), headed by Stanley Ho (On the Forbes’ richest people list). I learn that around 40 per cent of all gambling revenue actually goes to fill the government coffers and is in turn used for the community.

With all intentions to be respected for more than its gambling opportunities, Macau Tourism is aggressively promoting its historical and cultural sites. The Historic Centre of Macau comprising 25 of these has earned a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Yet these remain a distant second to the lure of the casinos.

Our first stop is at the Macau Museum housed in the 17th century Mount Fortress adjacent to the famed landmark synonymous with Macau – the towering skeletal ruins of St. Paul (c. 1580).

Out in the Fortress’ parapets, we follow a row of glamorous Chinese girls draped in flowing silk robes into the impressive remains of Church of Mater Dei which was part of St. Paul’s College (c.1594). History has it that the church was burnt down and rebuilt thrice. The last fire in 1835 devastated both the college and church except for the stately façade. The influences of its craftsmen from the East and West are evident – Chinese lions, a dragon, Japanese chrysanthemums, and Western emblems and statues.

The steps from St. Paul lead down through a narrow cobbled street and open into the rippling white-and-black tiled Senado Square. Flanked by stately Portuguese buildings, this is the heart of Macau and one of eight squares of varying sizes. The central fountain of San Ma Lo is the focal point for concerts, festivals and public events.

A short walk takes us to the 16th century St. Dominic’s Church in Dominic Square. Tranquility prevails within the elaborately designed interior with its Baroque altar. The church particularly comes alive every year on May 13 during the Procession of Our Lady of Fatima.

We admire other majestic buildings – the Holy House of Mercy museum, originally China’s first Western-styled hospital, and later, the Macao Maritime Administrative building with Islamic architectural influences. Built by an Italian architect in 1874 it housed the Indian Regiment that came from Portuguese Goa prior to its 1961 liberation.

Opposite the Golden Lotus (national flower) Square is the Grand Prix Museum. Among its memorabilia is a tribute to Ayrton Senna with a replica of the car the ill-fated racer drove. We make our way to some provo de vinhos (wine tasting) at the adjacent Wine Museum which houses more than a thousand wines.

Lunch is at the quaint Restaurante Litoral with its dark polished wood, white-washed walls with blue-and-white tiled floor. We feast on authentic Macanese sardine pâté with warm buns, cod fish cakes, squid salad, baked duck rice and African chicken and leave with the taste of a deliciously rich white-and-dark chocolate mousse in our mouths.

A short walk to another square by the sea – Barra – fronting the A-Ma Temple dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea. Early Portuguese settlers landing here in the 16th century asked the locals the island’s name. Upon being told the goddess’ name, A-Ma-Gau they ended up transcribing it to Macau.

While driving down, we spy the 338-metres high, world’s 10th and Asia’s 8th tallest free-standing Macau Tower Convention and Entertainment Centre, frequented by bungee jumpers and sky-walkers for a thrilling experience.

A 20-metres tall Goddess of Mercy, Kun Iam rises above the water in the Outer Harbour. Her Virgin Mary-like features and stance could be credited to her Portuguese sculpture.

At Taipa a row of picturesque waterfront colonial style Macanese ‘green’ houses symbolise gracious old-world charm. The previous residences of senior civil servants and rich Macanese now host exhibitions and official receptions.

Entering Bombeiros Square through the slender cobbled Rue de Cunha lined by shops and bakeries calls for a brief halt to taste freshly-made chikki-like peanut candy and grilled pork Jerky.

Affirming that a visit to Macau is incomplete without tasting Lord Stow’s egg tarts our hostess rushes into the small bakery in Coloane. Biting into the piping hot tarts, we spy Mainland China across the water.

Cotai, the reclaimed land joining the Chinese-named Taipa and Portuguese-inspired Coloane islands, was created to replicate the Las Vegas strip. Being greeted by a namaste, we discover that that the security in most casinos is primarily manned by Gurkhas!

As we leave with the setting sun, we get a lasting impression of Macau – with its appealing past, hectic present and an explosive future.

For more information visit: www.macautourism.gov.mo

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