Macau: Bridging Lisbon and Peking
hildren resemble their parents. Thus, in Macau, food arrives accompanied by Chinese tea, or a good Oporto wine, a legacy of its Portugese heritage. Residents of the Macau peninsula occupy top spots on life-expectancy rankings—thanks, perhaps, to their cross-cultural lineage. The multicultural influence has also contributed to tourism-generated income which, in turn, has been invested in improving the public health system. However, as Confucius once stated, it is not enough to live on rice; one needs flowers as well, “to have something to live for.” In this sense, Macau has much to recommend it.
Macau’s colonial charm has won it recognition by UNESCO, which declared it a World Heritage Site in 2005. The Old Quarter of Macau reflects the commingling of Chinese and Portuguese cultures, as well as many others. After all, for centuries it served as the gateway to the Asian giant for the rest of the world. Merchants along the spice routes coming from Africa, India and Malaysia also left their marks on the region. This cultural exchange is reflected in its food and traditions, as well as in the character of the Macanese people. Far from identifying with a single civilization, they see themselves as a unique and inimitable blend of many.
Double the holidays
One of the advantages of being at the crossroads of two cultures is that there is twice as much to celebrate. Visitors to Macau can attend traditional Chinese festivals such as the Lunar New Year or the Dragon Boat Festival, as well as Catholic celebrations. The most important of these are the Holy Week (Semana Santa) and the Our Lady of Fatima procession.
The best way to become familiar with Macau’s history is by losing oneself among the colonial buildings, Chinese-style residences and squares, which echo the sounds of Fado but smell of Szechuan peppers. A good place to begin is at the Senate Square (Largo do Senado), whose wave-shaped pavement ferries you 11,000 km away to the cobblestoned streets of Lisbon.
The promenade crosses an avenue of pastel-coloured buildings and arches in the European style, among which the Santa Casa de Misericordia and the Church of Santo Domingo stand out. The route ends at the ruins of Sao Paulo, the city’s symbolic altar. Its iconic facade is the only one preserved from the ancient Madre de Dios Church, constructed by the Jesuits in the early XVIIth century, and destroyed by fire. Within are statues and engravings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, alongside other, more orientally inspired examples, such as dragons and Chinese characters. The ruins are accessed through a staircase decorated with shrubs and flowers—a nod to Confucius and his reasons for living.
Metres away from the ruins lies the traditional Chinese temple of Na Tcha, constructed in 1888. Despite the undisputed imprint of the Portuguese, to whom it belonged until 1999, Macau’s heart is both Asian and of the sea—much like its oldest temple, the A-Ma, dedicated to the patron godess of fishermen. It is said that when Portuguese colonists arrived on the peninsula in the XVIth century and asked the locals for the name of the place, they were told “A-Ma-Gau,” meaning “the Bay of A-Ma.” The Portuguese transcribed this as Macau.
The fusion of East and West is equally evident in their cuisine—bacalao cod shares pride of place with Peking Duck, and ‘dim sum’ with custard. Without a doubt though, the dessert par excellence remains the ‘pasteis de nata,’ a yolk-based pastry first created by the monks of the Hieronymite Monastery at Belem (Lisbon). Lord Stow’s Bakery on the principle square of the island of Coloane sells 14,000 of these pastries daily; nearly as many as the original Lisbon pastry shop. Such is their success that they now run eight establishments in Macau, including one inside the luxurious Venetian Hotel, where you can enjoy this Chinese-Portuguese delicacy facing the Venetian canals (gondolas included) of The Shoppes commercial centre. One more cultural touch to add to the Macanese cocktail.