There’s something to be said for the old adage “never judge a book by its cover”. Take China’s reclaimed dominion of Macau.
It used to be that Macau was perceived mostly as a day-trip side tour for many tourists visiting Hong Kong, all casinos and gaudy signs.
Well, the casinos are still there.
Supported by a potential 1.3 billion Chinese domestic tourists and the massive promotion of China as a tourist destination following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the investors in Macau have certainly played their cards right.
It’s been five years since Macau first eclipsed Las Vegas as the gambling capital of the world, with its casinos back then raking in $8.73 billion in annual revenue to break the record. Today, add a few more billion.
Not bad for little Macau, with a resident population of around 500,000 and covering just 23.6sqkm, on a small peninsula west of the Pearl River Delta and the tiny islands of Taipa and Coloane.
Each year, a few more share kilometres are created through land reclamation, won from the sea with thousands of barge loads of dredged sand and soil. Macau needs every square centimetre it can get — on which to build more casinos, of course.
Even kung fu comedian-actor Jackie Chan has a stake in the Grand Emperor Hotel’s casino, which opened in 2006.
You can’t miss the Grand Emperor on Avenida Commercial De Macau. It has one of the largest LED screens in Asia on its exterior wall, more than $3 million of in-your-face, big-screen TV.
Oh, and inside, the Grand’s “Golden Avenue” features 78 1kg gold bars, set in the floor of the hotel lobby, closely watched by twitchy security guards 24 hours a day.
Attracting more than 18 million tourists annually, about 50 per cent of them day-trippers and the majority from the mainland where gambling is banned, Macau is a small goose laying large golden eggs for socialist China, which assumed control of the 16th century Portuguese trading port in 1999.
But Macau is not only rich in cash; it’s also rich in history and well worth exploring over a few days. The first European settlement in the Far East is sparing no expense in keeping its heritage.
A heady mix of frenetic capitalism and inscrutable Chinese political control, it’s a place where hustle meets history in a montage of elegant, pastel-painted Portuguese architecture and gaudy casinos walled in glass.
But all visitors need do is pass by the bright facades of the ranks of casinos, and walk down the cobbled streets of the historic centre of Macau to appreciate some of the former colony’s other riches. Within a 2sqkm area, there are 30 World Heritage-listed sites, including buildings, squares and cemeteries.
Beyond the bling things such as the Macau Grand Prix, the horse racing and the Macau Jockey Club, the Macau Arts Festival and the International Music Festival, the tiny territory has 17 museums, including the excellent Macau Museum and the even better Maritime Museum, which features the extraordinary sea-faring endeavours of both China and Portugal.
The museum documents the life of Chinese Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433), who led nine voyages of exploration with a fleet of more than 300 ships carrying 28,000 people, including 62 massive, nine-masted, four-decked treasure ships, some up to 137m long and 55m wide, then the largest ships in the world.
Admiral Zheng’s fleet is credited with sailing as far as East Africa, though some historians argue Zheng even reached the New World, landing on islands off the Florida coast more than half a century before Christopher Columbus.
There’s also a wealth of historical monuments and sites in Macau — the A-Ma Temple at Barra Point, a 16th century Chinese seafarer’s temple built in honour of the goddess A-Ma, from which Macau derives its name; the 17th century Chapel Of Our Lady Guia at Guia Fort, with its delicately rendered paintings, including that of Macau’s patron saint, John the Baptist; and the ruins of the colony’s most famous church, Sao Paulo (St Paul’s Church). Only the facade of St Paul’s remains, a majestic frontage of four colonnaded tiers featuring carvings and statues eloquently illustrating the early days of the Catholic Church in Asia.
The facade was carved from stone in the 1620s by Japanese Christian exiles.
The original church was built in 1602 as part of the College of St Paul’s, where Jesuit missionaries studied Mandarin before serving in the Ming Court in Peking as astronomers and mathematicians.
Visitors step across the cobblestones and into the past of a colonial Portuguese street-scape at St Augustine’s Square, ringed by such buildings as StAugustine’s Church, Dom Pedro Theatre, St Joseph’s Seminary and Sir Robert Ho Tung Library.
You could be forgiven for thinking you are somewhere in the Mediterranean in Senado Square, with its pastel-coloured, neo-classical buildings. The square has been the commercial and multicultural heart of Macau for centuries. Here the Sam Kai Vui Kum Temple sits not too far from a temple of capitalist dining housed in an old building, its pale-pink archway and distinctive yellow M symbol welcoming those who follow its patron — “St Ronald of McDonald’s”.
Where cultures collide, so do their eating habits — Macanese cuisine is a sometimes fiery fusion of Portuguese, African, south-east Asian and Chinese cooking.
But traditional Portuguese fare is also simple and hearty: char-grilled baby cuttlefish, garlic prawns, octopus and crusted sea bass, accompanied by a salata (salad) of chopped Spanish onions, lettuce and tomato soaked in olive oil and vinegar.
And if the history, food, culture and casinos get a little too much, it’s an easy walk across the border into China after a 15-minute taxi ride from virtually anywhere in Macau.
All Photos © Vincent Ross – All Rights Reserved