Nestled a little more than an hour from Hong Kong by way of ferry, Macau is an intriguing city with a rich history and thriving tourism industry. Though today it may be known best for its carbon copy Las Vegas-style casinos, Macau was also once a Portuguese colony – the first and last European colony in China. It was only until very recently in 1999 that the Portuguese handed back the city to the People’s Republic of China and today, along with Hong Kong, it operates as a special administrative region of China. As a result of its special status, Europeans, Americans, Australians and those from most Asian nations do not require a visa to enter the region.
Macau is a walkable city, but it’s better to take a shuttle or taxi from the port to the main tourist drag. Like in most of Asia, taxis are extremely cost efficient and I paid about $20 HK dollars ($3.50 USD) for a10-minute drive from the port to Lou Lim Leoc Gardens. These gardens are the most “Chinese” of all the gardens in Macau and are a far cry from the glitzy casinos only a few kilometres away. As I meandered through the maze of plant life I heard the distant hums of traditional Chinese instruments playing and a peaceful calm swept through the park. A charming mix of Chinese architecture, plants and butterflies, Lou Lim Leoc is a great escape from city life for many locals.
Outside, the quaint folk music was muffled by the roar of engines and the usual street chatter. I walked along a road towards the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral with a row of old Portuguese buildings to my right and typical Asian-style urban sprawl condos to my left. With my map tucked away in my pocket, and handy streets signs in Mandarin, English and Portuguese, I found my way to the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Known in Portuguese as Ruínas de São Paulo, only the façade of this UNESCO World Heritage site remains. It was originally built by Jesuits in the late 1500s and the surviving façade was mostly carved by exiled Japanese Catholics in the 1620s. St. Pauls Cathedral once stood as the largest Catholic church in all of Asia and is still, even in its diminished state, quite a sight to behold regardless of your religious affiliation. Standing in front of such a striking piece of 400 year old European architecture in what feels like the middle of the South China Sea is an experience unique to Macau.
Surrounding the ruins are a number of other sites related to the Portuguese colonisation of the area as well as the Macau history museum. Walking down from the grand staircase which leads up to the Ruinas de Sao Paulo, I entered a busy shopping quarter complete with a mix of original and rebuilt Western-inspired architecture. Food vendors sold everything from traditional Chinese delicacies to Portuguese pork buns. Proceeding down the crowded corridors I eventually hit the centre of Macau’s Historic District – Senado Square, which can be identified by the wavy lines of Portuguese tiles on the street.
Beside the brand name stores and perfectly restored facades were a number of historically significant structures including the beautiful Largo de São Domingos (St. Dominic’s Church). Brightly painted in yellow and green, the church is open to visitors and you are free to explore and take photographs so long as you don’t put your feet on the benches. Following the zebra-striped road down, I reached Senado Square and though the city is sprinkled with hints of its European past, this was the symbolic end of the historic district. From this point, the walk to Macau’s shiny new casinos is a short one.
The Wynn, MGM and other casinos may shine and glitter along the coastline of this once quaint fishing village, but these glaring examples of cosmopolitan consumerism do not overshadow Macau’s unique and fascinating history. Tucked away behind the bright lights are even brighter examples of hybrid Chinese and European architecture, culture and cuisine which are surely exclusive to this tiny peninsula jutting out into the South China Sea.