Finding Europe in the East

November 2007, Smile Magazine, Philippines
The old world charm of China’s newest money pot

With ambitious developments swamping this once-Portuguese peninsula, Macau has rarely been such a hot topic. It hit international news stands in January when its gambling revenues overtook those of the Las Vegas strip, and its stars have continued to rise with every new casino, glitzy hotel and enthusiastic plane-load from Mainland China. But away from the high rolling and the cabaret there’s a quietly beautiful edge to Macau that balances out the economic frenzy.

Fifteen years ago when I hopped my first Hong Kong-Macau ferry, the old-town landscape of leafy side streets and cobbled courtyards had come as a welcome surprise. Compared to the shrinking heritage spots in my point of origin, here was a place bursting with all things old and charming. Yet my last visit, to a soundtrack of whirring cranes and earth being poured into the sea, indicated that Macau may be going the way of other Chinese cities. Fast paced industrial developments and pretty old buildings here rarely make good bedfellows.

My exploration started with Senado Square, or San Ma Lo, a favourite of architecture buffs. As the hub of Macau’s old town, this is where you’ll find an exhibition of its new UNESCO heritage status, housed in a fittingly neo-classical canary-yellow building. Any first glimpse of the square is impressive, no matter the angle. Approaching it by cab from the Avenida Almeida Ribeiro you’ll find gaudy casinos replaced with typical Chinese residential blocks, which in turn give way to grand old city structures. A wide pasture of black and white cobbles appears, and opens out, framed by candy-coloured buildings and garnished with a fountain. The exhibition in the yellow ‘Turismo’ centre will tell you that Macau contains 22 listed buildings and eight historical plazas. It feels like most of them are squeezed in here.

I dodged my way among photo takers and Saturday afternoon shoppers with food in mind. Most small, traditional restaurants have been chased off by chains and brand  names, but treats are still to be found.  Freshly baked pastei de nata, Portuguese egg tarts, from tiny Café Ou Mun (tel: 2837-2207) make the perfect mid-morning snack. Despite the dominance of Sasa and other chain stores here the architecture has been well adapted; just raising your gaze slightly can take you back decades. McDonalds peers out from lemon-bright arches, Häagen-Dazs sports an ornate balcony.

Religion has a visible place in Macau. Sao Domingo rules the roost at the top of the square; sunny yellow and sedate among the shops. A tourist pamphlet puts the number of Macanese catholics at around 30,000 and on my last visit I managed to catch its once-weekly Portuguese evening service, lilting and mournful. A few hours spent wandering the side streets here will turn up Baroque gems and quiet corners, from the Chapel of St Joseph’s Seminary to the Dom Pedro V, the oldest European theatre in China, and still a popular spot for Chamber Music. You’ll find many of these old timers in paintings by 18th Century artist George Chinnery, whose tomb still draws people to the peninsula’s old Protestant cemetery.

For the peckish, a canteen-version of Portuguese tucker can be had in Restaurante Vela Latina (tel: 2835 6888) at the front of Senado Square. For dining of a more authentic nature try the proud and very pink Club Militar de Macau (975 Avenida Praia Grande, tel: 2871-4000). Though it is now a private members club, the refined ground-floor restaurant is open to the public, and does a mean Roasted Octopus, ‘Lagareiro’-style as well as Portuguese dim-sum. Its shady terraced gardens are perfect for a post-lunch stroll.

My own lunch that day was with Bernard Peres, an affable entrepreneur and father of three who whisked me over the flat brown bay to Taipa, and his restaurant of choice. Taipa is one of the two large islands that make up Macau. Over Caldo Verde – a thick cabbage and chorizo soup – and creamy wild mushrooms at a neat corner spot (Estalagem, 410 Albano de Oliveira, tel: 2883 1041) Peres told me a little about the expatriate lifestyle in Macau. Though French himself, he raised his family in Portugal before moving them to Asia eleven years ago.  “There’s definitely more of a European flavour here,  compared for example, to Hong Kong,” he said. “We chose here because it felt more like home.” Despite the 1999 handover and accommodating fewer than 1,000 Portuguese residents now, Macau still keeps three newspapers, a radio station and a television channel in its old colonial language. The legal system remains closer to that of Portugal than China.

Bernard left me to take in the sights of the old Taipa village, where I found more leafy squares and family-run tavernas, among Chinese souvenir stalls and small crouched houses. The island is set for huge amounts of development, but Bernard had been supportive. “Normally they do a good job,” he said. “It’s the only place in China I think that really does take care of its old landscapes.” He spoke of a huge project underway along an old section of the peninsula waterfront. Dubbed Ponte 16, it will see one of the area’s oldest colonial districts completely revitalised, extending the Senado Square-style experience for visitors. Judging by the tourists inundating Taipa village that afternoon, the plans will be popular.

With the day starting to cool I took a cab back across the bridge, admiring Penha Peninsular – my favourite stretch of Macau shoreline – from afar. To the right casino fortresses gleam. To the left  man-made lakes and woolly greenery bring Bavaria to mind, or perhaps some coastal holiday town in Russia:  clusters of once-grand homes and a solitary church steeple. Only the space-age Macau Tower projects rudely into the foreground. Explorations along here are worthwhile, whether for the faded glamour of Pousada de Sao Tiago, an old glamorous hotel, or the views from Penha Chapel.

I’d returned to the mainland to see St Paul’s Cathedral, Macau’s biggest architectural star. The cathedral had once been part of a Jesuit college which burned to the ground in the mid-1800s, and only the reinforced façade remains, part ghostly, part grand. Crowds mill around on its staircase and guides shout histories in a din of languages. Heading into the adjacent Mount Fortress – one of Macau’s green lungs – I skipped its battlement views for a poke around the Museum of Macau, just below. Cool and dim with a subterranean feel, the museum covers the city from many angles. A mock-ups of an old Macanese kitchen lays out bi-cultural cooking implements; four hundred year-old trade routes stretch across maps, from when everything from tea to porcelain passed through this small port.

My evening and the next morning had been reserved for Macau’s second and farthest island, Coloane;  possibly my favourite part of the region. As yet it is still the least developed, its old village sleepy to the point of comatose. There is an old war monument, a church and a temple, a waterfront boulevard – and that’s about it. The equally drowsy Pousada de Coloane (tel: 2888 2143) was to provide my bed for the night: a grand old family-run affair along a beach, with a faint whiff of neglect that only adds to its character.  While the rest of Macau speeds into the next century, this Pousada remains obstinately and reassuringly the same.

Dinner swung around, as did a warm, steamy thunderstorm, observed from a balcony with a jug of strong Sangria. The balcony belonged to the celebrated Restaurante Espaco Lisboa (tel: 2888 2226); a modest little spot run mostly by one Antonio Neves Coelho. An effusive man at the helm of an excellent kitchen, Coelho too thought that Macau was heading down the right track. “The Chinese in Macau are different,” he said. “They like to preserve the past and their ties with Portugal”. Even now it very easy to get a working visa if you are Portuguese. Coelho put this down to the old colonial relationship – one warmer than the Sino-British bond in Hong Kong – but later acknowledged too that the old trading post is still a useful gateway for Portuguese-speaking countries into China, and vice versa. Just that afternoon he’d had the finance minister of Mozambique in for lunch.

My farewell to Macau the next day was well fortified by another excellent meal at Fernando’s;  a Portuguese restaurant almost deified by Hong Kong expats. The staff teeter on rude and it can take an hour to win a table, but its popularity is safeguarded by the old sprawling farmhouse-feel and a home cooked menu that hasn’t changed for years. This restaurant too is unassuming, and fades quietly into the strip of sea-side stalls and eateries. And right there is perhaps the key to Macau’s make-up. With casinos that flash and blare and shoot flames into the sky, the old corners of the city do get sidelined. But they don’t seem to be going anywhere. In fact rather than dwindling, if anything, their charms are set to become even more accessible to visitors, under the ever- nurturing gaze of the motherland. If only every Chinese town were so lucky.

Where to dine:

Portuguese: Club Militar de Macau,
975 Avenida da Praia Grande, Macau,
tel +853 2871 4000 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2871 4000      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Estalagem, 410 Albano de Oliveira,
Taipa, tel +853 2883 1041 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2883 1041      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
O Santos, Rua De Cunha No. 20, Taipa,
tel +853 2882 5594 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2882 5594      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Restaurante Espaco Lisboa, Rue das
Gaivotas No. 8, Coloane, tel +853
2888 2226.

Restaurante Fernando, Praia de Hac Sa
No 9, Coloane, tel +853 2888 2264 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2888 2264      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Café Ou Mun, Senado Square. Macau,
tel +853 2837 2207 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2837 2207      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Restaurante Vela Latina, Senando
Square, tel +853 2835 6888 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2835 6888      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.