Macau – Of Cultures and Casinos

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To say that East meets West in Macau may seem a well-worn cliché, except that, well, it’s perfectly true. In fact, Macau can – perhaps more so than any other Asian city with a colonial past – proudly lay claim that honour. Cobbled walkways that still bear delightful Portuguese names are a clear indication that its European roots remain firmly entrenched in this small island territory.

Macau has every reason to hold close its heritage; after all, it only became a part of China slightly more than a decade ago. For nearly 450 years, Macau was a sleepy Portuguese enclave that offered little more than a slice of European architecture in Asia, and an array of smoke-filled casinos catering to gamblers from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

After Portugal returned Macau to China in 1999, the city’s 40-year-old gambling monopoly – controlled by tycoon Stanley Ho – came to an end. The Chinese government liberalised the industry, and accepted bids for new casino licences. Las Vegas’ biggest players, including the Wynn, MGM, and of course, the Venetian, entered the scene to shape Macau into the grand gambling haven that it is today.

Within this East-West dichotomy is yet another juxtaposition – culture versus modernity – that adds to Macau’s charm. Three friends and I headed for the Macau peninsula, a 45-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong, where it boasts ancient churches, temples, museums, and mansions that contributed to its attaining of the UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005.

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At the heart of the mainland is Senado Square, Macau’s urban centre for centuries and is still today the most popular gathering venue for public events and celebrations. Pastel-coloured neoclassical buildings that house shops and cafés – including McDonald’s and Starbucks – surround the square. Shutter-happy tourists pose for pictures; some pause for food, drinks, or retail therapy to recharge their weary bodies.

A leisurely 15-minute stroll brings us to a busy alley that seems more Asian than Western this time. Two rows of shops selling bak kwa, Portuguese egg tarts and other Macanese snacks and souvenir flank the road. A friendly rivalry prevails as Chinese sellers spill onto the walkway to offer passers-by a sampling of the treats and urging them to buy.

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Another 15-minute walk later – everything seems nearby each other in the central peninsula, where buildings have been, since the earlier centuries, clustered together to form what the Macanese tourism authorities now dub the “historic centre of Macau” – we reach the Ruins of St. Paul’s, arguably the most famous landmark in Macau.

The iconic ruins, which consists of a wide staircase leading to portions of a wall, are remnants of the church of the Mother of God, now known as St. Paul’s. The church was built between 1602 and 1637, during the Portuguese era. But in 1935, a fire razed it to the ground, leaving behind only the staircase and, miraculously, the main facade which still bears a cross at its top. It remained unchanged until restoration was completed about two decades ago, to become the majestic building it is today.

As if to further underline Macau’s multicultural and multireligious identity, just a road away from the Ruins of St. Paul’s is the Na Tcha temple. This small, traditional Chinese temple was built in the 19th century.

A section of the old city walls stands next to the temple. The wall is a remnant of an early Portuguese practice of building defensive walls around their port settlements – a tradition also carried out in Africa and India. In Macau, this structure incorporates local techniques and construction materials that are compacted in successive layers.

Another defensive effort is exemplified by the nearby Mount Fortress. Built by the Portuguese as part of the St. Paul’s Church, and with the added aim of defending the city from attacks, Monte Fort served its purpose in 1622 when the Dutch’s attempts to invade Macau were defeated. That also marked the sole occasion that the cannons at the Fort were used. Now nestled amidst a park, the Fort offers views of the city, with the Ruins of St. Paul’s just below and China on the other side.

Asia’s Las Vegas

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Of course, a visit to Macau would be incomplete without stepping foot into the variety of casinos the city is famous for. And so we make a night trip to the Cotai Strip, a stretch of gambling vicinity that is in essence Macau’s expensive and ambitious version of the Las Vegas Strip. The Cotai Strip throbs with bright neon lights, high-end casinos, hotels, and man-made lakes.

Our first stop is the Venetian, which is so spectacular; it literally takes my breath away. European-style architecture complemented by dainty little cafés and shops, with perpetually bright and cloud-filled skies high ceilings, combine to make visitors forget for a moment that they were still in Asia.

The Venetian is an enormous sprawl of a building – the hotel covers almost 100 hectares, while its gaming floor alone is estimated to take up 5 hectares, with 3,000 slot machines and more than 700 gaming tables. However, the casinos were only half-filled when we were there in mid-July, perhaps due to the World Cup fever as punters shifted their attention to football betting instead (or so it was reported in the media).

My personal favourite feature of the Venetian is the gondola rides on man-made canals that take lovers and families past the Venice-style infrastructure. The gondoliers, unlike the real ones, are surprisingly friendly, funny, and have impressive vocals.

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Gorgeous as it is, the Venetian is only a part of the Cotai Strip. There’s still the Wynn, the Grand Lisboa, and the City of Dreams, among others.

The City of Dreams, a colourfully-lighted up building, is a project by Australian media mogul James Packer – another Western tycoon who is trying to get a slice of Macau’s gambling fortunes – and will eventually have four hotels, as well as casinos, restaurants, and a 2,000-seat theatre.

The Cotai Strip provides a glimpse of the Macau-Taipa bridge, which is beautifully lighted up at night, and the Macau Tower, another famous landmark. The latter is modelled on Auckland’s Sky Tower, although it is slightly taller. The Macau Tower offers a view of the Pearl River delta, to China.

It is obvious that Macau, like Hong Kong, has gained from China’s “one country, two systems” policy. Being autonomously independent from the mainland has helped Macau develop its casino and tourism industries, while at the same time retaining its colourful past. Unlike Hong Kong, however, Macau lacks a happening shopping scene or even a cosmopolitan feel, but this may be ironically a good thing. While non-gamblers may find the city a tad boring after exhausting all the heritage sites it has to offer, Macau’s strongest charm is still its historical and cultural links – features that give the city arguably more soul than Hong Kong.

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