There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 15 November 2010

Macau: Part 10 of China's Far Southwest

Surely it should be tarmac,
the view from inside the Kowloon Ferry Terminal
Hong Kong's Kowloon China Ferry Terminal is more like a cross between an office block and an airport than a ferry terminal. The entry off Canton Road gives no clue that water is anywhere near. The entrance hall is empty except for a bank of lifts. One floor up, in a small shopping mall, a ticket office hides in an unobtrusive corner. Following signs to the ferries brings you to a series of check-in desks where tickets are scanned, seats assigned and boarding cards handed out. Once through, you queue to have your passport stamped before following the signs to an airline-style gate. The first glimpse of water through the window is unsettling; surely it should be tarmac.

The enclosed cabin of the supercat is considerably more spacious than a plane, and if they don’t move quite as fast, they are still quick enough to cover the 70 km across the Pearl River Estuary to Macau in just over an hour.

Macau claims to have been the first and last European colony in China. A permanent Portuguese settlement was established in 1557 and governed by a Portuguese senate from 1583, though under nominal Chinese authority. However, it was not until 1887 – 45 years after the British gained sovereignty over Hong Kong - that the Chinese ceded the right of "perpetual occupation and government of Macau by Portugal". Unpopular colonial wars helped bring down the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, and the new democratic Portugal was happy to allow Chinese influence to grow in Macau. The colony was formally handed back in 1999, two years after Hong Kong. Like Hong Kong it is governed under ‘one country, two sytems’, has its own border formalities and its own currency, the Pataca. 1 Pataca is worth much the same as a Hong Kong Dollar and even the tiniest business is happy to take payment in HK$ and give change in whatever currency comes to hand.

Probably named for the same Mazu, Goddess of the Sea, worshipped in Hong Kong’s many Tin Hau Temples, Macau consists of three islands, joined by bridges or causeways. On a day trip we confined ourselves to the northernmost island, Macau itself - though it is not quite a island being connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land.

....a volcano and a desert fort,

The main business of Macau is gambling and the casinos were the destination of many, if not most, of our fellow travellers. The ferry passed under the Friendship Bridge linking Macau with Taipa and then, just to emphasis that Macau is spiritually twinned with Las Vegas, the brief run to the dock passed ersatz Dutch houses, the Colosseum, an Egyptian temple,  a volcano and a desert fort .

We had intended taking a taxi the couple of kilometres into the centre, but outside the terminal we encountered a row of free shuttle buses operated by the various casinos. As we were aiming for the New Lisboa Hotel, we boarded their bus and ten minutes later were disgorged into the bowels of the earth below the slightly tacky gilded splendour of the enormous hotel/casino complex.

The Old Lisboa, smaller and more
understated than the New Lisboa

I have to admit that both Lynne and I have a problem with gambling, not a ‘gambling problem’ but a difficulty with the basic concept. We just don’t get it. Although I live a pure and blameless life – of course -  I can vaguely comprehend the attraction of most forms of vice and wickedness, but gambling is simply beyond me. We have been to Las Vegas, but we just drove through lamenting the waste of a beautiful desert. I have never been inside a betting shop nor, until I dutifully trooped off the shuttle bus and followed the crowd through the doors that opened before us, had I been in a casino. I suppose I should have been curious, should have stayed to watch, maybe tried to understand the attraction, even had a flutter. We stayed in the casino as long as it took to find the escalator to the hotel lobby.

We emerged at the Eastern end of the Avenida do Infante Don Henrique, Macau’s main drag. Despite its name the Avenida does not look Portuguese, it is not quite like Hong Kong either, but it is a lot more like Hong Kong than Lisbon; tall buildings, a mass of Chinese faces and traffic that drives on the left. Given Britain’s century-long ownership of Hong Kong, driving on the left might be expected there, but in Macau it is harder to explain.

Street signs are in Chinese, Portuguese and English and after walking some way up the Avenida we turned right towards the , the cathedral. Once in the back streets it did feel a little Portuguese, the balconied houses might just have been in the Bairro Alta district of Lisbon. The Cathedral itself, a restored mid-nineteenth century edifice on an older foundation, is uncharacteristically plain. Portuguese as Asia can be....,
Largo do Senado, Macau
Continuing through the back streets we found the church of São Domingo, a seventeenth century Baroque building painted just the right shade of Portuguese yellow. From the church the arcaded Largo do Senado led back to the main road and the Leal Senado (Loyal Senate) building. The pedestrianised largo has the same small cubical cobbles set out in the same sort of design as can be found in any pedestrianised square in Portugal. We even found an exact copy of the famed squid that adorns the Roman bathhouse in Milreu in the Algarve. Accepting that Chinese crowds are not quite like Portuguese crowds, and that something in the atmosphere says that you are unmistakeably on the edge of the tropics, Largo do Senado is as Portuguese as Asia can be.

We wandered on through the rather disappointing market, by now looking for somewhere to eat. Macau boasts some of the best Portuguese restaurants outside Portugal, but as regular visitors to the real thing that did not attract us. There is, reputedly, a Macanese fusion cuisine which we had hoped to stumble across, but all we found were a few hole in the wall restaurants which were either impossibly packed or uninvitingly empty.

Beyond the market the Avenida do Infante D Henrique becomes the Avenida de  Almeida Ribero, but both parts of the road are too busy with designer goods to bother with food.  In a small square south of Almeida Ribeiro we came across the interestingly named ‘God of Money’ restaurant. The menu was basic Cantonese – but there is nothing wrong with that.

We chose some deep fried cuttlefish and, at the management’s suggestion, sweet and sour pork.  This somewhat surprising combination worked remarkably well, the pork being a more cultured relative of the garish sweet and sour dishes available in every Chinese restaurant in England. Given the helpful attitude of the management, the quality of the food and number of diners, the God of Money may well be smiling on them. I could have ordered the cuttlefish in Portuguese, though sadly not in Cantonese, but that was unnecessary. The default non-Chinese language, written on the menu and spoken by the staff, was English.

Well fed, we crossed back over the road. Crossings in Hong Kong are controlled by lights. Nobody moves when the little man is red and and the crossing ticks portentously as if counting off the seconds to Armageddon. Then the man turns white, the ticking speeds up and everybody obediently scurries across. Macau, though, has zebra crossings. In mainland China, drivers regard the stripes as decorations on the road.  British and Portuguese drivers generally observe them properly but in Macau a pedestrain only has to think about crossing and twitch a muscle in that direction to bring the traffic screeching to a halt.

We joined in
Façade of the church of São Paulo, Macau

Half a kilometre north of  Almeida Ribeiro a set of steps leads up to the church of São Paulo. Begun in 1602, the façade at the top of the steps took twenty-five years to finish. Being designed by a Spaniard in an Italian style and built by Japanese craftsmen it could have been a disaster, but it is actually magnificent.  A dove at the top symbolising the Holy Spirit is flanked by the sun and moon. In the second tier Jesus stands among the implements of crucifixion and below this The Virgin Mary and angels are surrounded by a peony, representing China, a chysanthemum (Japan) a griffin and a rigged galleon (Portugal). Four Jesuit saints make up the lowest tier. The façade is the image of Macau, reproduced everywhere on shopping bags and t-shirts, and the steps swarm with the tourists of several continents all jockeying for the best position to photograph each other in front of the stonework. We joined in.

The church behind was beautiful, too, more beautiful than ‘all the churches of Italy, except St Peter’s’ as one 1630 visitor wrote. We must take his word for it as the church burned down in 1835. The floor plan is preserved, as is the crypt which contains some relics, church regalia and a rather disturbing painting of the crucifixion of  23 Christians in Nagasaki in 1597.

..the golden tailfeathers of the New Lisboa Hotel... 

More steps take you up to the Fortaleza do Monte where stunning views across Macau are dominated, at least to the South, by the golden tailfeathers surmounting the New Lisboa Hotel. The fort saw action once, driving off a Dutch attack in 1622, but today houses the Museum of Macau.

It is difficult to trace British influence in any existing architecture in Hong Kong. With the exception of the Murray House, relocated to Stanley from Central, there appears to be little interest in preserving old builings – knock it down and rebuild it bigger and shinier is the Hong Kong way. Despite that Hong Kong retains a distinctly British air. It is not just the use of English as one of the official languages, nor the driving on the left, there is an atmosphere, a way of doing things which makes the place feel like an, admitedly far distant, out-post of home. Central Macau, by contrast, retains a large area that looks exactly like a sub-tropical Portugal, but that is where it stops. The Portuguese language survives in signs and street names, but we heard no one speak Portuguese; we could discern no surviving Portuguese feel to the place.

Back down in the streets below São Paulo the main business was the manufacture and selling of flat sheets of what seemed to be pounded meat. We had ignored this on the way up, being full of cuttlefish and pork, but took a closer look now. Outside several shops girls were slicing off samples for passers-by. I am not convinced that the old-fashioned term ‘sweetmeats’ ever referred to food containing meat, but sweet meat was exactly what we found ourselves nibbling. Taking the sugar out and replacing it with garlic would have produced a decent salami – and I, for one, would have preferred it.
...the image of Macau, reproduced
everywhere on shopping bags...

Deciding that sugary meat products were not for us we found a coffee shop and ordered cappuccinos and a couple of Pastais de Nata, as they are called in Portuguese, though the menu called them custard tarts. The Macanese are very proud of their custard tarts and we are very fond of Pastais de Nata, indeed morning coffee in Portugal is not complete without one. The custard tarts were perfectly acceptable but, in all fairness, there are several hundred bakers in the Algarve who daily produce lighter, crisper pastry and sweeter, richer custard cream.

We returned to the New Lisboa Hotel hoping to take their shuttle back to the ferry port, but soon discovered a receipt for gambling chips was necessary for a free return ride. There was nothing for it, we either had to lose our gambling virginity or take a taxi. We took a taxi.

The warm November day had become increasingly breezy and by the time we reached the port the sea was distinctly choppy. The supercats, so swift and sure-footed in calm water, do not like waves. They leap from one crest to the next like a drunken kangaroo that is reluctant to get its feet wet. Our return to Hong Kong was less comfortable and considerably longer than our outward journey, and do you want to know about the length of the queues in Hong Kong passport control? Probably not.

In a day we did the tourist ‘must-sees’ but hardly scratched the surface of the real Macau. One day, we will have to go back.

1 comment:

  1. Mermories, sweet memories.... Nect time you go back you must visit the old protestant cemetary where you will get a real feel for the history of Macau.