Macau: Beyond casinos and European landmark replicas

Louis Lee
Macau can be overwhelmed by fun-seeking tourists who may not appreciate culture. But how can a city with nearly 500 years of European cultural exchange lack cultural offerings?
Louis Lee

A few weeks ago, two leading Irish academics visited me after attending a large international conference in nearby Macau. Macau hosted the previous edition of the conference so well that it was chosen to host this year's again. My two friends raved about the state-of-the-art management of the conference venue (a glitzy five-star hotel in the Cotai Strip 路氹) at length before expressing their disappointment at being overwhelmed by casinos and European landmark replicas.

I feel sorry for my friends, for those poor academics had precious little time to venture out of their conference venue environs. It is true that Macau can frequently feel overrun by tourists who are looking for fun and might not be interested in cultural explorations. But how can a city with almost 500 years of European cultural exchange disappoint in its cultural offerings? The following is a guide for a short but in-depth weekend trip to explore the rich history of Macau.

Start with A-Ma Temple (媽閣廟) in the Macau Peninsula, the very spot that made Macau Macau. Legend has it that when early Portuguese navigators reached this corner of the "Far East" and asked the locals for their whereabouts, they mistook the answer Maa-gok (the temple's Cantonese name) to be the name of the place and named the peninsula Macau. The Temple, thought to be built before Columbus "discovered" the Americas, honors the Goddess of Seafaring Mazu (媽祖). Opposite the temple stands the Maritime Museum, which is well worth a visit.

Macau: Beyond casinos and European landmark replicas
Louis Lee

The name Macau probably comes from A-Ma Temple.

Macau: Beyond casinos and European landmark replicas
Louis Lee

Offerings made by Macanese singles looking for partners in the Old Man under the Moon Temple

The temple faces piers serving different trades along the Inner Harbor (內港). Some are now defunct, the most noteworthy being perhaps Pier 11, where the Kwong Hing Tai Firecracker Company 廣興泰爆竹廠 office building still stands.

One hundred years ago, the major industry in tiny Macau was firecracker manufacturing. For a wonderful exhibition of this piece of Macanese history, make a special trip to the former site of the Iec Long Firecracker Factory (益隆炮竹廠) on Taipa (氹仔). Others are still in operation; do not just stroll along Rua do Almirante Sérgio (河边新街), but also check out Rua do Dr. Lourenco Pereira Marques (比厘喇馬忌士街), where plenty of seafood companies still operate.

Macau: Beyond casinos and European landmark replicas
Louis Lee

Pier 11: Kwong Hing Tai Firecracker Factory

Continue walking north along Almirante Sérgio until you hit Avenida da Almeida Ribeiro (亞美打利庇盧大馬路), which will lead you to the picturesque Largo do Senado (議事亭前地), Macau's most easily recognizable image, together with that of the ruins of São Paulo Church (大三巴). You will have plenty of time to explore those famous sites later on.

About 100 meters onto Almeida Ribeiro, turn left on Avenida de Cinco de Outubro (十月初五日街; the Avenida commemorates the day when Portugal became a republic). This avenue is as local as it gets; in Tai Long Fong Casa de Cha (大龍鳳茶樓; No.127 & 129), you will find patrons enjoying dim sum to Cantonese opera tunes performed by professionals and aficionados alike in the background. The dining experience is decidedly a throwback to the 1980s.

Further down the avenue, you will find tea shops selling Lychee Red Tea (荔枝紅茶). This fragrant tea is not easy to find. It is a unmistakably Cantonese tea and is prepared by smoking tea leaves with lychee fruit. You will also find various traditional eateries, including Nam Peng Café (南屏雅敘; No. 85 & 85A), another throwback to times bygone, as well as the Ngao Kei Curry House (牛記咖喱美食; No. 1) at the end of the Avenida. Take your pick for lunch.

Macau: Beyond casinos and European landmark replicas
Louis Lee

The 92-year-old Tai Long Fong Casa de Cha, a relic from a bygone era

Continue north at the end of the Avenida and take the next right. The name Travessa Dos Calafates (掙匠巷; Caulkers Lane), just like the names of many other lanes and streets you have passed by, reminds you of those who have plied their trade in this area. You'll see a small temple at the end of the lane, like the kind found throughout the Macau Peninsula.

Meander up the stairs to its left, and you will be amazed by your vista. You will find three more temples of various deities, including the Monkey God (齊天大聖) and the Old Man under the Moon (月下老人), the God of Marriage and Love. You will find offerings made by Macanese singles hoping for love around the Chinese Lantern Festival 元宵節 in February.

Continue your climb up to Jardim Camões (白鴿巢公園), which pays homage to Luís Vaz de Camões (賈梅士), who wrote part of his Portuguese epic poem Os Lusíadas in a cave right here. Look not only for his statue but also for mosaics depicting sections of the epic.

Macau: Beyond casinos and European landmark replicas
Louis Lee

The statue of the Monkey God on the way up to Camões Garden from the Inner Harbor

Find your way to the garden's main entrance, to the left of which you will find traces of a whole different kind of deity. The British East India Company church and cemetery – an Anglican cemetery in overwhelmingly Catholic Portuguese Macau – is noteworthy for three reasons: the grave of the Missionary Robert Morrison (馬禮遜), author of the first Anglo-Chinese dictionary; the grave of the English painter George Chinnery, whose seminal watercolor paintings of Guangzhou (Canton as it was known then) are a valuable record of South China in the 19th century; and the graves of British officers who fought in the First Opium War – a testament to the atrocities of the unjust war that shaped this part of the world the next 150 years to come.

Macau: Beyond casinos and European landmark replicas
Louis Lee

The East India Company Church and Cemetery at Camões Garden, where Robert Morrison, the creator of the first Chinese-English dictionary, was laid to rest.

Jardim Camões is only 10 minutes away from the famous ruins of São Paulo Church. Join the throngs of tourists in exploring the architecture, if not shopping, down the steps from the church. Alternatively, visit the nearby Museum of Macau (澳門博物館) right in the historic Fort of Macau.

Two other hidden gems of the Peninsula are the murals inside the Capela de Nossa Senhora at the Guia Fortress (東望洋炮台), which overlooks the Outer Harbor (外港; outer, as it faces the Pacific Ocean), and the Colina da Penha (西望洋山), which was once the seat of the Macanese Archbishop. The church dates from 1622.

Finish your trip with a hearty Macanese dinner – Chinese-Portuguese fusion cuisine with a long history – at Restaurante Litoral (海灣餐廳), Restaurante A Lorcha (船屋餐廳), both a stone's throw from A-Ma Temple or the more earthy and local A Vencedora (坤記餐室). Booking is necessary for the former two.

Macau: Beyond casinos and European landmark replicas
Louis Lee

A statue of Luís Camões was erected not far from the "cave" in which he composed the greatest of Portuguese literary works "Os Lusíadas."

Travel Tips

There are 12 flights from Shanghai Hongqiao and Shanghai Pudong international airports daily. An alternative is the overnight sleeper train D941, which departs from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station at 19:55 and reaches Zhuhai at 08:27 the following morning.

Zhuhai station is within walking distance of the Zhuhai-Macau border. D941 runs only from Friday to Monday, and the same applies to its return service, D942, which leaves Zhuhai at 18:14 and reaches Hongqiao at 07:00 the next day.

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