Whenever Singaporeans choose a holiday destination, chances are Macau is not a preferred choice, unless they enjoy gambling in one of its ten poshly-appointed casinos which contribute significantly to its economy. Some went there because it is a convenient day trip from Hong Kong just to sample the vibrant ambiance of its famed casinos , or as a springboard to Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s birthplace, which is only a short drive from Macau.
When some of our friends learnt that my wife and I were taking a four-day trip to Macau, they were amazed: “Surely you can do it in one day; you will be bored stiff in four!” They couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only did we have a glorious time, there were so much to see that we had to fore-go some attractions due to insufficient time.
In my view, it is one of the best-kept tourism secrets in Asia, but not for long now that there are direct flights from Singapore and China to that city. Macau, together with the two smaller islands of Taipa and Colaone, has an area of about 40 sq. km, about 7% the size of Singapore.
Despite being tiny and with a population of only about 450,000, it has numerous charming old buildings, churches, temples, quality museums, public gardens and many other attractions to be explored and savoured. Most of the national monuments are in excellent condition , as Macau is fortunate not to have experienced war for the past five centuries.
Now a Special Administrative Region of China, it came under Portuguese rule for almost 450 years. They have left their marks in its architecture, historical landmarks, cuisine and a distinctive Iberian appearance in its city squares. The marvellous thing about Macau is that its many places of interest can be reached comfortably on foot, which is also the best way to explore it. Others are conveniently accessible by the excellent public buses or affordable taxis.
All roads lead to the atmospheric Senado Square, the heart of the old city. It is dominated by graceful 17th to 19th centuries edifices, including the old Legislative Assembly and the Holy House of Mercy. Many musical and cultural events are held there. The artistically laid coloured mosaic ground, with a continuous sea-wave pattern, is stunningly beautiful. It not only enlivens this square but gives it a romantic touch.
In an adjoining square, we came upon the famous Baroque-style St. Dominic’s Church, founded in the 16th century, Its majestic interior makes it a perfect venue for classical concerts during the annual Macau Arts Festival. From there to the ruins of St Paul’s Church, the symbol of Macau, was a ten-minute leisurely walk through some narrow cobblestone streets lined with charming but somewhat run-down 19th century shops and dwellings. Many still carry on with traditional trades selling wooden chests, clogs, joss-sticks, hand made noodles and herbal medicinal drinks, reminiscent of Singapore fifty years ago.
The first gaze upon the ruins of St Paul’s church, high above a steep flight of steps, never fails to mesmerise its onlookers. After a fierce fire in 1835, only the grand facade was miraculously spared. Built by Japanese Christian artisans from Kyushu in 1602, it was the largest church east of the Vatican. Famed Jesuit priests, including Matteo Ricci, had served a stint there, and later went to China and Japan to spread Christianity.
Within a radius of one km are several other historic landmarks, including St Augustine’s Church, St Lawrence’s Church, St Joseph’s Church and De Pedro Theatre, the first Western lyric theatre in the East, which still functions today. Tucked away in obscure and steep alleyways, we had difficulties locating them. The locals could help only if one can give their names in Cantonese.
No Macau tour is complete without seeing the 600-year old Ming A-Ma Daoist Temple. The first significant building the Portuguese saw after stepping ashore, its name inspired them to name it Macau, the Bay of A-ma. Its unpretentious buildings had witnessed the vicissitudes of Macau over the centuries. It is always thronged with devotees and tourists throughout the year.
The city is unique to have more than a dozen quality museums, which gave us a quick insight into its historical, cultural and economic developments. We thoroughly enjoyed the Museum of Macau, Maritime Museum, Sacred Art Museum and Grand Prix Museum.
For a panoramic view of the city, we headed for the observation deck of the 60-storey ultramodern Macau Tower, which is taller than the Tokyo Tower. We could see the mainland Zhuhai area clearly, and the distant coastline of Hong Kong too. It was an exhilarating experience.
For Singaporeans addicted to shopping, rock-bottom prices prevail at several of its authentic “Pasar Siang”(Day Market) and “Pasar Malam”(Night Market) in the old city, with carnival atmosphere thrown in. Food lovers will find a veritable variety of world cuisines there at prices that are substantially lower than Hong Kong and Singapore. Macanese food, a fusion between Portuguese and Cantonese, is especially delectable and highly recommended.
What we enjoyed most was to explore Macau’s’s myriad back lanes where history is written at every street corner, awaiting discovery by those enthused by its colourful past and ancient feel. We saw the site of the shop where Dr. Sun Yat Sen had his medical clinic; the former sumptuous residence of Commentator Ho Yin, one of Macao’s most famous sons; and a tenement where the renowned but impecunious British artist George Chinnery once lived and painted.
Macau is no longer a “sleepy hollow” it once was. Since the 1990s, the colonial Government had embarked on a spending spree, erecting several prestige monuments, such as Twin Tower of Harmony, symbolising enduring friendship between Portugal and China; and the state-of-the-art Cultural Centre, so that their long rule will be remembered fondly by posterity. This, coupled with a surge of investments from China and Hong Kong before the handover in 1999, strengthened its economy and transformed its skyline into a mini-Hong Kong. As a further big boost to its booming economy, world-class casinos have sprung up there since the early years of this century and this has enabled it to overtake Las Vegas as the newly-crowned gambling capital of the world in terms of financial turnover.
Like Singapore, Macau is a cosmopolitan society. Numerous Western and Asian expatriates who had worked in Hong Kong chose to retire there because of its slower pace and a lower cost of living. Some Portuguese residents too preferred to become citizens because they couldn’t live without Macanese food and mahjong! Fellow Singaporeans, Esther Tan and Irene Tay, both first time visitors to Macau, summed up their impressions succinctly: “What has impressed us most is that East and West seem to have achieved a true balance and meeting of the minds here. The racial harmony and integration is palpable, and is worthy of emulation by the other multiracial communities.” We know that we will return there before long, both to relive the old memories and to cultivate new ones.
- Tiger Air has regular direct flights to Macau.
- Cantonese and Mandarin are commonly spoken, but English only in places catering to tourists.
- Hong Kong currency, on par with the Macau Pataca(MOP$), is freely accepted everywhere.
- Hotels, from 5-star to budget, are plentiful and are suitably priced to suit all pockets.
- The best times to go are between April and May and October and November.
Lam Pin Foo