Finding Portugal in Macau

ROMAIN MAITRA | Updated on: Jun 30, 2011


Where the twain meets… in multicoloured, multicultural splendour.

Cultural markers are often defaced by infrastructural development and nation-building, but there are some lingering vestiges of history that bear testimony to cross-cultural exchanges. It was to witness a unique amalgam of Chinese and Portuguese cultures that I was inspired to visit Macau — a destination which otherwise blinkers on tourist maps as a Shangri-la of abundant gambling and entertainment productions.

As till date there is no flight connecting India to Macau International Airport, the best way is to fly to Hong Kong and take the hour-long water transport ‘TurboJet' to Macau Ferry Terminal.

In the first few hours after landing in Macau, all I saw around me were people of Chinese stock. Almost 95 per cent of Macau's population is Chinese and only 2-3 per cent is of Portuguese or mixed Chinese-Portuguese descent, an ethnic group commonly referred to as Macanese. As Macau's birth rate is among the lowest in the world, its population growth is mainly driven by immigrants from mainland China and other overseas workers.

During my sojourn here, I came across a set of administrative and functional ‘riddles'. Until today, almost all the high administrative positions in Macau — comprised of the Macau Peninsula and the islands of Taipa and Coloane — are occupied by the minority Portuguese. Moreover, although it is a part of mainland Communist China, a permit is needed to travel between them. All the road names are inscribed in both Portuguese and Chinese, with the Portuguese names ‘transcreated' into Chinese.

Portuguese traders first settled in Macau in the 16th century and subsequently administered the region until its handover on December 20, 1999. Since then, as the Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, Macau enjoys a high degree of autonomy until at least 2049, fifty years after the transfer under the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration and the Basic Law of Macau. For western civilisation, Macau has been an important gateway to China, and from the 16th century a focal destination for traders and missionaries.

The ‘Historic Centre of Macau' — a World Heritage Site — is a live representation of the city's historic settlements, where 16th-Century town planning is interlaced with contemporary cityscapes.

A spectacular example is the Ruins of St. Paul's ( Ruínas de São Paulo ), in which only the façade of the cathedral stands in all its grandeur. Built in 1602, the cathedral was destroyed in a fire in 1835 and only the southern stone façade remains. From a distance, the façade looks like an altarpiece — divided into four horizontal sections, crowned with a pediment, and nine vertical divisions with representations of the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary, and references from the apostolic and missionary work of the Society of Jesus. A broad, sloping staircase from the ruins led me to a market area brimming with Chinese goods of everyday use, including local foodstuff and traditional medicines. The market's winding alley, filled with tourists, led to the plaza of Senado Square and St. Dominic's Church.

Macau is known to be far more protective of its colonial heritage than its neighbour Hong Kong and, for the most part, the churches, squares and government buildings constructed by the Portuguese are still well-maintained. With Mediterranean buildings in shades of pink and yellow lining its cobbled mosaic flooring, the Senado Square ( Largo do Senado ) is a cluster of Portuguese heritage sites. The St. Dominic's Church, with its yellow façade and green doors and windows, was established by three Spanish Dominican friars from Acapulco, Mexico. Built originally in wood and later rebuilt in stone in 1828, the main altarpiece has the Madonna and Child.

The main road — Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro — goes past the Leal Senado (Loyal Senate) building and the Holy House of Mercy, the first western medical clinic and social welfare centre in Macau that functions even today. In the sleepy hamlet of Coloane is the St. Francis Xavier chapel, which contains some of the most sacred relics of Christian Asia. In a silver reliquary is a bone from the arm of St. Francis Xavier, who followed his missionary successes in Japan by coming to the China coast, where he died in 1552 on Sanchuan Island, 50 miles from Macau. The relic was destined for Japan but religious persecution there persuaded the church to keep it at St. Paul's in Macau before moving it to this chapel in 1978. A huge photo of Mother Teresa hangs beside the altar to commemorate her visit, while elsewhere is a large painting of a Chinese Madonna — all pointers to multiculturalism.

More of multiculturalism can be experienced at the UNESCO World Heritage A-Ma complex of temples dedicated to the Taoist goddess Tin Hau and the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kun Iam.

The peninsula itself is supposedly named after A-Ma, a young woman from Fukien province with powers to calm the stormy sea and protect seafarers and fishermen. As the legend goes, when Portuguese sailors first landed here, the natives told them they were at “ A-Ma-Gao ” (Bay of A-Ma), which became Macau. There is a wide range of outdoor attractions in Macau, such as the Hac Sa and Cheoc Van beaches in Coloane, hiking trails and tranquil gardens. However, it is the Lou Lim Ieoc Garden that is the most Chinese of them all. The park's unique nine-turn bridge across a large pond is meant to be a curvy defence against evil spirits that can move only in straight lines!

Published on June 30, 2011
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