Glittering casinos meet old-world traditions in Macao
KNOWN FOR its luxury five-star casinos and hotels, Macao has long been popular with fortune hunters who dream of becoming millionaires overnight. But away from the glittering Cotai Strip, the territory clings on to its traditional roots, with venerated sanctuaries, historic churches and beautiful colonial buildings paying testament to the unique blend of Chinese and Portuguese culture.
This special administrative region at the estuary of the Pearl River was under Portuguese colonial rule between the mid-16th century and 1999 and served as a major port on the Silk Road, connecting traders from the West with the South of China.
Today, it is divided into four major neighbourhoods or parishes– downtown Macao, Taipa Island, Coloane village and Cotai.
The Taipa Houses illustrate the daily lives of Macanese families.
Taipa is a mere five-minute drive from Macao International Airport, and is home to a complex made up of five colonial mansions built in 1921 to serve as residence for senior civil servants. In 1992, they were designated as buildings of architectural value and in 1999 converted by government into a museum.
Two years ago, the complex underwent a major renovation and now boasts a living museum, art galleries, a souvenir shop and reception house that reflect Macanese culture – “Macanese” referring to descendants of the Portuguese, who married Chinese, Malaysian, Filipino or Indian residents.
The two-storey Macanese Living Museum is just like a home, with classic wooden furniture, paintings and antiques depicting the daily life of the Macanese family. The ground floor has a living room, workroom, kitchen and dining area, while the upper floor features a master bedroom with a connecting living room that was mainly reserved for children and for meeting close relatives and friends.
Another bedroom houses an iron bed adorned with laced netting to protect against insects and facilitate ventilation. Next door is a huge bathroom, trimmed with black-and-white tiles and completed with a tiny washbasin, a vintage bathtub and a flush toilet.
Nostalgic House hosts occasional exhibitions about the Macanese community and the development of Cotai district. Here visitors can learn about the native culture, lifestyle, religion, architecture, and cuisine through magnificent artworks. Another must-visit is the adjacent Exhibition hall, where veteran and young artists from around the world show their contemporary art creations.
Taipa Food Street offers all kinds of local delicacies and desserts.
A popular stop on any tourist route is the colourful Taipa Food Street on Rua do Cunha Road, which offers all kinds of enticing local delicacies, sweets and refreshing drinks.
Among the most popular venues judging by the long queue outside is Pastelaria Koi Kei, which is known for its barbecued pork jerky, crispy pork belly and crispy golden curls. The Bitter Sweet specialises in Serradura pudding, the Estabeleoimento de Comidas Pui Kei offers freshly baked walnut cakes and the Seng Cheong does a great congee with crabmeat.
Pao Kung Temple is home to a collection of 60 wooden statues of Tai Sui, the God of Destiny.
Feng shui master Tossaporn “Chang” Sritula is our guide for the second day of our visit, and teaches us the correct way to pay homage to Chinese deities. Our walking tour begins at the Pao Kung Temple and Temple of Divinity of Medicine, where those born in the Year of the Big Snake, Dog, Ox and Goat gather in front of Tai Sui, the God of Destiny, to ask for protection.
The two temples were built in 1889 and 1893 after plague swept through Macao downing many of its residents to ward off disease and protect them and their families.
Pao Kung Temple is named after an honest and upright official of ancient China and home to a wooden statue of the God of Justice, while the adjacent Temple of Divinity of Medicine houses 60 wooden carvings of Tai Sui, the God of Destiny, in different postures, representing the elements of earth, water, fire and wind.
“The 35th Tai Sui – the God of the Earth element known as Tien Boo Tai Tien Kung – is responsible for looking after the Chinese zodiac year of 2018. Those born in the Year of the Big Snake, Dog, Ox and Goat can pay their respects with three large incense sticks and a basket of silver-and-gold paper. This is not a way to ward off bad luck, but to pray for keeping us in Tai Sui’s sight,” master Chang explains.
“Other pilgrims can use nine normal incense sticks to pray for happiness and fortune from their birth year’s deities.”
Standing behind the St Paul’s Ruin is the Na Tcha Shrine, which was originally built in 1888 then reconstructed in 1901. This small building in the heart of the principal Jesuit parish has become a popular place for couples praying for a child.
The narrow Patio de Chon sau street has undergone gentrification in recent months and attractive graffiti covers the walls between the boutiques. Benches are available for those wanting to take a brief rest or pose for selfies.
Tap Seac Square is home to some beautiful colonial architecture.
A short walk takes us to the ancient Kuan Tai Temple in St Dominic’s Market, once home to an old Chinese bazaar. Built between 1723 and 1795, the temple houses sacred wood statues of Guan Yu (the God of Loyalty), Cai Shen (the God of Wealth) and Tai Sui.
Sought out by pilgrims wanting fortune, protection and good health, it also serves as a confessional of sorts with women who have undergone abortions coming here to ask for forgiveness in front of the statue of Ti Tsang Pusa Bodhisattava.
Kun Iam Temple opens the doors to welcome pilgrims overnight on Guanyin Treasure day, which falls a month after Chinese New Year.
At the Kun Iam Temple, oversized incense sticks make another appearance, this time as offerings to Guanyin, the God of Mercy. Constructed in the 13th century, this is one of the biggest and richest temples in Macao, featuring three halls, a huge entrance gate and roofs adorned with porcelain figures.
The main hall has a shrine to a highly revered Guanyin statue, dressed in embroidered silk with a fringed crown, which is changed every year. Next to the deity is a statue of the Vairocana Buddha, revered for upholding health and longevity as well as dispelling disease.
“One month after Chinese New Year, pilgrims will come here to pay homage to Guanyin. According to legend, it’s the day on which Guanyin will open her treasures and give out money and gold. Visitors will offer incense sticks and write their name and birthday on sheets of silver and gold paper to pray for wealth, good luck and success,” master Chang says.
Our next stop is Coloane village, which is famous for its seafood. Like the food street in Taipa, it’s a popular dining spot with open-air restaurants and cafes filling the spaces between historic churches and Chinese shrines.
Divine aromas drift out from the Lord Stow Bakery, which is known for its freshly baked egg tarts, and we are quick to succumb to the temptation.
Religion dominates our last day in Macao and we are up early for a pilgrimage to the Kun Iam Ecumenical Centre on the Outer Harbour, where a 20-metre-tall bronze statue of the God of Mercy standing on a lotus-like dome protects Macao from evil.
We visit the exhibitions of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism and learn that if we can find the number 8 hidden in three spots, we will be rewarded with good luck.
AMa Temple houses the Goddess of Seafarers.
Known as the heavenly empress, A-Ma Temple is home to the Goddess of Seafarers who helps bring success in business. Situated on the western slope of Barra Hill, the original Hall of Benevolence was erected in 1488 and expanded its compound in 1688 and 1888 to incorporate the Gate Pavilion, the Memorial Arch, the Prayer Hall, the Hall of Guanyin, and Zhengjiao Chanlin (a Buddhist pavilion). Adjacent to the Guanyin shrine, there are giant rocks engraved with poems about Macao’s history and culture on view.
Before heading to the airport for the flight home, we spend a little time admiring the colonial era at Tap Seac Square. Surrounded by beautiful buildings painted in vivid colours, the site was once a stadium but is now home to the Macau Central Library, the Cultural Institute, the Macau Historic Archives, art galleries, chic teahouses and shops.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Macao Government Tourism Office.
IF YOU GO
AirAsia and Air Macau operate six flights a day between Bangkok and Macau.