The song birds, small and brightly feathered in their delicate bamboo cages, are refusing to sing. And this is getting their owners visibly upset. Nearby, two school children are doing their homework, supervised by an old lady wearing a straw hat. To the right, two courting couples sit on secluded benches; to the left, an old man helps his grandson feed fish in the Facade of a burnt-out church pond; and, straight ahead, two lithemuscled young men are performing the shadow-boxing exercise better known to Bruce Lee fans as tai chi chuan. Could this, then, be a scene from The Last Emperor?
I’m resting my feet -(not unlike a king) in the most Chinese of Macau’s gardens, which, together with a flamboyant western-style house, was built by a wealthy Chinese merchant. In the West, a garden is an attempt by man to tame nature; in the East, it is an idealised wilderness. In Macau, the two worlds meet in gardens that satisfy the senses and refresh the spirit.
A 60-minute hydrofoil ride brought me from Hong Kong to Macau, which I’d always yearned to visit, thanks to its cultural history. The Portuguese settled in Macau between 1554 and 1557, during the great era of Portuguese exploration. Vasco da Gama made his historic voyage to India at the end of the fifteenth century, and early in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese explorers moved further east, and then turned north. Jorge Alvares became the first Portuguese to set foot in Southern China in 1513, and his visit was followed by the establishment of a number of Portuguese trading centres in the Pearl River delta area. There were eventually consolidated at Macau, which soon, with the permission of the Emperor of China, wielded a virtual monopoly on trade between China and Japan, and between them and Europe.
Although it has witnessed many changes during its lifetime of more than 400 years, Macau has always been a stronghold of Portuguese presence and culture in the Far East. It has always proudly flown Porgual’s flag, even when, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Motherland’s throne was occupied for 60 years by a foreign king, when Portuguese rule was re-established, the city of Macau was granted the official name of Cidade do Nome de Deus de Macau Naoha Outra Mais Leal (City of the Name of God, Macau, There is None More Loyal).
What can the adventurous traveller hope to do on a three-day visit to Macau? For starters light a joss stick at the A-Ma temple. Macau has many Chinese temples, but this is special because it is probably the oldest and it gave its name to the city. Situated at the entrance to the inner harbour, it is dedicated to A-Ma (also know as Tin Hau), Taoist goddess of seafarers. Haggle for antiques. No you, won’t discover a priceless Ming vase or Shan bronze, but there are plenty of valuable antiques on sale in Macau, and you will enjoy haggling with the friendly and knowledgeable shopkeepers.
Go to the dogs. Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday evening thousands of punters from Macau and Hong Kong head for the canidrome. Greyhound racing has become a popular spectator sport in Macau, which imports dogs from Australia. The modern open-air stadium has 10,000 seats, innumerable betting windows and refreshments. Next? See the girls strip at the Crazy Paris show. It’s sexy yet sophisticated, risque but not raunchy, and it’s Macau’s longest-running show. A cast of gorgeous girls from Europe, Australia and America illustrated the striptease with dance and acrobatics and imaginative tableaux at the Lisboa Hotel.
You could go on to admire the baroque facade of Sto. Domingo’s church, with its cream-washed stone, white stucco and green shutters. It is a dominant feature of Macau’s central square, but only during services are the timbered doors open. The basic shape of the facade is repeated in the great altar, with the elaboration of graceful columns, saintly statues and clusters of candela-bras. Don’t miss the chapels with their delicate ivory and wood saints, carved by local Chinese craftsmen, and the flat wooden ceilings with fretwork panels.
One cloudy afternoon, I am taken to lunch by two of Macau’s most elegant ladies _ Macau’s Helena Vale and Ana Leandro _ who, both from Portugal, have made Macau their home. For more than a century, visitors and residents have gathered for tea, lunch or cocktails on the terrace of the Bela Vista Hotel. The three of us sip chilled white Portuguese wine with a delicious lunch, on the same terrace overlooking the Praia Grande Bay.
All along the bay, there is hectic construction activity. No less than 50 high-rises are in various stages of construction along the five-kilometre seafront. Maria Helena, who runs the prestigious Institute Cultural de Macau and whose stunning renaissance beauty would give Isabella Rossellini a complex, laments in her charmingly-accented English: “This is going to spoil the beauty of Macau”, but that’s the price of progress.
My visit to Macau has been greatly facilitated by Alorino Noruega, whose name might suggest links to Colombia, but he’s actually from Daman, our ex-Portuguese colony. Alorino here for the past 20 years, works for the Macau Government Tourist Office and, is loathe to pull up his roots and settle back in India, should such a situation arise.
One night after another gourmet meal, Alorino leads me to the Lisboa casino, which attracts seven million visitors a year to Macau (now compare that with only a million tourists visiting India). From the coin-gobbling machines on the lower floor, we travel on escalators to a maze of levels; one more exclusive than the previous one. There’s roulette, boule, baccarat, black jack, and the traditional Chinese games of fan tan. Unlike Monte Carlo, no one observes dress codes, but vast sums of money are being wagered by the most unlikely people _ their eyes, glazed; their movements, minimal and robotic _ entire beings completely seduced by the elusive charms of Lady Luck.
Macau does resemble a miniature Bombay of a 100 years ago; a visual mix of the colonial, Oriental and now ubiquitous skyscraper. There’s even a small Parsi cemetery on the way to the Guia hill seventeeth-century fortress.
And if you’re in Macau in late November, watch out! For it’s Grand Prix time for motorcycles, production cars (International Group A) and formula three cars. The road circuit rivals that of Monaco, and similarly provides “grandstand” places along the route.
How to get there: Macau has no airport, so most visitors arrive via Hong Kong by hover ferry, or jetfoil. The departure wharf in Hong Kong is located at Connaught Road, Central, on Hong Kong island (Shun Tak Centre).
On the Kowloon side, the wharf’s located in the Tsimshatsui of the China Ferry Terminal.