Macau – a meeting of cultures

During my research for an opening speech at a conference in Hong Kong I discovered the first European ever to set foot in China was a Portuguese trader, named Jorge Álvares, as far back as 1513.


All of us Portuguese have an interest in Macau, as it was Portuguese territory until 1999, when it was returned to China. A territory located on the Pearl River estuary, it came to the hands of the Portuguese because they began trading there and then agreed to pay the representatives of the Ming Emperor a yearly sum so they could establish themselves there. This lease began in 1557 and lasted for more than 500 years, whilst that of Hong Kong to the British, more widely known, only lasted for two centuries.


So it’s no wonder that after the conference, having only one free day, we decided to board the turbojet and make the one hour trip from Hong Kong to Macau.


I must say our expectations were not high, as some colleagues who had been there had not been too impressed, but still we decided to visit the city. How glad I am that we did!


As we got off the boat, what an emotion – even as we should have expected it- to see the arrival signs in Portuguese, together with Chinese and English. Everywhere we looked we were greeted in our native language! Suddenly it all felt familiar, and the fact that we knew we were more than 10.000 kilometres from home, on the other side of the world, gave us all an undeniable feeling of pride. Pride in our country, pride in being part of a people who were brave enough to face the perilous seas and discover new worlds, part of that small numbered but fierce race that lives in a small corner of the most western side of Europe. I must say it was an emotional moment for all of us, to feel our homeland so far, yet so close.


Then luck was on our side as we found a tour guide who helped us make the most of the few hours we had. In his van, he showed us the statue of the goddess of Mercy that in fact looks very much like one of Our Lady, symbolizing the merger of the two cultures in the city; he took us to see the magnificent view from the Penha church, located on the top of the grand house of the former Portuguese governor of Macau (built in typical Portuguese colonial style) in a quarter that might belong to any Portuguese town; from there we could see the bridges crossing to the other side, and we could see mainland China. He showed us the huge Casino buildings, although most are located on the other side of the bridges, and pointed out iconic buildings such as the odd shaped Grand Lisboa hotel and another one that was built in a shape of a cage so that clients might feel like birds.


Everywhere we saw cars with old Portuguese registry plates (from decades ago) but oddly in Macau they have left hand traffic like in Hong Kong. It reminded me of Mozambique, where the same happens no doubt due to South African influence.


We drove on and our guide was always providing us with details of the city’s history which were very interesting while answering our many questions.


Next stop was the A- Ma temple, the oldest one in the city dating from 1488. It is a Taoist temple dedicated to a Chinese sea goddess. In the temple we saw people in prayer, and we respectfully visited a shrine to the goddess where our kind guide pointed out that on each side if her were two “helping “gods. One, with large ears and the other with large eyes, so that they might see and hear people’s pleas to the goddess, and thus help her in granting favours to the faithful. People were also hanging beautiful red and golden trinkets for luck, so the temple was colourful and smelled of incense and candles that were being burned all around.


Up the hill we went to see the Mount Fortress – or rather what remains of it – using the Macau museum escalators; from there one can have a 360 degrees view, which is amazing. You see the new quarters, the old ones, and mainland China of course. And it’s a mix of hugely tall, modern building and old ones with the green of the trees, in an explosion of colours.


Finally we came down to see the most iconic and well known building in Macau – St Paul’s ruins. Nothing more than the façade of St Paul’s church that was build in the 17th century. The rest of the church collapsed and only the façade now remains; on the façade you’ll again find this meeting of cultures so present in Macau – together with saints you can see dragons carved on the stone. No wonder it attracts tourists and there were many around.


A short walk downtown in the busy streets where the Chinese side of the city is more present – filled with people, most of them tourists, our guide said – allowed us to enter the Cathedral, where mass was being celebrated in Portuguese by a Brazilian priest and I had the chance to kneel before an image of Our Lady of Fátima and the two little shepherds who have now been canonized, Saint Jacinta and Saint Francisco Marto; to eat a delicious curry and vegetable pie, warm and crusty, that I declared was by far the best pie I’ve had in my life; and finally to conclude that we Portuguese not only left our culture and language, but also our institutions, such as Santa Casa da Misericórdia (the most well known Portuguese charity).


We had no time to visit any exotic shops nor did we see “strange” animals displayed as food such as my friends describe seeing in China; we didn’t have time to go to a Casino which some of my colleagues regretted; but we all agreed this had been a wonderful day and most of all we came out of Macau feeling proud to be Portuguese.


In the end we thanked our guide profusely: without him, his knowledge and his kindness we would never have had the opportunity to do such a tour of Macau and to see so many things. He is undoubtedly a great professional and if I ever return to Macau I will certainly be in touch for a more complete tour. And in fact he has given me a good reason to go back: when I mentioned I was very happy to have seen Our Lady of Fatima’s image in the Cathedral, so far from home, he told me the city holds a huge procession on Our Lady’s day, 13th of May (the anniversary of the first apparitions), probably the second most important of such celebrations in Asia after the Philippines.


Who knows I might go back one day in May? As a matter of fact, we went to Macau on a 13th of October, also a very important date for Fátima, as it was the date of the “miracle of the sun”, so perhaps it was not a coincidence. As some people say, there are no such things as coincidences – things always happen for a reason.


I don’t know what the reason was for my deciding to join my colleagues in the trip to Macau on that day, but whatever it was, it made me very happy. What a lovely city, what an opportunity to really have a taste of the real Far East, what a feeling of national pride, what luck to have found such a professional, friendly guide. What a fascinating city, Macau.




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