Macau: Where the twain meet

Beyond the glitz of casinos lies a Chinese legacy that created the world's first fusion cuisine and a cohesive culture where Buddhist temples stand next to Catholic churches, writes Anurag Mallick
Last Updated 22 February 2019, 19:39 IST

What is it with Portuguese colonies and casinos I wondered as I flew into Hong Kong for my connecting Turbojet ferry to Macau. Like Goa, Macau too, had been a Portuguese outpost for over four-and-a-half centuries. Over time, some Portuguese married locally, mostly Chinese, besides Malay and Filipinos from Southeast Asia, and Indians from South Asia, creating a new ethnic group called the Macanese. Deeply influenced by Chinese beliefs yet adopting Western ways, the hybrid community developed their own dialect and lifestyle.

The mixing of Chinese and Portuguese traditions left Macau with a unique blend of culture, architecture and cuisine, besides a motley collection of holidays, festivals and events. This was where flavours from the west and east first collided to create the world’s first fusion cuisine. Spices and ingredients from Portuguese colonies in Africa, Southeast Asia and India — including curry, coconut milk, cloves and cinnamon — collided with Chinese culinary skills to create Macanese cuisine. This 400-year-old tradition was inscribed on the Macau Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2012 and in November 2017, UNESCO designated Macau as Creative City of Gastronomy for 2018.

<br />Ruins of St Paul's Church.<br />

Ruins of St Paul's Church.

Festive spread

Our visit coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival. Over pu’er tea and mooncakes with lotus seed paste and salted egg yolk, our guide Jenny Kou explained how as per Chinese belief, eating special dishes augurs well for the New Year. Overlooking the waterfront, we enjoyed a Mid Autumn Festival set menu — a dim sum trio of steamed pork dumplings with whole baby abalone, steamed scallop dumplings and Portuguese style crab meat puff (with two sesame eyes), followed by conpoy-mince winter melon seafood soup and fried rice with seafood in black truffle sauce.

We drove from the mainland Macau Peninsula to Cotai, formed by creating a landfill between the islands of Coloane and Taipa, hence the name Co-tai. The festive spirit was everywhere. Held on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, the Mid-Autumn festival is a celebration of the full moon, a symbol of completeness, hence families get together and dinners feature mooncakes. At Lou Lim Ieoc garden we saw families out together with kids carrying beautiful lanterns. Built by wealthy 19th century Chinese merchant Lou Kau and inherited by his son Lou Lim Ieoc in 1906, the garden was modelled on the famous Chinese classical gardens of Suzhou. It had bamboo groves, ponds, pavilions and a nine-turn bridge — as per local belief, evil spirits can only move in straight lines!

The beautiful cobbled street of Calcada da Igreja de S Lazaro took us to Albergue 1601, a Portuguese restaurant located in a century-old colonial complex. Lanterns were strung up in the courtyard dominated by two magnificent camphor trees and an old water well. As we entered the restaurant, we were greeted by a collection of bright-coloured roosters, another Portuguese legacy Macau shares with Goa! We tried the house special French baguette with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, followed by clams in white wine stew, seafood rice stew and the exquisite serradura or Macanese sawdust pudding.

Senado Square wearing a festive look at the Mid Autumn Festival. Photos by author.
Senado Square wearing a festive look at the Mid Autumn Festival. Photos by author.

The Las Vegas of Asia

By night, Macau had transformed into a twinkling wonderland that could give Dubai a complex. The 856 ft Grand Lisboa Hotel, the tallest building in Macau and a pioneering casino, stood out against the skyline, shaped like a stylised lotus. We gawked at the glitzy Cotai Strip lined with mega hotels and casino complexes like the Venetian Macau (where the IIFA awards were held), Galaxy Macau, City of Dreams and Sands Cotai Central. Right opposite our hotel stood Wynn Palace with a free Water Dance show on the Performance Lake every 15 minutes and a complimentary cable car ride to the hotel lobby. The outstanding and outrageous go hand in hand in Macau. Little wonder it is pegged as the Las Vegas of Asia.

While some love gambling away their fortunes, there are other foolhardy ones who do the same with their lives. Or at least, that’s how I felt while signing the indemnity form at AJ Hackett Macau Tower the next morning. At 233m (764 ft), it has the world’s highest bungy — the 338m (1109 ft) Tower Climb is the world’s highest urban climb . The Skyjump transports one from top to bottom in 17 seconds and they also have night bungy. “Everyday do something that reminds you you’re still alive,” screamed a slogan on the windowpane. Sure, AJ Hackett was celebrating four million bungy jumps worldwide between 1988-2018 but looking down through the glass floor didn’t do our confidence much good. Strapped to our harnesses, we were let loose on our adventurous Sky Walk. It wasn’t just a walk, our adventure guide made us do things like sit down on the edge, pose with one arm and leg outstretched, even a ‘look ma, no hands’ pose dangling just by the harness.

The city has its share of adrenaline. During the Macau Grand Prix in November, the main streets are converted into a giant racetrack. The 4K racing simulator at Sofitel Macau Ponte 16 Resort, the only virtual racing facility in Macau, helps recreate the racing event. There was a lot of racing in store for us at the Fireworks Dinner Buffet that night at 360, the revolving restaurant at Macau Tower. The central unmoving portion had elaborate food counters but by the time you finished ladling all the grilled meats on to your plate, our dining table seemed to have moved position! We had barely negotiated the seafood platter that the electrifying fireworks at the Macau International Fireworks Display Contest began. We exhibited the same frenzy for our dinner while Germany performed and then went down for a better view of the Austrian pyrotechnics on the waterfront.

Statue of Portuguese explorer Jorge Alvares.
Statue of Portuguese explorer Jorge Alvares.

Through the bylanes

The next day we explored the ruins of St Paul’s cathedral. The chunambo (earthen) walls that once delineated the Portuguese quarter from the Chinese, who stayed outside the wall. Right in the heart of the Jesuit settlement stood Na Tcha Temple, built in 1888 and dedicated to a Chinese folk hero. It spoke volumes about the harmonious relations between the two communities. Inside, a small museum exhibited shards of blue and white porcelain, old seals and sections of the old wall compacted using traditional materials and techniques. Walking down a slope we reached Travessa da Paixao (Street of Passion), it was so named because the sight of St Paul ruins from the street was meant to incite spiritual ardour. Over time the meaning was lost and it just became ‘Lover’s Lane’!

After a leisurely gourmet lunch at Furu Furu, we took a walk through Old Macau at Rua dos Ervanarios, one of the first streets to be built in the trading town. Together with Rua dos Mercadores and Rua da Porta da Pedra, the avenues form Macau’s oldest Chinese association Sam Gai Wui (Three Streets’ Association). This used to be a very important checkpoint for sea trade between China and Western countries. To prevent criminals from accessing the city centre an iron door was built called Guan Chin Zing Gaai (Cantonese name for Rua dos Ervanários) literally ‘the street before the barrier’!

Despite its diminutive size, Macau is packed with attractions and has something for everyone — the historic city centre around Senado Square — a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Panda Pavilion — a big hit with kids and families, the Buddhist temple trail in Taipa and gourmet cuisine. The row of five Taipa Houses along Avenida da Praia, built in 1921, were Portuguese residences of senior civil servants and prominent Macanese families. Today they serve as a Macanese Living Heritage museum. The Handover Gifts Museum of Macau displays opulent gifts from various Chinese provinces to welcome Macau’s handover back to China on Dec 18, 1999. All the while, like its bilingual street signs in Portuguese and Chinese, tiny Macao balances its oriental legacy and colonial past with consummate ease.

(Published 22 February 2019, 19:30 IST)

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