Macau is one of Asia’s most fascinating cities, with pockets of colonial colour wedged between traditional Chinese neighbourhoods and sprawling luxury resort complexes. Thankfully, it’s also compact, which means you can take in most of the sights in a couple of days.
On a warm Sunday morning, Lord Stow’s Bakery, in the tranquil village of Coloane in Macau’s south, is its usual hive of activity. Crowds of tourists and locals gather outside the famed store, waiting for the next batch of Macanese egg tarts to emerge from its industrial-sized ovens.
Staff members carry trays of piping-hot goodies over the heads of the throng and around the corner, where the bakery owns a café serving espresso and accompanying delights. Few visitors realise that the egg tarts they crave were actually created by a British-born chemist who, like so many others in the territory’s colourful past,made Macau his home.
Such are the contrasts that make Macau such a fascinating place. A former city state that was returned to China in 1999 yet retains a proudly independent identity, Macau boasts a marriage of cultures and ideas, much of which stems from a heritage that’s as much Mediterranean as it is Mandarin. With an estimated population of 624,000 living in an area of 31.3km2 Macau boasts the distinction of being the most densely populated region in the world. Located an hour’s ferry ride (or 12-minute helicopter journey) from Hong Kong, the three islands that make up the former Portuguese colony are in a constant dance with the forces of antiquity and modernity. With its ancient, smoke-stained temples, pastel-hued colonial mansions, glittering hotels and casinos, and cosmopolitan, laid-back persona, Macau has one foot firmly planted in the past and the other in its bright future. The best first step into discovering Macau is to delve into its unique culinary scene, because food tells the tales of cultures near and far, and in Macau those stories reach from Britain, Portugal and Goa to Mozambique and Malacca. In Coloane, the line continues to grow at Lord Stow’s Bakery, where the fluffy, lightfully light egg tarts – a traditional Portuguese treat that was perfected by Stow and is now a modern icon – remain a coveted prize among locals and tourists alike. But I head into Macau’s preserved city centre in search of something a little more historic.
With its Asian and European influences, Macanese cuisine is arguably the world’s first fusion food, according to Simon Tam, a Macau-based food and wine critic and trained chef who has a personal interest in keeping the city’s food traditions alive. “My son is Macanese,” says Tam when we meet at the revered Clube Militar de Macau, a beautifully preserved haven on Avenida da Praia Grande once used as a recreation club for Portuguese military officers. It’s now one of the few authentic Macanese restaurants remaining in Macau. “Sadly, he will never learn the Macanese dialect [known as Patuá] because they’re not teaching it at Macau’s schools any more. All we have [to remind us of our past] are buildings like this,” he says, sweeping his arms around the club’s sitting room, with its French windows, ornate settees and watercolours in gilded frames. “And our food culture. Living here, food is a big part of my family’s life. We can’t let traditions die.”
Macanese cuisine actually evolved through necessity. Portuguese troops stationed in the garrisons of Macau brought with them a taste for the flavours of their previous postings in places such as Malacca, Brazil, Angola, Goa and Mozambique. “Portuguese women were a bit short on the ground,” says Tam, “so the troops started marrying local Chinese women, who had been brought up with entirely different food traditions.” The men would describe the spices and sensations they’d enjoyed abroad to their new brides, who would dutifully replicate the foreign dishes. “Of course, this left the local girls floundering, wondering where they were going to get coconut milk from,” says Tam. Using ingredients such as turmeric, bacalhau (salted cod), star anise, cinnamon and coconut, paired with more familiar and readily available Asian ingredients, the women transformed southern Chinese and Portuguese fare into a whole new cuisine that features the likes of duck rice, hearty tacho meat and vegetable stew, and bacalhau. New cooking methods were also introduced, including roasting, baking and grilling, especially of fish.
But over time, as has happened in many places, local culinary traditions have become commercialised and age-old Macanese dishes have been diluted to suit modern tastes. The exodus of Portuguese residents from the city when it was handed back to China didn’t help the cause. Fortunately there is an old guard of restaurants that maintain the classic dishes of Macanese cuisine, including the Clube Militar de Macau, Restaurante Litoral, with its whitewashed façade and country inn-style interiors, and nearby A Lorcha, a staple with affluent locals.
Walk off your hearty Macanese meal with a venture through another fascinating facet of Macau’s identity: its many UNESCO-recognised heritage sites, which include both Chinese and Portuguese architecture, fascinating streetscapes and bustling squares. Known as the historic Centre of Macau, this unique collection of 20 locations allows visitors to trace the city’s rich history on two feet, introducing the sights, sounds and smells of some of Macau’s most illustrious locales.
I start my exploration at the A-Ma Temple, located near Restaurante Litoral. The temple is responsible for giving Macau its name thanks to Portuguese sailors who misinterpreted the phrase ‘A Ma Gau’ (the bay of the goddess A-Ma) as the city’s name. A-Ma is always busy, both with tourists posing for photos on its ancient staircases, and with locals making offerings to the various deities hidden away in its Prayer Hall, Buddhist Pavilion and Hall of Benevolence. In Macau religions live in harmony, from St Lawrence’s Church and St Joseph’s Seminary to the Kwan Tai Temple and the Old Protestant Cemetery, once the headquarters of the British East Indies Company.
From the temple I trace my way along the Avenue Panorâmica do Lago Sai Van, on the city’s harbourfront, towards downtown Macau. It seems off that only minutes from the narrow cobblestoned streets surrounding picturesque Sai Van Lake, visitors encounter world-class hotels, sprawling shopping malls, casinos and fine-dining restaurants. Nearby, the Macau Tower soars into the sky, and eye-catching bridges bound across the harbour connecting Macau with the islands of Taipa and Cotai, home to many of the city’s newest hotels and mega developments.
It’s even more remarkable that each year these same streets host the annual Macau Grand Prix, a spectacular street-racing event that draws crowds from across the world. Each year’s event, along with other large-scale showcases including the annual International Fireworks Display and the acclaimed Dragonboat Festival, is a testament to how adaptable, and welcoming, this unique city can be.
My waterfront musings lead me into the city’s centre, with its gloriously preserved colonial-era buildings, its Portuguese and Chinese signposting and, at Macau’s heart, bustling Senado Square, a living artwork of coloured tiles that leads pedestrians through the city’s oldest quarter to Macau’s own icon, the Ruins of St Paul’s. The remains of a 16th-century complex that once housed St Paul’s College and the Cathedral of St Paul, a 17th-century Portuguese cathedral, the church was destroyed in a fire during a typhoon in 1835 but the façade remains, strong and proud,
as a living legacy to one of Asia’s most enthralling cities, a living museum to a bygone age, and a cosmopolitan destination for lovers of history, culture and good eating.
1. SENADO SQUARE – Sight
Follow the narrow lanes of the Christian Quarter from the base of St Paul’s and you’ll come to the colourfully tiled Senado Square, the cultural heart of Macau’s former Portuguese colony. This bustling square – once a ceremonial parade ground for Portuguese troops stationed in Macau – is hemmed by a handful of important landmarks, including St Dominic’s Church and the historic Post Office Building. Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, a busy avenue, runs across the top of the square and is home to some of Macau’s finest restaurants.
This incense smoke-stained shrine is one of the city’s most visited sites and remains a fascinating glimpse into Macau’s Taoist foundations. Situated on the southwest tip of Macau Island, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed temple dates back to 1488 and is dedicated to Matsu, the goddess of fishermen and sailors. Visitors – locals and tourists alike – flock to the serene grounds, asking for blessings and seeking protection for their families by burning massive coils of incense that hang from the smoke-stained ceiling beams.
Macau’s pedestrianised snack street is an ode to the food markets that once greeted merchants arriving in Macau. Today the many historic shopfront restaurants, with their bright red shutters and awnings, bubbling vats and fiery ovens, keep classic Macanese street traditions alive. Old classics, including Fat Sin Lau, which opened in 1908, and Portuguese favourite O Santos, which opened on the street 20 years
ago, continue to draw in locals and tourists alike, while the historic street remains as popular with photographers as it does with the hungry.
There’s always something happening at the 338m-tall Macau Tower. In addition to an observation deck, restaurants, theatres and plenty of shopping, the tower is Macau’s hub of adrenaline-charged thrills. The Skywalk X enables visitors to walk around the outside of the tower’s rim attached to a harness rail. Alternatively book the Mast Climb and reach the very tip of the tower, or try the Skyjump, a hair-raising bungee jump from the tower’s outer rim, 233m above ground level – it’s the world’s second-highest commercial jump.