Macau: East meets West

By Jim Eagles

The European-style Largo do Senado Square. Photo / Jim Eagles
The European-style Largo do Senado Square. Photo / Jim Eagles

Up against the foundations of the 400-year-old Jesuit cathedral of St Paul's, which sits majestically on a hill in the heart of downtown Macau, is a tiny temple to Na Taha, a legendary Chinese figure who flies, walks on fire and protects children.

The cathedral, often described as the greatest monument to Christianity in all of Asia, lies in ruins. After the Jesuits were expelled from Macau in 1762 the church was used to house troops and a few years later a fire which started in the barracks kitchen burned the place down.

Today all that remains is the marvellous facade standing in solitary splendour at the top of a flight of steps - its superb statues and carvings giving a taste of just how glorious the church must have been - plus the crypt and its collection of martyrs' bones and religious art.

By contrast the temple to Na Taha is thriving. While I spent a few minutes trying unsuccessfully to get the temple, the church and the golden-lotus shaped Grand Lisboa hotel into the one multi-cultural photograph, a steady stream of locals came to light joss sticks and bow their heads three times in prayer.

And that rather sums up the story of Macau. The Portuguese arrived here nearly 500 years ago, establishing the first European toehold on the coast of China, and their influence is obvious in the architecture, street names and food. But the peninsula and two small islands on which Macau sits were handed back to China in 1999 - two years after Hong Kong - and 95 per cent of its half million people are Chinese, so there's no doubt that this is a part of Asia.

That mix of influences and the fact that, despite an extraordinary casino building boom in recent years, Macau has managed to preserve its past, combine to make this a particularly fascinating destination.

Down on the peninsula's seafront, for instance, you can still visit the ancient temple to A-Ma, the Taoist goddess of fisherfolk, which is said to have given the place its name - the story goes that when the Portuguese first arrived they landed beside the temple, so the locals told them the place was called "A-Ma gau," the bay of A-Ma, and over time that became Macau.

These days the original temple is surrounded by several more shrines to both A-Ma and the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kun Iam - who to my untutored eye look quite similar - their temples climbing up the side of the hill where A-Ma is said to have first appeared to the fisherfolk some 600 years ago.

Near the main entrance is a huge boulder carved with a picture of a traditional fishing craft to which local boat people make an annual pilgrimage during the festival of A-Ma, to ensure their vessels remain safe for another year.

Amid its bustle of worshippers, brightly coloured shrines with those distinctive upwardly curved roofs, clanging gongs and drifting incense smoke you could never be anywhere but Asia.

Similarly, the narrow streets around the cathedral - lined with tiny shops selling everything from traditional medicines to baskets of deliciously smelly durian fruit and high fashion clothes to delicately carved buddhas, the footpaths bustling with shoppers looking for bargains and barrowboys hauling goods, tailors pursuing customers and hawkers selling bottles of water - have the atmosphere of a typical Chinese city. But look above to the hilltop Monte Fort with its stone battlements bristling with cannons - apparently only fired once, during a failed invasion by the Dutch in 1622, when a shot aimed by a Jesuit priest exploded a magazine and sent the invaders fleeing - and you could well imagine you were in Europe.

Wander down the lanes to the middle of town and Largo do Senado Square, with its stunning wavy black and white cobblestones and beautiful colonial buildings, and you might be in Lisbon.

Or cross the bridge to the island of Taipa and you'll find yourself in a place of narrow streets, also paved in black and white waves, dotted with ancient trees and lined with brightly coloured villas, which look to have been transported straight from Portugal.

There's a similar message to be read in the statues erected to commemorate important figures in Macau's history. In the heart of the downtown area stands a small figure of Jorge Alvares, who in 1513 became the first Portuguese to set foot in China. No longer present is the aggressive equestrian statue of Ferreira do Amaral, the 19th-century Portuguese Governor who sought to expand the colony's independence, which was considered an affront to Chinese authority.

Further north, in the Lin Fung Temple complex, is the larger figure of Lin Zexu, the Chinese scholar who came to Macau in 1839 after being ordered by the Daoguang Emperor to lead a campaign against the opium trade. And the figures that dominate the skyline are the 20m-high statues of Kun Iam, standing on the seafront, and of A-Ma, perched 176m up on top of the Alto de Coloane.

But perhaps the most significant of all is the bronze erected at the foot of the St Paul ruins to mark the colony's return to Chinese sovereignty: a Chinese girl giving a flower to - or taking it from - a European boy. You can't help thinking the ambiguity is deliberate but, either way, it's the Chinese who now control the flower.

This meeting of East and West is also reflected in local food. On the one hand most locals eat in noodle bars and dim sum restaurants where the food is typical Cantonese. On the other hand in some of those paved streets you can stroll into places serving classic Portugese cuisine, like spicy sausage, bean casserole, pork and clam stew or grilled sardines.

And in the middle of these strands from East and West is Macanese food, a fusion of the two, with dishes like African chicken cooked in coconut milk and chillies, clams steamed with various herbs, codfish croquettes and spicy prawns.

The perfect example of this mix of tastes and styles is in the Rua dos Mercadores where round one corner is the Pak Tai Temple, primarily dedicated to Supreme Emperor of the Mysterious Heaven, and on the other is the stately colonial architecture of Antonio, the eponymous restaurant of Michelin-star winning chef Antonio Neves Coelho, which is entirely dedicated to Portuguese food, wine and culture.

Antonio is not only a fine chef but also a showman whose crepes, produced at the table to the accompaniment of spectacular bursts of flame, are utterly European in style. But step outside his little bit of Portugal and the smell of joss sticks burning in the temple takes you straight back to Asia.

What's more it's only a short stroll from there to the home of Macau's most unique delicacy: the pork chop bun.

Having heard of this dish I asked my Macau guide Gigi Lam where it could be bought. "You can buy the pork bun in many places," she said, "but the best place is Cafe Tai Lei Loi Kei. People queue for hours to buy pork buns there."

So, next day, early in the afternoon, when the freshly cooked pork buns pop out of the oven, Gigi took me to Taipa, where what looks rather like an outdoor canteen sits in the middle of a cobble-stoned square with crowds of people sitting at small tables under the trees munching away merrily. "Oh, quick," she said. "There is no queue. Hurry."

I dashed into the kitchen area and asked for a pork bun, a large woman who could speak English was summoned from the back to shout "That is M$15" (roughly $3) and I was handed a brown paper bag with a bun in it.

I wandered back under the trees, surrounded by people talking at the top of their voices in Cantonese, in a square which looked as though it had been lifted straight from Portugal, and took a bite. Mmmm. Pork tenderloin cooked in Asian spices wrapped in a freshly baked bun which might have come from Brumby's. Multi-cultural and delicious. Just like Macau really.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies direct from Auckland to Hong Kong 10 times a week. See cathaypacific.co.nz

From Hong Kong there are regular ferries to Macau. Some leave direct from the airport. See olamacauguide.com

Further information: Visit the Macau Government Tourist Office website at macautourism.gov.mo

Jim Eagles visited Macau as guest of Cathay Pacific and Macau Government Tourist Office.

- NZ Herald

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