Macao: the Hardly Seen Portuguese Side

 

I visited Macao during the cool month of December last year. Staying there for two days, I managed to visit all its historic monuments and properties that make up the UNESCO World Heritage inscription (together with some of its casinos :p).

Ruinas da Sao Paolo, a masterpiece of late Manueline architecture.
Ruinas da Sao Paolo, a masterpiece of late Manueline architecture in Asia.

For most heritage geeks, I share the assessment that Macao is largely a “misinterpreted gem”. At present, when people hear Macao, what immediately comes to their minds are big casinos and luxury hotels. The ruins of St. Paul church (Ruinas da Sao Paolo) only comes as an afterthought as its most iconic landmark – in fact, for most, this is the only place they think they’ll see in this territory. Beyond the picturesque Ruinas da Sao Paolo, not many visitors get to see the bigger picture that Macao offers as the best preserved Portuguese-era colonial trading town in East and Southeast Asia.

Largo do Senado, the main square of Macao. The white building at the far end of the square is the Loyal Senate Building. Again, there are skyscrapers poking here and there :(
Largo do Senado, the main square of Macao. The white building at the far end of the square is the Loyal Senate Building. Again, there are skyscrapers poking here and there.

Though Macao’s monuments are at some distance from each other (the Guia Hill Fortress being the farthest), I still found going around Macao to be a refreshing experience. Firstly, the monuments are truly representative of various cultural testaments and historical stages of the town’s development; thus, the values being represented by each monument hardly overlap one another. Secondly, the government has to be commended for doing a great (and colorful) job in preserving their enduring gems in good conditions.

Beautiful red windows in the in-house courtyard of Zheng Guanying's Mandarin Mansion.
Beautiful red windows in the in-house courtyard of Zheng Guanying’s Mandarin Mansion in the Lilau Square area – the first settlement of the Portuguese on Chinese soil.

Personally, I enjoyed visiting these places: Senate Square (Largo do Senado), Mandarin Mansion, Lilau Square, A Ma Temple, and the Protestant Cemetery compound. I also found my visit to the Santa Casa da Misericordia Museum (its entrance is on the right side of the building) memorable as it is one place where one can see religious artworks as a product of the blending of two cultures and their respective marks of craftsmanship. Here, one can see the porcelain images of Chinese-looking Jesus Christ, and other curios. Nevertheless, Macao’s blend of the East and the West is best seen through the various religious edifices it has. It is even interesting how one Buddhist temple sits side by side a Christian church (in ruins).

San Agustin Square and the Iberian-inspired wave patterned floor that is common to most cities in Portugal.
San Agustin Square and the Iberian-inspired wave-patterned floor that is common to most cities in Portugal.

Nevertheless, I also sensed a tourism versus conservation dilemma lingering around, too. I noticed that there seemed to be foreseeable threat that the sites will face in the next few years with their seemingly weak buffer zones and Macao’s lack of proper urban planning and traffic management. One of the biggest threats to most cultural sites across the world is urban pressure, and Macao is indeed rapidly modernizing. I have yet to see how their government is looking at the preservation of the aesthetic and visual integrity of the historic monuments and their immediate environs amidst modern, high-rise edifices and installations around them.

Sam Kai Vui Kun, a small Chinese merchants' temple that has been instrumental in shaping Macao's trajectories as a trading town.
Sam Kai Vui Kun, a small Chinese merchants’ temple that has been instrumental in shaping Macao’s trajectory as a powerful trading town.

By and large, the monuments of Macao are indeed interesting. As counterbalance, however, I felt that the monuments of Macao may not be the grandest there are to see on this side of the world – there are way better churches and plazas in the Philippines, for example. In fact, the colonial-era buildings surrounding Largo do Senado reminded me a lot of the buildings within Escolta in Manila. And I can just imagine how it would be like if Manila also takes the effort of reviving — and cleaning! — its architectural masterpieces.

Casa Jardin. The very obvious skyscraper behind it just ruins the aesthetic value of this place.
Casa Jardin. The very obvious skyscraper behind it just ruins the aesthetic value and visual integrity of this place.

More than anything, Macao is a site wherein its real importance and outstanding values lie on its impressive history as an Asian trading colonial-era town that cultivated the longest running encounter of the West and the East.

PS. Try their egg tarts!

 

The-Bern-Traveler

Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero is a self-confessed cultural junky. Based in the Philippines, he has delivered several talks on tourism, destination promotion and management, and the importance of cultural conservation. As an independent heritage researcher and consultant, he has assisted and appeared in some features by the Euronews, NGC-Asia, and Solar News Channel's What I See travel show. He has traveled (both work and leisure) extensively in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia, and takes high interest in ticking off as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible. So far, Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, the Temple of Preah Vihear in Cambodia, and the Philippines' Apo Reef and Ifugao Rice Terraces are the best places he has seen in SE Asia. Instagram: theberntraveler

4 responses to “Macao: the Hardly Seen Portuguese Side

  1. When in Macau, I was impressed by Portuguese-styled pavements. I found about 25 different styles and designs. Macau’s architecture has made a strong impression on me.

    1. That’s true! I hope you also managed to enter the Leal Senado building. there is a good set of azulejos on the walls there 🙂

  2. Great post! Unlike you, I visited Macau during the hot and humid summer months! I was really impressed by all the Chinese temples and shrines scattered through the city.
    I share your concern regarding growing urbanization. However, since the historical core of Macau is listed as world cultural heritage, I think that part of the city is safe.
    On the way to Coloane I was flabbergasted to see that now the islands of Taipa and Coloane are just one big massive island…

    1. Thank you! Unfortunately, the world heritage inscription does not guarantee that it will be safe indefinitely. It still depends on how much the government would devote in protecting the core and buffer zones. To throw in a comparison, Dresden in Germany failed at this, hence it was delisted.

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