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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!