Macau: A Land of Contrasts


I have wanted to visit Macau for a number of years, and was lucky enough to have a conference there this past week. When most people think of Macau, they think of gambling, since Macau is known as “the Vegas of the East.”

by Christopher Allen

The conference I attended was set in the middle of this part of the city (known as Cotai, which isn’t actually on the Macau mainland, but is an island connected by a long bridge), but it is the other, older parts of the city that were the main attraction for me.

As you may or may not know, Macau was administered by Portugal from the mid-16th century until 1999. Because of this, there is still a fairly strong Portuguese influence seen throughout the area.

All signs are given in both Chinese and Portuguese, including beautifully ornate street signs in some areas. And the majority of people from Macau that grew up before the handover to China can speak Portuguese, as well as Cantonese (which is the local Chinese dialect).

by Christopher Allen

While I spent a lot of my trip trapped in the casino jungle that is Cotai, it was outside of this bubble that I felt most comfortable.

If you have a chance, I highly recommend going to the old town center, which has a variety of cathedrals and other old buildings that look like they could be located in either Portugal or Brazil, rather than Asia. But the blend of the different cultures is extremely attractive.

The bright colors, black and white mosaic sidewalks, and the combination of cultures make this a great place to wander around. The area is very touristy, which is both good and bad. The good parts mean that it is very well sign-posted, so it is easy to find the main tourist destinations.

by Christopher Allen

One of the most popular spots for tourists is the site of the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I will say that this area, in particular, is full of busloads of tourists (mainly from Mainland China). But it is still a lovely spot for a photo, and on a clear day you can go to the fort on the top of the hill and have a beautiful view of the surrounding area.

Unfortunately, both days I went to visit, the area was covered in fairly thick fog, which meant that the view was not as nice as it could have been. But you could still see the original casino of the area, the Lisboa Hotel and Casino, as well as the Grand Lisboa, which is the newer version created by the original casino mogul, Stanley Ho.

And if the temperature and humidity are high, at the foot of the ruins there is a Dairy Queen for an ice cream treat. But as my colleagues and I found out, it doesn’t open until 11:00 a.m., so you’ll have to settle for something else if you are an early bird like we were.

by Christopher Allen

I was well aware of this historic area in Macau, and made it a priority to visit it while I was in Macau. But I was unsure what else made up Macau, other than the casinos.

We were staying in the Sands casino area, which included the Sheraton Hotel (the largest Sheraton in the world), the Conrad Hotel, a Holiday Inn, a Four Seasons, and the Venetian.

There were other hotels and casinos around as well (including a Hard Rock Hotel and Casino), but we spent the majority of our time in the Sands areas.

To say this area is luxurious would be an understatement. I think people from Beverly Hills might feel poor here! Why you would hold an educator’s conference in a place like this I will never understand, but it was very grand.

But on my last night there, I found that there was also both local and Portuguese culture to be found close by as well.

About a 15 minute walk just behind the Venetian Hotel will take you to a lovely little area of shops, restaurants, fruit and vegetable stalls, and much more “local” life. It still had the Portuguese flavor, with several Portuguese restaurants, as well as Spanish, Thai, Chinese, etc.

I had dinner in one called Antonio’s, which was very nice (but a bit pricey). As we were finishing our meal an older Portuguese gentleman came upstairs with his guitar and began singing to us. It turns out he was a Portuguese teacher in the school just around the corner, and he would come and spread his culture by singing to the guests at the restaurant each night.

by Christopher Allen

He also played to the local guests by singing a popular Chinese song as well. When I thanked him in Portuguese, he asked where I was from and why I knew Portuguese. After informing him that I had lived in Brazil for a few years, he promptly broke into a Brazilian song for me before wandering on to sing to the other customers in the restaurant.

It was this sort of surprise interaction that really made me appreciate Macau. I could never set foot in one of its massive hotels or casinos again and I would be very happy. But if I could escape to the twisting back alleys found away from the bright lights, I would go in a second.

If I ever go back to Macau, I will be sure to spend as much time in these areas around Macau as possible. While they are still quite touristy, it is definitely not the sterile casinos and overpriced restaurants and shops found within their very large walls. Instead, you have a greater chance of seeing real locals going about their normal lives, which is quite nice.

by Christopher Allen

I understand that it is the gambling that brings in most of the money to the city, and it is a necessary evil in many ways. But similar to Mainland China, we were surrounded by construction, and I can only imagine what it will look like after all of the new casinos and hotels are completed.

I hope they do not take over all of the traditional and historic areas. It would be a real shame if they did. But if these areas cannot provide the kind of income the casinos can, I have a feeling they will go the way of the dodo one day. This will be sad indeed, so I encourage everyone to go see as much as they can before it disappears.

Next: Chinese New Year - in China!

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