It takes about an hour to travel by ferry from Hong Kong to Macao. On polluted winter days, it’s often a hazy crossing but in summer, the bright-green humps of Hong Kong’s 235 islands jostle in the South China Sea, and the water is a milky aquamarine until you’re about 10 minutes from Macao’s terminal. Then it turns brown. A harbour that constantly silts up is the reason that the former Portuguese enclave was usually, until 10 years ago, described with one word: sleepy.
Now, of course, it’s insomniac. The reason Las Vegas doesn’t describe itself as the Macao of the West is probably that it hasn’t the nerve – Macao’s revenue is almost six times bigger. About 28 million tourists, mostly gamblers from mainland China, popped in last year. As Macao – including its two land-connected islands, Taipa and Coloane, plus considerable reclamation from the sea – is half the size of Barra in the Hebrides, you can understand why people might hesitate to visit.
Luckily, a happy rule of tourism applies: walk two streets away from an overcrowded hot spot and the hordes disappear. In Macao’s case, not only do the casinos conveniently corral everyone else, they also provide free transport from the ferry terminals; so when you arrive, as I did one recent midweek morning, and see a long taxi queue, all you do is stroll through an underpass to where the casino buses loiter, select one from an evocative list (MGM Macau, Venetian Macao, Galaxy Macau, City of Dreams) and find yourself instantly transported.
I picked the Grand Lisboa because it’s an ideal place to start walking and also because the casino, which is supposedly modelled on a lotus, resembles a colossal golden robot. If you’re going to head into Macao’s back streets, you might as well reinforce the metaphor by fleeing a gigantic Transformer. It doesn’t take long – within two minutes, you can be inside the pink-painted, white-shuttered Clube Militar de Macau, founded in 1870, checking out the trilingual (Portuguese, English, Chinese) lunch menu under ceiling fans. And five minutes after that, you can be in 430-year-old San Francisco garden, trying to guess the meaning of a sonorous Portuguese inscription by the 16th-century poet Luís de Camões placed over a fountain.
This colonial flavour is still remarkably pervasive in a way that’s almost non-existent in brisk Hong Kong, although the mix must be puzzling to encounter if you’re actually Portuguese. The traffic is on the left, which is not the case in either China or Portugal. The seafood tends to be those fish – cod, sardines – that come from more northern climates but are spiced via the east, and Macao’s most famous chicken dish (Galinha à africana) conveys imperial adventures on another continent entirely. Cemitério budista say the signs; and the tiny chapel of Our Lady of the Snow, in itself a subtropical contradiction, has 17th-century frescoes which mix Chinese motifs – lions, clouds – with Catholic iconography.
The chapel is at Guia Fort. I climbed up in the 35C (95F) heat, and stood, in the breeze, at the Guia lighthouse, the first modern one on China’s coast and still in operation. This is where the city’s typhoon signals are hoist and a whole row of them – huge, black woven symbols – hang in waiting along a whitewashed corridor like a sinisterly impressive art installation. (Two days later, that slight breeze would become Tropical Storm Doksuri and a signal eight – two black triangles – would be raised to warn the city to shut down, although, of course, the casinos didn’t close.)
Apart from a wedding photographer snapping a young couple, the imprimatur of a picturesque spot in China, only a few other people were around, and in the Guia Hill Air Raid Shelter, built in 1931, I was completely alone, and free to inspect the old bed, kettle, generator and black-and-white photographs of soldiers from Angola and Mozambique on Macao’s Fifties streets. Afterwards, walking back down the pleasant, wooded hiking trail while a small cable car swayed emptily overhead, I met only one, smiling, man. He was carrying a butterfly net, and spoke no English, but said he came from Beijing and, as a gift, held out a tiny wrapped package which made feeble, fluttering movements.
The Morrison Chapel at the entrance to the Protestant Cemetery, memorably located next to the Future Bright Amusement Park, was also deserted. I stared at the photographs of the Reverend Florence Lei, who had been ordained its Anglican priest in 1944, to the outrage of Lambeth Palace – she subsequently resigned her licence but not her orders – and weighed, not for the first time, the dispiriting odds of women ever being admitted to the Catholic clergy. (The atmosphere in Macao tends to cultivate such arithmetic.)
Outside, the finely preserved graves – including those of a great- great-grand-uncle of Winston Churchill and the artist George Chinnery – were being photographed by a British resident, Penny, and we stood among the headstones animatedly discussing food (Lord Stow’s delicious egg tarts on Coloane, tapas at A Petisqueira on Taipa, afternoon tea at the Pousada de S an Tiago) while the mosquitos dined on our ankles.
Later, in the late-afternoon light, I sat for a while on a bench under a banyan tree, next to the Camoes garden, planning drinks with friends (at Altira 38, for the view), and listening to the sound of an erhu – that exquisitely poignant, two-stringed instrument – on a radio an elderly Chinese man, in vest and shorts, was carefully coddling on his lap. Children ran around with face cloths tucked into the back of their T-shirts to keep cool, I could hear a fortune-teller murmuring to a client at the desk he’d set up under the tree, and the Macao ladies on the benches opposite were such a blur behind their fans, they might have been senhoras from a former colonial power.
In the pre-typhoon streets below (I knew) were thousands of visitors crowding up the steps to the façade of St Paul’s, buying almond cookies and egg tarts and coffee (Now Brewing At The Ruins of St Paul’s, as a Starbucks sign indicated in the middle of the throng) and taking millions of photographs in the famous churches designated a heritage area by Unesco in 2005. But when I went into a less-favoured church at sunset, to light a candle for someone whose odds of surviving this beautiful, vibrant, Chinese summer were about nil, there was hardly anyone there.
The ferries between Hong Kong and Macao run 24 hours but if you’re thinking of going at weekends or over a public holiday, book ahead. Ferries go to the Cotai Strip, between Taipa and Coloane, where most of the casinos are (cotaijet.com.mo) or to peninsular Macao (turbojet.com.hk). Check the weather forecast a few days ahead for any possible typhoons: the ferries cease running on a signal eight. (hko.gov.hk)
The Macao pataca (MOP) has almost the same value as the Hong Kong dollar (HKD) but be aware that while shops and taxis in Macao will accept HKD, you will not be able to use leftover MOP back in Hong Kong.
Consider looking online for hotel summer packages which may include, for example, tickets to the spectacular House of Dancing Water (highly recommended for families) at City of Dreams. Macao also has a surprising variety of museums: the Museum of Macau, next to St Paul’s façade, the Grand Prix Museum, the Macao Science Center and the Fire Services Museum (lots of pumps, helmets, extinguishers, plus two big, red, shiny tenders) are all worth visits.
Source: The Telegraph