Macao is a dream-like city… a city of dreams… a dream of a city… None of these epithets is the same as the other, and yet they contain within them the essence of the “dream” – that which is surreal, impossible, defying logic, irreal, out of place.
It appears suddenly, as if in a dream… out of nowhere, in the middle of the South China Sea. It is enshrouded by fog; one strains to see it at all from the aircraft window. And then just as suddenly, it’s right there, all around us, as the aircraft lands on an impossible strip of land – reclaimed from the sea and tarmacked as runway.
A Dream-like City
The history of Macao is surreal and dream-like. It is one of the first European colonies in Asia (after Goa and Malacca), and it was the very last to be returned to China, in 1999.
500 years ago, Portuguese conquistadors, led by one Afonso d’Albuquerque, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, sailed around India, navigated the narrow straits of the Malayan Peninsula and headed north towards fabled China. They had started out months before from the Imperial city of Lisboa, and en route, had established colonies wherever they went – Mozambique, Goa, Malacca – in a bid to establish a monopoly on the spice trade.
The colony of Macao was formally established in 1557, in mediaeval times. Having expelled and massacred the pesky and insistent sea-faring barbarians from the settlements in Canton and Ningpo, the Ming Emperor relented in his crusade and agreed to the request for a permanent and official trading settlement on Chinese soil.
The place the Emperor saw fit to bestow upon the Portuguese was a tiny – nay, minuscule – rocky Peninsula off the Pearl River Delta. A place with dream-like geography – the tiniest rocky sliver of land extending out into the ocean; a mere 20 square metres of earth; and one of the most peripheral places the Chinese could have conjured up on Chinese soil.
The Chinese had a name for this place – 澳門, pronounced Ngau Moon in Cantonese, and meaning “Bay Gate,” or “Gateway to the Bay (of Canton).” That’s not what the Portuguese ended up naming their colony however. They dropped anchor to the south of the Peninsula, where for more than a century, a temple had stood to the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu 媽祖. The Portuguese called the temple and its vicinity “Ma Kok” – 媽閣 – which literally meant “Court of Mazu.”
When the Portuguese landed and asked the locals where they were, the latter replied straightforwardly that they were in “Ma Kok”. The Portuguese promptly called the peninsula “Macao,” and the name – a misunderstanding – stuck.
City of Dreams
The Portuguese came to trade, which is the same as saying that they came to chase a dream; a new destiny for themselves and their nation. For centuries, Macao, like its sister city, Hong Kong – and indeed, every other colonial port city in the world, was just that: a city where dreams could be made, for those who founded the city, and for the Chinese and other locals who could play by the foreign rules.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Portugal became immensely wealthy through its monopoly on the spice trade, shipping spices from the Moluccas through Macao and to other cities like Manila, Malacca, Goa and to Europe and the Americas. The Portuguese in Macao were merchants and go-betweens in this lucrative trade; they became wealthy, and they built beautiful edificios and villas that we still see today.
This wealth was curtailed somewhat when the Portuguese lost a good part of their empire to the Dutch in the 17th century, and later on, when British Hong Kong muscled in on international trade in the 19th century. For a time, Macao was eclipsed; it crumbled, and slipped into decay, becoming a bit of a quaint anomaly – an odd relic from time past.
All that changes in the 1960s, when the government decided to allow gambling in the capital. A monopoly was awarded to a consortium of local business magnates, including the notorious and powerful Stanley Ho, who would become Macao’s “King of Gambling” and whose iconic (and iconically hideous) Grand Lisboa Casino and Hotel still towers over the city today.
This monopoly was overturned in 2002, opening up the gambling sector to international investment. In came major Las Vegas casino operators like the Sands, Wynns and the Venetian. The latter built an immense branch of itself in Macao – bigger than the “original” in Vegas – on a vast plot of land reclaimed from the sea between Macao’s Taipa and Coloane islands.
Within ten years, Macao had out-vegased Vegas, becoming the world’s largest and most profitable casino destination. Almost overnight, it became again, a city of dreams… except this time, ANYONE was free to partake of the dream, as long as he was not averse to rolling the dice. As if to emphasise the point, there is even a “City of Dreams” casino-hotel, taunting the visitor with dreams of striking it lucky…
Speaking of land reclamation, much of Macao itself grew and became unrecognizable due to successive land reclamation from the 1800s. Including the vast “Cotai” development on which the Venetian sits, Macao’s land area increased by 50% to 30 square metres. It is no longer a peninsula, more of an abutment into the sea.
In particular, the adjacent Chinese village-now-city of Zhujiang had also been busily reclaiming its land, such that, once separated by a sizeable body of water, only a mere sliver of a river now separates Macao from the Mainland – two almost entirely different universes existing in parallel with one another.
Dream of A City
Despite untrammeled development, Macao’s built heritage lingers on strong, particularly in the Peninsula itself, though also surviving in small villages on the ex-islands of Taipa and Coloane.
The entire old town of Macao, with its dozens of imposing and ornate colonial-era civic buildings, cathedrals, squares and other edifices, is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and justly so. Walking the old town is an engaging and surreal storybook experience – alternately sci-fi and period epic. Towering, claustrophobic apartment blocks, where the Macanese are packed in like sardines, suddenly give way to an 18th or 19th century church or theatre, floating impossibly before one’s eyes like a mirage.
And then there’s Senado Square, with its iconic wave-like paving and surrounding colonial-era monuments, appearing like a beautiful dream when you least expect it. One can stand there for hours, appreciating the ingenuity and elegance of the painstakingly assembled mosaic paving.
The miracle of Macao, ultimately, is that there is so much of the Portuguese (and other) built heritage remaining in one contiguous expanse in the city. One can walk the entire Macao Peninsula, and never feel at any point that one has left the Old Town. This is unlike Hong Kong, where most of what the British built in the 19th and early 20th centuries has already been lost, and what remains is scattered and isolated in small pockets.
It’s almost too much to take in, in such a tiny little floating city on the sea… And one is reminded vividly of another ancient, densely built-up, dream-like, floating city on the sea… Venice.
The Portuguese legacy lives on also in the people and the culture. There are the ubiquitous, delicious Portuguese egg tarts, the oddly out of place African curry that appears in menus of Macanese cuisine, and the Portuguese wine easily available everywhere, even in 7-Eleven.
The Macanese themselves are elusive and hard to spot, and their patois – called Patuá – is dying out. But all around there are signs that one is not in Hong Kong (which is a familiar sort of place due to how often the city features in the popular consciousness) but in a kind of weird, out of this world dream….
These signs are quite literally that: “signs,” “signboards” “streetsigns,” “signposts” that name everything in Traditional Chinese and in Portuguese. The signs are everywhere. Everything here is still faithfully described in the two official languages of the ex-colony, even though one of them is no longer spoken, really.
All of this: Chinese and Portuguese; the age-old Portuguese edificios and the brand new Casino Disneyland; the village and the city; towering claustrophobia and the open expanses of the various bays that surround Macao… All this makes for a surreal and dream-like urban landscape, epitomised most eloquently by the towering golden tulip of the Grand Lisboa, inescapable anywhere one stands and looks in the old Peninsula.
Part of latter-day Macao, the golden tulip has been such a fixture in the city now that it has, ironically, become part of the heritage of this floating city in the middle of the ocean.
Macao is a dream-like city… a city of dreams… a dream of a city… The one city that comes closest to embodying the essence of this very blog.