We decided to spend Christmas Eve in Macau. In the end, this turned out to be better than going to Hong Kong first – Hong Kongers famously go nuts over Christmas, in an exuberant display of public revelry (and incredibly crowded public spaces) that one associates with New Year’s Eve at Times Square.
Here’s Lonely Planet on Macau:
“Lying 65km west of Hong Kong, on the opposite side of the mouth of the Pearl River, tiny Macau, measuring just 27.3 sq. km, was the oldest European settlement in Asia when it reverted to Chinese sovereignty in December 1999. With about 2% of its residents Portuguese, some 95% of them Chinese and the rest Macanese (people with mixed Portuguese Chinese and/or African blood) Macau is a fascinating fusion of Mediterranean and Asian peoples, lifestyles, temperaments, architecture and food.”At 9:00 am we board a bus from the Clifford Estates bus-stop to the border city of Zhulai. I doze during the nearly 2 hour bus-ride, periodically interrupted by a blast from the horn, and cell-phones going-off followed by staccato gun-fire-like bursts of Cantonese, strangely soporific. Zhulai seems like any other newly-prosperous coastal Chinese city: concrete buildings, wide, clean, open roads, construction everywhere. The border crossing hall at Gombei is massive, and filled with tons of travelers going to spend Christmas Eve in Macau (apart from its churches and Mediterranean charm, it’s known as the Las Vegas of China, with casinos galore).
We join the only lane for foreigners, and it takes nearly an hour to inch up to the counter to have a blank-faced official stamp our passports. We’ve not technically left the People’s Republic, but are leaving to enter one of two Special Administrative Regions of China, with a high degree of political and economic autonomy, and its own currency. Apparently, not every Chinese citizen can visit Macau or Hong Kong – they need to apply for visas! (And, for foreigners, leaving mainland does count as leaving China as far as visas go. One needs to have a dual-entry or multiple-entry Chinese visa to re-enter the mainland. Citizens of most countries don’t require visas to visit either of the two SARs)
There is a short walk from the mainland side to a smaller, quieter arrival hall on the Macau side. The official here barely glances at our passports and stamps them. Round the corner a large sign welcomes us to Macau in three languages: Cantonese, Portuguese (still one of the official languages) and English. We pick up some maps from the helpful information counter, and get directions to the hotel, and board a black-and-white Toyota Corolla cab to head to Hotel Man Yu, on the Rua de Felecidades. Macau (like Hong Kong) maintains colonial driving habits: cars are right-hand drive, and they drive on the left. So, for almost all practical purposes, we’re in a different country.
The area around the border crossing has tall, drab concrete buildings, with none of the flash of the newer areas of Guangzhou. The streets are narrower, reflecting the planning of an era before heavy vehicular traffic. As we come closer the historic center of Macau (the whole city center has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO), the buildings become more colonial and European. All the signs are in Cantonese and Portuguese. For a second I feel we’re in Goa. Except that Goa is always a lot more humid and never this cool (it’s about 60F outside).
The cab drops us off on the Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, one of the main roads of the city center, from where it’s a short walk across a cobble-stoned alley to the narrow Rua de Felecidades. Hotel Man Yu turns out to be a small, clean, comfortable and efficient concrete building. We haggle a bit over the price (on the phone yesterday they’d quoted 450 HKD. We end up paying 500 CNY, about 480 HKD, or 62 USD. The local currency is the Macau Pataca, abbreviated MOP. Hong Kong dollars are freely accepted, Renminbi [the official name for the currency of the mainland] only in hotels and bigger establishments.) The room is just being cleaned as we take the elevator up, and is quite comfortable.
Having dumped our bags, we walk down the narrow street towards Senado Plaza, one of the central squares. A host of aromas emanates from the various pastry and meat shops lining the street. Cured meats, such as jerked beef, veal, etc., laid out for display in thin sheets, seem to be popular fare, and pretty much every street we saw was lined with several such “Macearias” (similar to Italian macelleria, butcher, or meat-shop, I’m guessing). Lunch was at a Portuguese place, near Senado Plaza, where we tried out the local Macanese cuisine.
Senado Plaza itself is jam-packed with tourists, milling around the large Christmas tree in the middle. A stage had been set up for a concert, and Christmas lights were strung from every conceivable edifice and protrusion. Opposite the ochre-colored Leal Senado building (the seat of municipal government) is the Casa da Santa Misercordia, the House of Mercy, one of the first western-style medical clinic and social service charity in Asia. Around the corner is St. Dominic’s church, one of the oldest on the island, dating back to 1587. In the narthex we find an affable and loquacious Singaporean Chinese nun of the Daughters of St. Paul, Sr. Rose Lee, who informs us that there is indeed a midnight Mass at the Cathedral, a little further uphill. Sr. Rose, apparently, had spent several years in Bombay, so we end up chatting about that beloved city a bit, before heading into the beautiful church itself for some moments of prayer.
The Cathedral turns out to be a more somber building with a plaster façade. It seems like it dates from the 1950s, but this particular structure goes back to the mid 18th century. We stop for a break in front of a shady little square to the side of the Cathedral, with a quiet fountain bubbling away, and several people out for a stroll. On the opposite side of the Cathedral, some students are rehearsing for what appears to be a Christmas play, and three Chinese Wise Men are practicing their lines.
We then follow the Rua do S. Paolo up to one of the most famous landmark of Macau, the ruins of St. Paul’s. Here’s the Macau World Heritage guide’s description:
The Ruins of St. Paul’s refer to the façade of what was originally the Church of Mater Dei built in 1602-1640 and destroyed by fire in 1835, and the ruins of St. Paul’s College, which stood adjacent to the Church. As a whole, the old Churcho f Mater Dei, St. Paul’s College and Mount Fortress were all Jesuit constructions and formed what can be perceived as the “Acropolis” of Macau. Close by, the archaeological remains of the old College of St. Paul stand witness to what was the first western-style university in the far East, with an elaborate academic programme [sic]. Nowadays, the façade of the Ruins of St. Paul’s functions symbolically as an altar to the city.The ruins stand atop the side of the hill next to Mount Fortress (one of the highest points on the island), and the steps leading up to it are somewhat reminiscent of the Spanish Steps of Rome, and definitely as heavily populated with locals and tourists hanging out. At the foot of the steps there a stage has been set up, and some local church choirs are belting out Christmas carols (some familiar) in Cantonese. Near the entrance, several people (Chinese as well as American) are handing out red Chinese Bibles to passers-by. I strike up a conversation with one of the ladies. Turns out she’s from Tyler, TX. Her uncle is a missionary with the Medical Missionaries (St. Liz, isn’t this the group you went to Haiti with?), and her family is visiting him for Christmas. We take several Bibles: Kem wants to distribute them to friends and co-workers back in China. Can’t take too many, else the Chinese customs will go nuts!
There is nothing left of the church (except a few foundational stones, visible through proctective glass covers). Steps lead up to a ledge perched half-way up the interior side of the facade. I notice, cheek-by-jowl with the ruins, on the other side of the wall of the compound is a tiny Taoist shrine, sharing its back wall with the outside wall of the ruins. A lone worshipper approaches, lights incense, bows and enters. What a snapshot that captures the history and significance of Macau!
Next to the ruins is the Monte Fortaleza, the Jesuit-built fortress (quite militant, those SJs, eh? :-)), and we climb up to the top for some decent views over the city as the sun goes down over the horizon, before stopping for some Cokes and Fantas on the way down. We retrace our steps back to Senado Square, and a few twists-and-turns down narrow cobble-stoned paths later we’re in St. Augustine Square, with the St. Joseph Seminary on one side, and the Church of St. Augustine (under renovation) on the other. This area is away from the Christmas revelers, and we sit down to enjoy the peace and quiet, disturbed only by the occasional passing car or scooter.
We return to the hotel to rest our weary limbs. I channel-surf – almost all Chinese channels (both Cantonese [Guangdonghua] and Mandarin [Putonghua]; I can almost make out the difference. Cantonese is more musical [seven tones versus four], with more rounded and long-drawn out vowels, and hardly any of the aspirated gutturals and retroflexives of Mandarin). One is showing Cantonese opera – the elaborated painted faces, complicated facial movements and stylized steps remind me, of all things, of Kathakkali! The music is high-pitched, though melodious. There is one Hong Kong channel in English, full of coverage of Christmas Eve celebrations, crowd control measures and traffic closings. The Pope does make it to the news, for having worn his famous “Santa Hat” (camauro) earlier this week.
[Argh! I hate the Great Firewall of the People's Republic! So many of the sites that I googled for the link to the Pope-Camauro story were blocked! As is Wikipedia. Sheesh!]
Dinner is at a Thai restaurant, a little disappointing. A Christmas play and concert are in progress at Senado Square (we spot the three Chinese Wise Men on the stage), and the crowds are even bigger and louder, with flashbulbs going-off everywhere as if this were a catwalk. We return to the hotel for a little bit, before getting ready to head out to Midnight Mass at the Cathedral. (Which deservers its own, separate blog-entry! :)).