Links to the past

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2009, 12:00am

The transformation of Macau that began when Las Vegas money started pouring into the city after the gaming monopoly ended in 2002, was greeted with mixed feelings by many who loved the town for its peaceful atmosphere and remarkable historic heritage.

Suddenly the oldest European settlement on the China coast wasn't 'sleepy' any more and the crumbling old shophouses of its charming time-capsule backstreets were overshadowed by Hong Kong-style futuristic high rises - just the kind of thing people used to go to Macau to get away from.

The identity of the city has undoubtedly changed forever, but much of the old fabric remains in resolute, if uneasy, co-existence with the new glass and steel structures, and get-rich-quick ethos.

Macau is blessed with an abundance of temples and churches; restful Chinese gardens and elegant old Portuguese plazas. There are many places where it is still possible to get a vivid sense of its long and colourful history.

The city takes its name from the A-Ma Temple in the Porto Interior, or Inner Harbour, and there has been a temple on this site dedicated to A-Ma, or Tin Hau, a Taoist deity thought to protect seafarers, since the 15th century.

When the Portuguese landed and asked the name of the place they were told it was the Bay of A-Ma - in Cantonese A-Ma Gao - and the phrase was abbreviated and written down as Macao, a spelling largely replaced for many years by Macau but now once again in common use.

Macau's value to the first Portuguese settlers was first and foremost as a port, and the Maritime Museum, which is opposite the temple, puts its Portuguese and Chinese seafaring history nicely into perspective.

In 2005 the Historic Centre of Macau was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, and its focal point remains the Largo do Senado, or Senate Square - an elegant cobbled public space surrounded by some of the best preserved examples of Macau's colonial architectural heritage, including the Leal Senado or 'Loyal Senate' building itself, built in 1784.

Other notable buildings within the Unesco site reflecting Macau's colonial history include the 19th century Moorish Barracks and the Dom Pedro V Theatre, which was built in 1860 as the first Western-style theatre in China.

The Portuguese were enthusiastic builders of churches, and within the Historic Centre area are St Lawrence's Church, St Joseph's Seminary and Church, St Augustine's Church, St Dominic's Church and The Cathedral, but Macau's first major church remains its most famous, and the city's most iconic, landmark.

The church of St Paul, construction of which began in 1602 and of which only the fa?ade remains since a catastrophic fire in 1835, was built by Japanese converts to Christianity under the supervision of the Jesuits, who settled in Macau in 1565 and exercised a powerful influence.

The facade is one of Asia's most remarkable ruins, and the exhibits in the Museum of Sacred Art in the church's original crypt offer some fascinating insights into the work of the early missionaries in Asia. This is particularly true of some fine 17th century Japanese paintings.

Another first for Macau was the Guia Lighthouse which, when completed in 1865, became the first modern lighthouse on the China coast. The lighthouse is part of the Guia Fortress, on which work began in 1622, and which includes a chapel known for its beautiful frescoes.

Another fort well worth visiting has for some years been a popular boutique hotel, the lone instance in Macau of the adoption of the now common Portuguese practice of converting historic buildings for that purpose.

The Pousada de Sao Tiago started as a 17th century fortress called the Fortaleza de Barra, and today offers guests a reassuringly old-fashioned style of hospitality by comparison with the new five-star properties on the Cotai Strip. Even if you aren't staying there, the terrace is one of the best places in Macau, cocktail in hand, to watch the sun go down.

The old cemeteries also offer some interesting insights into Macau's past - and a reminder that for much of the city's history, life for most of its inhabitants was hard and short.

The Protestant Graveyard is perhaps the best known, partly because it is the final resting place of George Chinnery, arguably the greatest Western painter of South China Coast scenes and portraits of the 19th century.

The inscriptions on the less famous headstones, however, also provide much insight into a harsh way of living, recording many tragically early deaths from now curable diseases, and accidents aboard ship, or ashore, or in childbirth. It is paradoxically a serenely restful place.

Macau's gardens are also known for their easy tranquility and perhaps the finest is the Jardim Lou Lim Ieoc, a 19th century garden modelled on classical Chinese lines with its ponds and pavilions and bamboo groves, but also including - in the best Macau tradition of balancing East and West - elegantly integrated European elements. Dr Sun Yat-sen liked to relax there.

Several of Macau's historic attractions benefited immensely from late investment in restoration by the outgoing Portuguese administration as the past century drew to a close, and a number of buildings of interest were adapted as museums. There are at least 20 noteworthy museums in Macau today. Modern buildings house the Wine Museum and the Grand Prix Museum, which are in the Tourism Activities Centre, and the excellent Macau Museum of Art in the Macau Cultural Centre, but many of the others are to be found in noteworthy heritage buildings.

These include the Macau Museum, which forms part of a 17th century fortress built by the Jesuits; the Dr Sun Yat-sen Memorial House; the Macau Tea Culture House; the Museum of Taipa and Coloane History, and the Taipa Houses Museum.

In Avenue Almeida Ribeiro, a traditional pawnshop was adapted as a museum of pawnbroking, and opened in 2003.

Typical old ledgers, chops and abacuses are among the exhibits commemorating a trade believed to have first been practised in China about 3,000 years ago.

As Macau's modern development races ahead, albeit in a slightly lower gear than before the present financial crisis, the city continues to value its past, and its historic areas and buildings offer a taste of the tranquility which for so many years lay at the core of its appeal to visitors. Whatever the future holds, here the past will always have a prominent place.