Amongst those who have heard of Macau, many will immediately think of its reputation as the “Las Vegas of the East” or its proximity to its larger, more famous neighbour, Hong Kong. However, Macau is a city rooted in history with a strong colonial past as a gateway for European explorers to Imperial China. Today, these many historical landmarks are recognised under the UNESCO quality mark and are worth a visit whether on a day excursion from Hong Kong or during a longer stay in this unique city on the Chinese coast.
Navigating the sights
Given its small size, Macau can easily be traversed either by foot or by using the criss-cross network of public buses that frequent all corners of the city. Dotted amongst many of the landmarks are signposts and map boards providing directions to the places of interest spread across the city but concentrated in the South West section. Free maps are available from many of the hotels, hostels and casinos, not to mention tourist information points like the one at Macau International Airport. These will be a valuable aid to any independent explorer set on discovering some of the gems that provide an insight into Macau’s history and set in context how the modern city came into being.
To understand the detail of a place’s history, a visit to their principal museums that document this is often a wise investment. Macau’s history and development is well presented in two key museums that we explored: the Macau museum and the Maritime Museum.
Located within the grounds of Mount Fortress next to the Ruins of St Paul’s, this museum has three floors charting the development of the colony from its Chinese and Portuguese roots. Presented in chronological order, the museum using a mix of artefacts, storyboards and mock ups to catalogue the story, helping visitors to understand the cultural developments and political decisions that brought Macau into being. Amongst the highlights include the mock street between the first and second floors, with a mix of building designs from the traditional Chinese to the Portuguese influenced townhouses. A visit here gives you a real flavour of the changes that brought about the city that you see today.
Whilst normally charging for entry, there are days (such as the one we went on) where entrance is free – irrespective of the fee raised, this is a must for anyone who really wants to understand Macau’s history.
As a historic maritime gateway from Europe to China and being a former colony of the great seafarers of Portugal, the Maritime Museum presents the development of the Macanese relationship with the sea. Across the floors of this museum, visitors can develop an understanding of the great maritime heritage of both China and Portugal that contributed to Macau’s importance and how cultural aspects reflect the history of the synergy between these two distinct cultures. Several of the floors hold replica instruments that aided navigation across the seas and detailed scale models of the vessels that conveyed sailors to and from the city over the centuries.
Churches of Macau
The Catholic traditions of Portugal meant that Macau’s earliest European residents were often priests and monks of various orders sent as missionaries to bring Christianity to the East. Notably, the Jesuit order played a key role in developing all aspects of Macanese society and their relationship with the Imperial Court of China. Examples of these influences can be seen across the city, not least in the various religious sites and churches that are dotted around the city.
Whilst there were many, many churches spread throughout the city, these are just a few that we either saw or explored:
Ruins of St Paul’s
Probably Macau’s most famous cultural landmark, the ruined facade of the first Jesuit church and college are all that remains following the fire that destroyed it in 1835. Whilst many will settle for a photograph on the traditionally European staircase that leads to the facade, it’s worth exploring inside the structure to see the original aspects of the church which are now protected and to visit the crypt which houses the remains of dozens of Catholic missionaries to the East and a collection of religious artefacts.
To the left of the facade is a small Chinese shrine and remnants of the old city wall, reflecting the mixture of religions amongst the population of Macau and the measures taken to defend her throughout her history.
St Anthony’s Church
Located a short walk from the Ruins of St Paul’s, we found St Anthony’s which we had chosen to visit purely as it had the same name as me! It is a popular wedding venue even today and stands on the site of the first Christian chapel in Macau. Open and welcoming to visitors we found a beautifully decorated church inside.
St Dominic’s Church
Located in the very European Senado Square, this church was built in the 17th Century by Dominican Friars in a classically European style.
Whilst not a church in the catholic sense, the A-Ma Temple is nonetheless an important religious site within Macau that is located opposite the Maritime Museum. It contains various pavilions dedicated to Taoist and Buddhist Gods and plays an important part in the religious life of Macau’s Chinese population even today – it was this temple that was dedicated to seafarers and fishermen.
Fortresses & Defences of Macau
Macau’s prominent position at the mouth of the Pearl Delta en route to the trading post of the Canton (modern day Guangzhou) made it a prime target for other European powers desiring a foothold on the Chinese coastline. The Jesuit orders who played a leading role in the colonisation of Macau were equally important in developing her defences, including the chains of fortresses that litter the city to stave off attacks from other seafaring nations such as the Dutch.
Located alongside the Ruins of St Paul’s, Mount Fortress was key to the defence of Macau during the Dutch attack of 1622 and was later the residence of the governor. A short climb from the ruins allows visitors to explore the mainly intact fortifications and see examples of the many cannons that once defended the city and provided key lookout positions across the sea to provide early warning of enemy incursions. It is interesting to note that none of the cannons pointed north towards China but only out towards the sea.
Constructed in 1622-1638 on Macau’s highest point, Guia Fortress was a strongpoint in the fortress chain that watched over Macau and defended her from sea attacks (as with other forts, the cannons were only ever placed to face the sea with the side facing China left unfortified). Within the grounds stands a chapel where original frescos can be found. These combine Catholic, Portuguese and Chinese influences, creating a unique montage of colour and imagery. In addition, the oldest western style lighthouse on the Chinese coast stands within the fortress walls, constructed in 1864 and still in use today.
Following your free visit to the chapel and fortress, you can also explore the military tunnels cut into the rock underneath and showing snapshots of life for the Portuguese defenders that once occupied them. Note that although there are three military tunnel complexes, that each are open at different times.
There is so much history and culture to this unique former colony that is worth a visit, even if for just a day. Its history spanning four centuries is reflected in the architecture and cultural conventions found across Macau, in an often more traditional style than experienced in its larger, more famous neighbour of Hong Kong.