Chinese New Year in Hong Kong: A Day in Macau, Part I

The Santa Casa Da Misericordia building in Macau's Senado Square, decorated for Chinese New Year
(Note:  MsCaroline is aware that she returned from Hong Kong over a week ago and should, in theory, have already posted this, but she is Slow and Indecisive, and has trouble keeping her posts brief, which accounts for the unconscionable length of this post, which she has had to divide into two parts. I'm sure none of you are surprised.)

Until I started researching our trip to Hong Kong, what I knew about Macau was on about the same level as my knowledge of string theory or the rules of the NFL - in other words, almost nonexistent.

On the off-chance that some of my readers may also have missed that day in class, let me give you the SparkNotes version: Macau is a peninsula of the Chinese mainland (about an hour away from Hong Kong by boat) but is considered, like Hong Kong, to be a SAR - Special Administrative Region, (which seems to mean they are economically independent of China.) It was colonized in the 1500s by the Portuguese, who remained more or less in control of it until 1999, which means that Macau has a crazily European/Mediterranean vibe smack in the middle of Asia, which totally appeals to MsCaroline's love of history as well as her appreciation for interesting contrasts.

In recent years, Macau has parlayed its 'SAR' status into a thriving Casino industry, and has turned into sort of the Las Vegas of Asia- at least from what we could see.  We aren't really gamblers (and we were traveling with a 15-year-old anyway) so I can't provide you with any information about the casinos except there are a lot of them and they seem to be tremendously popular, and it seemed like all of  a lot of the people from Mainland China had come to gamble there, being trundled about on tour buses from casino to casino.  Like their Vegas counterparts, the Macau casinos are all over-the-top glitz, glitter, and artificial volcanoes and pyramids and such, and command much of the Macau skyline.
MGM Macau

Giant glittering casino building in the Macau skyline with Chinese New Year decorations in the foreground.  

As I mentioned in my last post, we arrived in Hong Kong in the evening and got up early the next morning to travel on the 8:30 boat from Kowloon to Macau via TurboJet (sort of a speedy enclosed ferryboat, but not nearly as exciting as it sounds) from the China Ferry Terminal.  On the excellent advice given to me by Heather over at  My Wandering Life, I purchased tickets online in advance (since it was Chinese New Year and crowds were likely.)  The site was in English, I was able to use my credit card to pay online, and when I got to the ferry terminal, all I had to do was show my printed receipt to pick up my tickets at the TurboJet ticket counter (note:  the Ferry Terminal is fabulously well-marked in English and we had no trouble finding anything.)

We paid the extra money for 'Super Class' seats, which turned out to be slightly wider and upstairs(Note: the downstairs seats were comfortable and well-padded, though, and we started out looking for our seats down there because they looked so luxurious.  I'm not sure what I was expecting - maybe wooden benches? In any case, not really sure I'd pay for 'Super' class the next time unless there were big crowds.)  We were also served a complimentary 'snack' (this looked like a hearty breakfast to me) but no one was able to eat since the crossing was a bit bumpy.  It was a grey morning, so most of what we saw was mist-capped hills and mountains rising out of the fog - sort of mysterious and romantic.
On the way to Macau

Arriving at the Macau Ferry Terminal, we moved through Customs quite quickly (the stewards on the ferry give you a small form to fill out and no Visa is required for US citizens for a visit of less than 30 days - you just need your passport) and found ourselves downstairs in front of the terminal where dozens of tour guides swarmed at us.  Since we had decided to play this part 'by ear,' we ended up purchasing a 'hop on hop off' bus tour ticket, which - in retrospect - we probably wouldn't do again.  From what we could see, most tourists buy a ticket, ride one stop, get off, spend an hour, then get on and move to the next place (lots of casinos on the list.) Since we weren't interested in the casinos,we decided to ride the entire circuit around Macau to get a general idea of the layout and location of things, which would have been a better idea if it had not been drizzly and grey.  We went everywhere else on foot or with the city bus.  We did get a good birds-eye view of things and a good general sense of where things were, so I suppose the bus ride wasn't a complete waste of time.

Anyway, we ended up taking a 45-minute top-of-the-bus tour of Macau, which was interesting and informative and gave us a good overview of a fascinating country.

As I said before, the Chinese/Portuguese vibe in Macau is really fascinating.   One minute you're gazing at a Buddhist shrine tucked in next to a traditional Chinese apothecary, and a minute later you're standing in a cobblestone square looking at a church built by three Jesuits in the 1600s.

One of many small Buddhist shrines built all over Macau, decorated for Chinese New Year with orange trees.
Portuguese/Chinese:  it was everywhere.

After the top-of-the-bus tour, we headed straight for historic Sendano Square ('Senate Square') where you can find most of the well-known historic Portuguese buildings, museums, and several churches.  Everything was marked in both Chinese and Portuguese and (usually) English:

While there, we toured St. Augustine's Church, which was built in the 1500s by 3 Augustinian monks from Mexico.  It was very similar to many of the Mission churches that you see in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, and - again - it was hard to believe you were really in Asia when you were in there.

  The church is still a place of worship and is the starting point for Macau's well-known Easter procession (yes, we'd love to come back and see it) and it includes a small attached museum displaying some lovely artifacts, including many of the items (chalices, missals, robes) used by some of the earliest priests of the church.  There were quite a few plaster and wood statues and figures of Christ and the saints, as well as a selection of garments used over the years to clothe both the priests and the statues in the church.  This trunk of spare body parts took me aback a bit;  not sure if parts are regularly interchanged or if they're just providing an insight into the way the figures are made.  Either way, I took a photo and I'm sure anyone who's been reading my posts for a while will understand why it appealed to me:

After we finished in St. Augustine's, we headed back across the square and down the street to the Ruins of St. Paul's, built in the 1600s. The entire structure - except the facade - burned down in 1835 as the result of a fire during a typhoon, but the facade has remained to this day and is one of Macau's most-visited sites and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.   In addition to the structure itself, you can walk behind it and visit a small museum containing religious artifacts and crypts, which you could look into via plexiglass windows.  Some of the crypts contained stone tombs, and others just contained assorted bones (mostly femurs- I have no idea why, unless femurs last longer), which were reverently displayed in a small crypt.

Ruins of St. Paul's, Macau.

After St. Paul's, we decided to climb the stairs to the top of the nearby Fortaleza do Monte, a fortress built by Jesuits in the 1600s to protect Macau (successfully, it turns out) from attacks by the Dutch, who were interested in controlling Macau's strategically-located port.  The stairs to the fortress are just to the right of St. Paul's in the photo above, and tucked into a beautifully-landscaped hillside that we initially thought was just a lovely park.

Of course, as soon as we walked over, we saw signs everywhere letting us know that the fort was up above.  The climb isn't actually grueling, but it's not something you'd want to run up, either.  Let's just say that the Portuguese chose their location wisely and it's easy to see why the Dutch might have found getting to the top a bit of a challenge.  Either way, we made our way up the stairs and found a real honest-to-goodness fort at the top, complete with cannons and turrets.  While up there, I took the opportunity to get a photo with Son#2, about whom I was feeling particularly anxious and sentimental, since he had a death wish bungee-jumping appointment scheduled for later that afternoon.

Also housed up on top of the fort is the Museum of Macau, which we all enjoyed tremendously(note:  Son#2 got in free by showing his student ID).  Numerous exhibits (including many hands-on for kids) included information about Macau's diverse Chinese/Portuguese history as well as daily life for both Portuguese expatriates and locals.  One display about daily life in Macau included the displays of different street peddlers ('hawkers'), their wares, and their various cries, which you could hear by pressing a button, really capturing the flavor of an 18th-century street scene.  There was an elaborate replica of a typical downtown street in Macau in the 1700s including building interiors; a historical display about types of tea, the interior of a typical trading vessel, and (my favorite) an exhibit about the ancient pastime of cricket fighting.  Apparently, this was so popular that champion crickets who passed on were interred in their own elaborate coffins and tombs, although several of them had also been preserved for posterity in some sort of formaldehyde solution.  All I can say is that, were I to encounter a cricket of that size, I doubt the first thing I would think would be, "Hey! I shall capture him and enter him in fighting competitions!" (Note:  In fact, I'm sure that's the last thing I would ever think.  Do you see how big these crickets are? They're practically as big as kittens! Why on earth would I want to catch one, no matter how promising his fighting career might be?)  Naturally, I took photos of this stuff, because that's how I roll.  It's not every day you see a cricket coffin.

 There were tons of tourists, including this dapper young guy who was doing his best to look like Psy of 'Gangnam Style' fame (it seems we cannot escape it, even when we leave Korea).  I realize it was juvenile of me, but I couldn't help taking this picture, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only complete stranger who came home with a shot of this little kid:

By the time we'd finished up on the fort, we had to head back towards the ferry terminal towards my nemesis:  the Macau Tower.   This - some of you may recall - was where Son#2 had made reservations to participate in a 233-meter bungee jump against my better judgement.

That's right:  the world's highest bungee jump. 

Since I couldn't bring myself to watch the whole process, I can't tell you much, but I'll provide a few more details in my next post.  Suffice it to say that Son#2 survived the experience, but I feel sure I'll never be the same again.

(Note:  The bungee jump and the rest of our day in Macau will follow in my next post:  Chinese New Year: A Day in Macau, Part II.)


It looks very different from the Macau I remember (last there in 1989). Only the ruined church is familiar. I think we may have climbed the fort, but the view from the top was very different then - much less developed. I do remember we had dinner at a very old colonial hotel which was known as the "Fawlty Towers" of Macau - just for the experience, and the view, although the service was dreadful as predicted.
MsCaroline said…
NVG - I felt the same way when we went to Bangkok last year - what a change. Since we were only there for a day, there were probably a number of places we missed that might have looked more familiar to you. Despite the casinos and construction, I really did love it - especially the old part of the city. Would love to go back, and hope to, now that we realize what a short, easy trip it is!
Trish said…
Fascinating insight, MsC, as always. Yes I missed the Macau lesson too so was grateful for the detail in the post.
Loving the box of spare parts and wondering about the excess of femurs.

So glad Son#2 survived even though, by the sounds of it, you nearly expired with worry.
BavarianSojourn said…
Wow... fantastic pictures (particularly the one of you and your lovely boy!) Love the sound of Macau, and I had no idea to the extend of it's Portugese heritage... I hear it's the best for dim sum too. I am obsessed with dim sum, have you guessed? :)
MsCaroline said…
Trish- Yes, he was unimpressed and I was trying not to get all emotional. I have no idea if it's because I'm of a certain age or because I was really that anxious. Re: femurs: all the bones were displayed in small, narrow plexiglass rectangular boxes. From what I understood, a lot of them had been excavated not too long ago, so maybe the smaller bones had already decayed. Being a Methodist, I don't come from a bone-displaying religious background, so I don't know much about preservation of relics as such, but I suppose it makes sense that the larger denser bones would take longer to decompose. Perhaps we should consult Dr. Dougie on this one...
MsCaroline said…
Emma - Thanks for the kind comments - must confess that the best photos were taken by MrL with the 'big' camera (I am just too lazy to carry the big one around) but I'm happy to have them either way! And yes, they DO have the best Dim Sum! We had several examples of that, including the evening before the Chinese New Year Night Parade - incredible! Someone told me that you can't find a bad Dim Sum restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui(tourist area in Kowloon), and our experience supported that.
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