Thursday, January 15, 2009


None of my classes start until next week, so I've spent most of the past few days exploring Hong Kong, getting a sense of the city and how to navigate it.  Yesterday I took a break from Hong Kong, and spent the afternoon and evening in Macau.

Macau is something of a Portuguese equivalent to Hong Kong.  In the 1530s, over 300 years before Britain acquired Hong Kong, Portuguese merchants began using Macau as a base of trading operations, ultimately purchasing the island from China in 1557.  As a Portuguese colony, Macau was the only European port for the China trade until 1841, when China ceded Hong Kong to the British after the First Opium War.  Hong Kong had a better harbor, and most European merchants soon made it their new base of operations, abandoning Macau.  Eclipsed in economic and political significance, Macau never developed into a bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis like Hong Kong.  It remained under Portuguese control until 1999, two years after Britain returned Hong Kong to China.  Today Macau, like Hong Kong, is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) - part of China, but with different economic and political systems than the mainland.  All part of Deng Xiaoping's "one country, two systems" idea.  It's the only place in China where gambling is legal, and casinos remain the city's big draw for most tourists.

A friend and I took the 12pm ferry from Hong Kong and arrived in Macau around 12:45.  Not much for gambling, we headed across the island for lunch at Porto Interior, a Macanese-Portuguese restaurant.  It was delicious - hot, crusty bread, rice and seafood stew, an assortment of lightly fried Macanese snacks, and vinho verde (lightly sparkling Portuguese wine).  The highlight, however, was the galinha a Africana (African chicken) - barbecued, served in a thick, sweet and spicy red pepper sauce.  Macanese food is sort of a fusion of influences from various parts of Portugal's colonial empire, including Portugal itself, local Cantonese cuisine, and East Africa.

After lunch we went to the A-Ma temple, a 15th-century temple dedicated to the goddess of fishermen and the sea.  With the lunar New Year around the corner, the temple attendants were setting off extremely long and loud strings of firecrackers on a regular basis.  After inhaling plenty of incense and gunpowder smoke, we moved on to the Maritime Museum - had a few somewhat frightening mannequins, but all in all was a pretty interesting look at the maritime activity of Macau, both Portuguese and Chinese.  There were models of various Portuguese and Chinese sailing vessels, and dioramas of traditional fishing activities.  Most significantly, I learned about the Drunken Dragon Festival, a Macanese tradition in which one dances around and gets sprayed with water while drinking copious amounts of alcohol. 

After leaving the museum, we wandered around Macau's back alleys for most of the rest of the day.  Like the food, the city is a blend of Portuguese and Chinese influences.  Whitewashed walls and porticos give the city a distinctly Iberian feel, and all street signs are in Portuguese as well as Chinese, but there's hardly a European in sight.  The alleyways, barely wide enough for a motorcycle in some places, were packed with shops, restaurants, food carts, and people.  Bakeries selling Portuguese-style pastries stood next door to Chinese medicine shops, packed with the usual assortment of roots, fungi, and animal bits.  We walked through a bustling and bloody seafood market, where we witnessed tables full of fish heads, some of which were still trying to breathe.  At one booth an eel had been chopped cleanly in half; the top half was still squirming across the counter, opening and closing its mouth and butting its head against the lower half of its body - I'm not likely to forget that sight.  We stopped for a beer at a hole in the wall noodle joint (still trying to wash the taste of gunpowder out of our mouths), and then continued back toward the ferry terminal.  

Before leaving Macau, we stopped to wander around one of Macau's Vegas-style attractions, a sprawling Disney-esque recreation of various, wholly incongruous... well, things, I guess.  There wasn't really a common theme.  Aladdin's Fort stood next to the Roman Theatre; a replica of Tibet's Potala Palace and a Tang Dynasty fortress were built into the side of a mockup of a Volcano.  Aladdin's Fort was apparently the site of some kind of war game attraction; a few bored-looking people dressed as soldiers stood next to a mock-up of a crashed Black Hawk helicopter.  Yet this entire complex was almost entirely deserted - we saw at most four or five other people the entire time, and all the shops and restaurants were empty.  The pointlessness of the place was almost overwhelming.  After a while, we decided we'd had enough, and caught the 8:15 ferry back to Hong Kong.  There are still plenty of things I'd like to do in Macau - see some of the old Portuguese forts and churches, go to the village of Coloane on the adjacent island of Taipa, and eat more Macanese food - so I'll definitely be going back.

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