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Notes on the Geography of China: Macao

A by-then-retired British civil servant with a long career in Southeast Asia, Austin Coates wrote in 1978, "Culturally, there has never been anything like Macao, where so much of China and so much of Europe are enshrined in one small place. Goa, for all the magnificence of its buildings, never achieved this. Goa is European; the Indian element is missing..." (A Macao Narrative, p. 105).

Others have been less complimentary. Dennis Duncanson, who had a comparable career in British service, wrote in 1986 that "Macau is a community of shabby gentility. From the records of its 400-year history, such as they are, one sees that it always has been so... The storms that have stirred this teacup of a place... could well have served as the model for Lilliput" (J. of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1986, p. 166).

Time to see for ourselves?

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We'll leave that "jungle of millionaires," as Philippe Pons calls Hong Kong (Macao, p. 42). What's that new tower? I just can't keep up; everytime you turn around there's something new. OK, OK, it's the International Commerce Center, the tallest building in Hong Kong, at least for the moment. And yes, of course there's a multi-star hotel up top. There always is. There's something deeply satisfying about urinals in the sky, especially if they're near a window.

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An hour later we step off the jetboat, clear immigration, and take a taxi for ten slow minutes through dismaying traffic. We get out at the Largo do Senado or Senate Square. Do you have a bad feeling already? Think you might be in a themed shopping center in California? Could be, could be, but what did you expect? Two million visitors arrived in Macao during January, 2012. More than half were from China, a quarter were from Hong Kong, and a puny 14,000 were from the U.S. And Portugal, which occupied this site in the 1500's and stayed until 1997? Fewer than one thousand arrivals.

So much for colonial attachment. Safe bet you won't hear much, if any, Portuguese on the street. The words in the pediment read "Santa Casa Da Misericórdia," but not one in a thousand passersby knows that the "holy house of mercy" was a famous Portuguese charity. We'll force ourselves into an atmospheric mood. How? Let us recall that James Dyer Ball reported in 1904 that visitors could rent one of Macao's 170 sedan chairs for a dollar a day. (Macao: The Holy City; the Gem of the Orient Earth", p. 66).

Even back then, the Portuguese were a tiny minority. The 1897 census reported 4,000 of them, lost in a crowd of 75,000 Chinese. Of course that wasn't so different from the ratio in most colonial cities.

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You can tell this is prime tourist territory, can't you? It's on UNESCO's world heritage list.

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In a couple of minutes we arrive at Saint Dominic's church, founded in 1587 by three priests from Acapulco. Small world, no? They were part of a contingent of 18, the others continuing on to the Philippines. The original church had plank walls supported on a frame of wooden pillars and beams, but it was destroyed by a typhoon in 1738. The church was rebuilt in 1828 and again (after a lighting strike) in 1874. It's been spruced up in recent years, too. For a while, between 1836 and 1850, it served as the Macao cathedral. By then, the Spanish friars were long gone, expelled in 1588 and replaced by Portuguese.

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The church interior, a classic basilica which, perhaps for ventilation, was built higher than was customary back home.

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The current cathedral, the Nativity of Our Lady, built in 1850 to take over duties from St. Dominic's. Rebuilt in 1937.

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Even more barnlike than St. Dominic's.

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We're heading up the main tourist drag to the city's most famous relic.

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Pons writes (p. 34) of "the bliss of the Asian street, where intimacy blends with collective life... A street is everything at once: it is a market, a kitchen, a place where you can rest or take a siesta on a litter at the end of an alley or sit on a chair and read your newspaper in the evening cool, a forum for neighbourhood gossip, a children's playground, the overspill of a shop or workshop." Well, sure, but not here, not now.

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It's no accident that the Jesuits chose a hilltop for their great church and no accident that you have to climb a long flight of stairs to get to it. This is St. Paul's, named from Goa's now vanished college of that name and begun in 1602, almost forty years after the arrival of the Jesuits in Macao in 1565. The facade seen here was added between 1620 and 1640. The church that stood behind it burned in 1835, which is why St. Dominic's that year was put into service as the cathedral. The Jesuits had by then long been evicted from Macao. The church had then been confiscated by the crown and made into a barracks. A kitchen fire got out of control. As César Guillén Nuñez writes, "The survival of the church's facade up to our own days is, therefore, nothing short of miraculous" (Macao's Church of St. Paul p. 86). UNESCO's nominating document states that "nowhere else in the world can such a massive granite facade combining elaborate liturgical themes and Chinese motifs be found."

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The facade was designed by Father Carol Spinola and followed the instructions of St. Charles Borromeo to build on a hill approached with steps and to ornament the facade with images of saints. Four were arrayed on the second level of the facade (only the central two are visible here): Ignatius, Francis Xavier, Luis Gonzaga, and Francis Borgia. Above them is a bronze representation of Mary, surrounded by angels in stone. Above her is an image of Christ, and at the top, in the pediment, is a dove, symbol of the holy spirit. All in all, the sequence rises from earth to the heavens. The result, according to the French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes, was a church "among the most magnificent I've seen, even in Italy, with the exception of St. Peter's" (Pons, p.66). Note that the columns are Ionic at the first level, then Corinthian, then Composite, all according to the books of Serlio, Palladio, and Vignola.

Here is a long description of the facade written in 1644 by Antonio Ferreira: "Alms were given this year to crown the main facade of this Church, which is all of carved stone in a Roman manner. From top to bottom it has three orders of columns with their pedestals, six arched niches in good proportion;... in them there are the middle-height figures in the round of our Saints Ignatius, Xavier, Borja and Gonzaga, each one in his niche, over stone bases with their names carved on them in the same order as we have them on the main altar; all in bronze with their cast bronze symbols; hand and faces painted red; vestments gilded throughout the length of the body, with no other colours. On the second frieze and third story with columns that rest of the middle window the Image of Our Lady of the Assumption, titular saint of the Church, has its niche, which image steps on a large gilded moon; over her head two Angels in the round of the same metal appear to be holding a closed crown, each one of which holds out his arm... The third frieze... has on its base the image of the Infant Jesus with a cross on the globe of the world on his hand... Inside the field of the pointed summit which makes a straight triangle--on which rests the stone pedestal on which is to be fixed the iron cross with rod arms that is the crown of the whole work...from the middle of rays carved in the stone, a kind of image of a dove goes forth, representing the Holy Spirit with its wings wide open, in gilded bronze and of significant size" (Nuñez, pp. 123-4).

Many of the features described here no longer exist, for example the gilding or the half-moon.

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The ornament was probably created by Japanese craftsmen, expelled from Japan because they were Christians. They remain anonymous but are probably responsible for some of the more unconventional ornament on the facade. To the right of the Virgin, for example, there is a chalice-shaped cedar tree, a symbol of immortality. Below it is a palm tree. To the right of the cedar is a seven-headed dragon over which a small image of the Virgin stands, as suggested in Genesis. The Chinese characters read: "The holy mother tramples on the dragon's head." Farther right is a skeleton with Chinese characters that read, "Remember death and do not sin."

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The pediment of St. Paul's peeks over the trees that have grown up around the base of the Fortaleza do Monte or Mount Fortress, built by the Jesuits but confiscated by the Crown in 1620.

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A view of the fortress wall.

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At the entrance is this plaque: "Stop! Attention! Remember for a few moments the beautiful history of our country. Enter proudly and with head high because you are a soldier of this country."

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Now it's wide open; previously, visitors had to ask permission from the guards on duty.

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Good Lord! The view from the fortress. The golden thing is the Grand Lisboa, opened (ad maiorem Dei gloriam) in 2008. To its left, with the tiny golden rooftop ball, is the original Hotel Lisboa, which opened the sesame of high-rollers.

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Guarding the entrance.

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Looking down on St. Paul's. The water in the background marks the western edge of the peninsula.

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We've dropped down to the east of the fortress to find ourselves almost lonely in a gentrified colonial neighborhood.

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Very prim, very tidy.

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We've managed to get this far without ever talking about the source of Macao's original prosperity--its wealth before gambling, before coolie-export, before opium. Back in the 1600's a fleet arrived from Malacca in early summer; the ships brought pepper, Indian cotton, European mirrors and clocks, and Middle Eastern jewelry. The ships sold some of what they carried and loaded up with Chinese silk from the winter fair in Canton. Before the typhoon season came in July, the fleet headed north to Nagasaki, where it sold Chinese silk, Indian cotton, and European wine for silver. While the fleet was in Japan, the Canton summer fair was held. When the fleet returned by Christmas, shipowners invested the Japanese silver in silk from that fair, as well as pearls, medicines, and porcelain, then sailed early in the year for Malacca and Europe.

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The arrival of the British in Hong Kong sent Macao into a tailspin that looked terminal. Gambling was the lifesaver.

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Other things came along, too, like the United Nations University's International Institute for Software Technology, happily ensconced in the Casa Silva Mendes, rebuilt in 1999.

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Gotta go. But what did we miss? The A-Ma Temple, the Moorish Barracks, the Mandarin's House, St. Josephs's Seminary, the Dom Pedro V Theater, the Guia Fortress. And that's just on the heritage side of things. Next time.

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