MACAU: A SPECIAL ADMINISTRATIVE REGION OF CHINA

Macau was not scheduled as part of our 15-day tour of China. It was only offered to us as a side trip when we were still in Hong Kong for three days and while waiting for our flight back to Honolulu. I was told by our tour guide that it would cost $100 per person for a whole day tour of Macau. This included lunch, our round trip ferry fare from Kowloon, and a tour of some landmarks in Macau. It sounded like a good idea to take advantage of the offer that there were six of us who opted to visit Macau on the 27th of October.

Right after an early breakfast we were escorted by our tour guide to the First Ferry Terminal in Kowloon for our trip to Macau. Since there were just six of us, two taxi cabs were used to take us to the ferry terminal. We brought along our passports as this was required to enter Macau and also for our re-entry to Hong Kong after the tour.

The ferry left Kowloon at 9:30 am and after about an hour the ferry docked at the Macau Maritime Ferry Terminal where we were met by another tour guide. We then joined other tour groups and boarded an airconditioned tour bus for our whole day tour of Macau.

Our Macau-based tour guide informed us that it was in the 16th Century when China gave Portugal the right to establish a colony on Macau in exchange for clearing the area of pirates. Macau was the first European settlement in the Far East. It was also the last, when pursuant to an agreement signed by China and Portugal in 1987, Macau became the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China on 20 December 1999, ending over 400 years of Portuguese administration.

Under the policy of "one country, two systems", the Central People's Government of China is responsible for the territory's defense and foreign affairs, while Macau maintains its own legal system, police force, monetary system, customs policy, immigration policy, and delegates to international organizations and events. I learned that Hong Kong is also under the same policy, being the other SAR of China.

If you take a look at a map of China, you will find that Macau lies on the west side of the Pearl River estuary bordering Guangdong province in the north and facing the South China Sea in the east and south. It lies about 64 km (40 miles) west of Hong Kong and consists of the Macau peninsula and the small outlaying islands of Taipa and Coloane, which have now been joined together by land reclamation.

The Macau Peninsula is the northernmost region, connecting to the Chinese mainland. It is the center of most tourist activity and is densely crowded. Taipa is an island to the south of the peninsula, accessible via three bridges. It is a major residential center and is also the location of Macau's International Airport. Coloane is an island further to the south. It is considerably less developed than the other regions due to its mountainous terrain. It has two beaches, several hiking trails, a resort, and is also the location of Macau's first golf course. Cotai is a strip of reclaimed land between Coloane and Taipa, with a number of new casinos rising up.

The total population of Macau was estimated to be 541,200 in 2002. About 94% are ethnic Chinese, from different provinces, namely Guangdong and Fujian. The remaining 6% includes Portuguese and others.

Chinese and Portuguese are the official languages of Macau, Cantonese being most widely spoken. Mandarin is also spoken by a significant number, especially by the educated and those working in the tourism industry. The official languages are used in government departments in all official documents and communications. English is generally used in trade, tourism and commerce. Nearly all museums and casinos have some staff with excellent English. So do many hotels, shops and restaurants, especially the up-market ones.

I was told that Macau is best known as Asia's largest destination for gambling. With 26 casinos, I was told that Macau makes more revenue from gambling than Las Vegas. Casinos are the principal reason there's such a weekend exodus to Macau from Hong Kong. Unluckily, we were not able to visit a casino during our brief stay. There just was not enugh time to do this and we were more concentrated in seeing the different landmarks and tourist attractions. Aside from gambling, Macau has thriving industries such as textiles, electronics and toys, and a notable tourist industry. This makes it one of the richest cities in the world.

During our visit to Macau, I found out that the Pataca (MOP$) is Macau's official currency and is linked to the Hong Kong dollar (HK$) which is also accepted as currency in Macau. The exchange rate is MOP$103.20 = HK$100.00. Roughly 10 Patacas is equivalent to 1 EURO and 8 Patacas is equivalent to 1 US Dollar.

Walking through the old city you could convince yourself you were in Europe, that is, if the streets were devoid of people and Chinese-language signage. The Portuguese population continues to maintain a small presence, but most of the population is native Chinese.

The following were the landmarks we saw in Macau during our tour:

1) SENADO (SENATE) SQUARE - The symbolic heart of Macau, the square has numerous stately colonial buildings set around it. It is located in the downtown area and is paved with a wave-patterned mosaic of coloured stones which was created by Portuguese experts. From the main road to the church of St. Dominic, the pavement extends to the ruins of St. Paul's, making the heart of the city a pedestrian paradise.

The square's most prominent building is the Leal Senado (Loyal Senate), the former seat of the Portuguese administration and now that of the Municipal Council of Macau. The General Post Office and the Santa Casa de Misericordia, an old refuge for orphans and prostitutes, are located within the square. There is also a fountain where Nena and I had our pictures taken. Just nearby are some restaurants, the tourist office, and the McDonald's restaurant.

2) ST. DOMINIC'S CHURCH - Standing on the site of a chapel and convent built by the Dominicans in the 1590's, St. Dominic's Church dates from the early 17th century. It has an imposing facade of cream-coloured stone with white stucco mouldings and green-shutted windows. Inside, white pillars support a flat ceiling and apron balconies trim the walls. The great baroque altar contains a cream and white statue of the Virgin and Child and a painting of Christ. The church has a fine collection of exquisitely- carved ivory and statues of saints which were made of wood. St. Dominic's Church was renovated in 1997 and opened to the public with a museum, on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd floor. The museum shows paintings, sculptures and liturgical ornaments that illustrate the history of the Roman Catholic church in Asia.

3) RUINS OF ST. PAUL'S - The cathedral was built in 1602 and destroyed by fire in 1835. All that remains of the greatest of Macau's churches is its magnificent stone facade and grand staircase. The church, made of taipa and wood, was said to be brilliantly decorated and furnished. The facade of carved stone was built in 1620-27 by Japanese Christian exiles and local craftsmen under the direction of Italian Jesuit Carlo Spinola.

After the expulsion of the Jesuits, the college nearby was used as an army barracks and in 1835 a fire started in the kitchens and destroyed the college and the body of the church. The surviving facade rised in 4 colonnaded tiers, and is covered with carvings and statues which eloquently illustrate the early days of the Church in Asia. There are statues of the Virgin Mary and saints, symbols of the Garden of Eden and the Crucifixion, angels and the devil, a Chinese dragon and a Japanese c hrysanthemum, a Portuguese sailing ship and pious warnings inscribed in Chinese. After restoration work, lasting from 1990 to 1995, the back side of the Ruins of St. Paul's was turned into a museum. The ruins are regarded as the symbol of Macau.

4) MACAU TOWER CONVENTION & ENTERTAINMENT CENTER - Opened on 19th December, 2001, Macau Tower is 338 metres (1,107 ft) in height. It is an elegant construction offering magnificent panoramic views all over Macau and much of the Pearl River Delta from its observation deck and revolving restaurant, at the 223-meter level. Besides the tower, there are a 4-floor Convention and Entertainment Center, restaurants, cinema, a 2-level basement and an outdoor plaza.

5) A-MA TEMPLE - The Temple is dedicated to A-Ma, the seafarers' goddess. It dates back to the early 16th century and consists of prayer halls, pavilions and courtyards built into the boulder-strewn hill connected by winding paths through moon gates and tiny gardens. At the entrance is a large rock on which a traditional sailing junk was etched over 400 years ago. On other boulders you can see red carved characters invoking the blessings of the gods.

Chinese legend says that touching the top of the moon gate up the hill will bring good luck in love. We were not able to do this for we only managed to walk halfway up the hill. Between the pavilions, connected by a pathway and separated by arched gates, worshippers find space and opportunity for prayers and offerings.

Three of the four pavilions are dedicated to A-Ma and contain some fine statues of the goddess together with a model of a junk with cannons, brass vessels and chapels to Buddhist and Taoist gods. The uppermost temple is distinguished by beautiful tiled roofs and spectacular views from the upper gardens. The festival of A-Ma takes place on the 23rd day of the 3rd moon (April or May). I was told that during the festival, firecrackers are exploded in the entrance courtyard to greet visitors and scare away evil spirits. Also, lions dances are performed here on weekends.

Our one-day tour of Macau was not really sufficient to see as much as we wanted to. How I wish we could have stayed for at least three whole days. Anyway, I was still able to take some photographs and these can be viewed by clicking on the link shown below:

The City of Macau