City of the Lotus (Two Weeks in Macau)

Kun Iam Statue, Macau

My job usually takes me to familiar European climes, but occasionally I get a taste of the exotic: Japan, China or, most recently, Macau. A former Portuguese colony, Macau was returned to China in 1999, although traces of its Portuguese heritage remain strong. All street signs and civic buildings bear Chinese and Portuguese names, while delicious egg-custard tarts are ubiquitous in the city’s many bakeries. Arriving by air from Taipei, I was surprised to see rocky, verdant hillsides rising from the sea, looking more like the Amalfi Coast than the smog-wreathed towers of Shanghai (my only available comparison for Chinese landings). Those bucolic hillsides were a little misleading, because what awaited me was a vibrant and frequently jaw-dropping city, where everyday life shoulders up against neon lights, all-night casinos and extravagant amounts of gilding. As the only place in China where gambling is legal, Macau has become a playground for this vast country’s rich and hopeful, with flashy hotels to match. I thought I’d give you a brisk whirl around the main things I managed to see during my busy fortnight; and fear not: there’s plenty of bling ahead. It’s a long one. Buckle up!

Macau Museum of Art

Let’s start with something serious and wholesome. I’d come to Macau to install a touring exhibition of Italian Renaissance Drawings from the British Museum at the Macau Museum of Art. A potentially lonely two weeks away from home was softened by the immensely warm and welcoming team at the museum, who’d designed a wonderful installation for the drawings, and who enthusiastically got me involved in everything, from press interviews to audio recordings and even a spot of filming for the local news. It was busy, but great fun. Sadly, not much of the museum’s own collection was on view while I was there – save a group of calligraphic scrolls in their new acquisitions gallery. Instead, the space was occupied by a trio of exhibitions: alongside the BM drawings, there was an unexpected but delightful show of paintings from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow; and a display of watercolours by the Macau artist Lai Ieng, showing evocative viewpoints of the city. The museum is committed to loads of community outreach and education and, on a more mundane note, it has one of the best gift shops in the city.

Handover Gifts Museum of Macau

Next door to the Macau Museum of Art is another museum of a very different kind. When Macau was handed over to China in 1999 by the Portuguese government, the other provinces of China sent gifts of welcome to their new addition. Many of the gifts have symbolic aspects, whether referring in some form to the year (perhaps with a height of 1.999 metres), or to the famous products of that region, to its particular ethnic groups or traditional handicrafts. The results, believe me, are staggering to Western eyes. There’s jade both white and green, bronze, huge vases made out of walnut shells, mother-of-pearl, precious stones, and so much gold it’ll make your head spin. It underlines the fascinating differences in aesthetics between East and West, and the continuing importance of gift-giving in Asian cultures. An incredible collection, and a handy introduction to the levels of uninhibited wealth that you’ll see elsewhere in Macau.

Macau Museum

Located on Fortress Mount, beside the atmospheric ruins of St Paul’s, this is a very good way to get to grips with Macau and its history. I went on my first day and it helped a lot. The opening gallery presents a parallel history of East and West, fitting for a city which has spent most of its existence looking in both directions, and throughout the museum there are colourful or interactive displays (we had fun on one video game, pressing buttons to fire broadsides on approaching galleons). One of the most impressive parts of the museum is the reconstructed Macanese street, presenting a rank of colourful facades, beneath which you can find out more about the city’s parallel cultures. In this section, I was struck by a beautiful large ‘christening shell’: a disc of what looked like mother-of-pearl, into which the composition of Leonardo’s Last Supper had been painstakingly carved. Nearby was a statuette of the Virgin, in her aspect as protector of ships. She’s only the latest sea ‘goddess’ to be worshipped in Macau, as the A-Ma Temple shows. In this nation of fishermen and seafarers, it’s vital to have divine power on your side. Nearby, miniature paintings show the different stages of silk production – always an important export product in the Chinese region.

Upstairs, displays about 19th and 20th-century life in Macau show the largely Chinese life of the locals. I fell in love with a series of six large Cantonese puppets, beautifully painted and dressed for particular roles; but there was also a side-room displaying full-size costumes for traditional opera (I remember the Opera Museum in Suzhou with great fondness). But everyday diversions were also on display: boxes for cricket-fighting, along with tiny tombstones, coffins and memorials for expired champions (as well as specimen jars containing the pickled bodies of some such champion crickets). There was a gorgeous kite in the form of a parrot; a display of matchbox lids; a splendid silver bride’s tiara covered in red-and-white pompoms; and a rather odd clothes-hanger topped with the head of a doll. At the very end, Macau’s current status is acknowledged with a section on gambling, featuring a roulette wheel: the only one I saw in my entire stay (though I popped into several casinos, hoping they’d be like the ones in James Bond. They weren’t).

A-Ma Temple

This is the largest and oldest temple in the centre of Macau, dating from 1488. It is dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu, whose name may well have been the origin of ‘Macau’. Small shrines are set among winding paths up into a rocky hillside and, at the top, you can look back and down over a vista of dipping, diving tiled roofs. We visited on a festival day, when the place was crowded with worshippers and the air was thick with incense, burning in cone-shaped wicker coils, which I’d never seen before. A ship carved and painted on a rock reminds visitors of the temple’s original function. The temple is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it remains a lively and important place of worship for local people, and is a welcome flash of the settlement’s older history.

MGM Macau

If you want to see Macau at its craziest, people will tell you to head off to the Venetian in Cotai – and they’re quite right that it’s worth a look: we’ll go there in a minute – but you could do worse than starting here, on the lakeside in Macau itself. From outside, the MGM looks reasonably sober (apart from the ten-metre-tall seated gold lion at the corner of the building), but inside it’s a very different story. Walk through to the atrium beyond the foyer. Here a glass roof soars over a vast ‘village square’, with a massive cylindrical aquarium at the centre, where baffled fish swim lazily about. At the far end is a dramatic facade, part-Portuguese and part-Indian Raj, whose sweeping steps lead up to a balustraded balcony. You can rest within the wicker ‘bulbs’ of massive flowers dangling from the ceiling, relax on marble benches in a side room, or hunt for lion sculptures, decorated by contemporary artists and dotted around the foyer and atrium. One lion has roots coming from its feet; another is painted like a Chinese dragon; a third bears butterfly’s wings. It’s an extraordinary assault on the senses and well worth stopping by (note: none of the hotels mind you wandering around their public areas).

The Grand Lisboa

After two weeks in Macau, I developed a soft spot for this high-concept eyesore. That’s partly because it’s excellent as a landmark for navigation among the city’s winding streets, but also partly for its sheer architectural gumption. Variously described to me as a lotus or a pineapple, the hotel is positively efflorescent: the upper floors sprout out from the glass ‘bulb’ at its base, which houses a foyer full of extraordinary art objects. In glass cases, scattered around the entrance area, you’ll see a model of the Great Wall of China carved intricately in ivory; another ivory tusk carved with the stories of the Monkey King; an enormous golden dragon boat; a jade boulder, carved again with the Monkey King; and a sprawling golden sculpture of a Chinese hillside complete with hermits, a village and a garden with an arched bridge. I didn’t really understand why these sculptures were here, but their common feature was their large scale and the expense of their materials. This was my first introduction to Macau’s conspicuous consumption. It goes without saying that all these hotels have their own on-site casinos.

The Venetian

It was bewildering. Turning one way, I saw an almost full-scale reproduction of the Doge’s Palace, the Campanile and the Rialto Bridge. Turning the other, the whole gleaming expanse of the Cotai Strip was laid out before me. Welcome to the Venetian, one of the most famous and discombobulating places in Macau. If it’s fine weather, you can stroll outside beneath Venetian facades and admire the lagoon between the twin columns of the Piazzetta. Inside, past a gold-gleaming foyer, decorated with ceiling paintings copied from Tiepolos, you make your way upstairs to the shopping mall. This is one of the largest in the world and it proved to be completely disorientating: it took me almost an hour to find my way out. The mall winds through a weirdly compelling reconstruction of Venice, with the ‘Grand Canal’ always flowing down the centre, crossed by little Venetian bridges and offering gondola rides (with commemorative photos). There are recreations of the Arsenal gate and Piazza San Marco, complete with ornate clock. It’s well worth a trip just for its sheer ambition and weirdness. For those who haven’t had enough of European doppelgangers, you can climb up into the Campanile and head over the Rialto Bridge to the neighbouring Parisian where, true to form, you can admire a replica of the Eiffel Tower, stroll the Champs-Elysees and take a break in the Place Vendôme. Or you can go in search of the Colosseum (see below).

The Wynn Palace, Cotai

Of all the hotels I visited, the Wynn Palace won the prize for most colourful and cheerful. At its centre lies the inevitable casino, but around this are four stretches of shopping mall, dotted with restaurants, designer boutiques and an insanely pretty little ice-cream parlour which also sold cakes. The real sights, though, are the contemporary art installations throughout the mall. I didn’t spot all of them, but I certainly noticed the Ferris Wheel by the American designer and wedding planner Preston Bailey. Decorated with flowers, it’s almost unbearably kitsch, and its seats are occupied by stuffed toys wearing gems and tiaras. The wheel rotates to fairground settings of tunes like the Blue Danube Waltz. I was flabbergasted, and that’s saying something, considering that I visited at the end of my stay in Macau. There was also, in another area, a mirrored cube rotating gently on a carpet of flower patterns. I suspect this may also have been by Bailey, but forgot to check the label. Finally, and perhaps inevitably, one lobby displays a bouquet of enormous Jeff Koons Tulips. For once, his artwork actually seemed to fit in.

Honourable Mentions

There were many other places I went which I haven’t listed here, mostly on the western, more historical side of town. Here you can find other small shrines, alongside Western-style Catholic churches. Of course, the old church of St Paul’s is well worth a visit, with its grand facade standing isolated and lonely at the top of its steps: the lone survivor of a fire in 1835. If it’s open, it’s worth popping into the Dom Pedro Theatre, a bijou gem which would be just the right size for a Baroque opera (naturally). If you’re closer to Largo do Senado, pop into the IAM Building (Macau’s town hall), which has interior walls of graceful Portuguese tiles, a hidden garden, and the best gift shop in town. Gardeners can take a trip north of the centre to the Lou Lim Ieoc Garden, where you can get in touch with your inner zen among rocky labyrinths, pavilions and a peaceful lake with a myriad of resident terrapins. I hear the Protestant Cemetery, last resting place of George Chinnery, is also worth a visit; but I didn’t make it up that far. There’s less to do out on the east of town, but I thoroughly recommend a stop by Fishermen’s Wharf if you’re over that way. Here you’ll find a shopping centre built in various close-jostled styles of European architecture but, more memorably, a large-scale reconstruction of the Colosseum, Trajan’s Column and a Roman or Pompeiian street. No, I don’t understand it either. ‘Not understanding’ is one of Macau’s signature sensations.

Some more worldly recommendations

Rio Casino Hotel, Macau

The Rio Casino Hotel lobby, Macau. Yes, it really is this shiny

We stayed in the Rio Casino Hotel, which is in a great location for the Macau Museum of Art but not so handy if you plan to spend most of your time over in the western part of town. Rooms were very comfortable and the hotel has its own two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Canton 8. Facilities, however, were strangely mixed: there was a lovely top-floor pool and a small gym, both open from 10am until 1pm and 3:30pm until 9pm; but there’s nowhere to get a coffee (inside) and the only bar was a modest niche off the foyer, where you have to call for service on the telephone. Presumably most visitors head straight for the casino: slots on the ground floor; baccarat on the first floor; and high stakes on the second floor. I did not partake.

Nor did I partake of the Rio’s spa which, despite its web-page promising inner calm, turned out to be not a spa at all. It was actually a sauna, of the nudge-nudge type, which only accepted male visitors. (Perhaps I misjudged the nature of the inner calm on offer.) This was a shock, because I’d seen a poster in the hotel of a woman having a bona fide massage in the spa. Near the casino, however, another poster told the true story, with a young woman posing in a very skintight, come-hither kind of dress. (I include both for your bemusement below.) I’ve been told this is quite typical of China, where you’re told one thing, but everyone tacitly understands something else. I am clearly too innocent for this world. No wonder the chap on the spa desk looked so startled when I blithely turned up asking for their price list. Oops.

I didn’t get to that many restaurants, although we had the opening-night dinner at Canton 8, which was utterly delicious. Usually, my (vegetarian) colleague and I tended to frequent Indian Spice, a very welcoming and cheerful Indian place down by the Kun Iam statue, which did a mean chicken biryani and desperately moreish cheese-and-spinach croquettes. Macau is very international and it’s easy to find non-Chinese restaurants, should you wish, though I think it’s still tough if you’re vegetarian (I’m not!). We also had Thai at Naam Thai, which is very good and worth hunting out: it’s hidden within the complex of the Grand Lapa Resort, but you can also get to it via Rua de Berlim and Avenida Xian Xing Hai. On my final day I had lunch and a cold beer at the Cathedral Cafe near Largo do Senado: a cafe offering coffee and Portuguese food, where you prop yourself on a bar-stool beneath old movie posters and watch the world go by outside. Their garlic prawns were severely good.

Needless to say, I’m not being paid to say any of this: I just think it’s handy to share places that were good, in case this helps anyone else.

You can see all these photos and more on my Instagram account, where I post pictures of the art, architecture and other interesting stuff that I stumble across on my travels.

Italian Renaissance Drawings, Macau

A fond farewell: taking leave of my colleagues at the Macau Museum of Art after my lecture, with some of the members of our audience. Note the splendid title wall in the background

One thought on “City of the Lotus (Two Weeks in Macau)

  1. Paweł says:

    What a coincidence, we just got a postcard from Macau. I like this lovely garden in the quirky city. 😉 Thank you for your blog post and the postcard! xxx

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