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Macau: The First (and Last) European Colony in China

Located across the Pearl River estuary from Hong Kong, Macau offers beautifully patterned limestone mosaic sidewalks, pastel-colored neo-classical buildings, ancient baroque churches, creamy Portuguese egg tarts and a bigger gaming industry than Las Vegas.  We dig it.

In the 16th Century 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 December 20, 1999, ending over 400 years of Portuguese administration. We visited Macau on April 22, 2010, taking a ferry from Hong Kong.

Senado Square (above) has been Macao’s urban center for centuries, and is still the most popular venue for public events and celebrations today. The square is paved in the traditional Portuguese pavement. The main road of Macau’s historic centre, Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro passes through the square.  The square is surrounded by pastel-colored neo-classical buildings.


In 1940, there was a statue of a Portuguese soldier named Mesquita in the centre of the square. He was responsible for the deaths of many Chinese soldiers during the hostilities with the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Understandably, the statue has been destroyed by Chinese people and replaced by the famous fountain (above). The square is also called “the Fountain.”

Standing on the site of a chapel and convent built by the Dominicans in the 1590′s St. Dominic’s Church (above) dates from the early 17th century. It has an imposing facade of cream-colored stone with white stucco moldings and green-shuttered windows. St. Dominic’s Church has a violently dramatic past. In 1644 a military officer who supported the Spanish against the Portuguese was murdered at the altar during Mass. In 1707 the Dominicans sided with the Pope against Macau’s bishop in the Rites Controversy. When local soldiers tried to enforce an excommunication order on them, the friars locked themselves in the church for three days and pelted the soldiers with stones. In 1834 the monastic orders were suppressed and for a time the church was used by the government as barracks, stable and public works office.

All that remains of the Ruins of St. Paul (above), the greatest of Macau’s churches, is its magnificent stone facade and grand staircase. The church was built in 1602 adjoining the Jesuit College of St. Paul’s, the first Western college in the Far East where missionaries such as Matteo Ricci and Adam Schall studied Chinese before serving at the Ming Court in Beijing as astronomers and mathematicians. The church, made of taipa and wood, was brilliantly decorated and furnished, according to early travelers. 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 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 rises in four 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 and saints, symbols of the Garden of Eden and the Crucifixion, angels and the devil, a Chinese dragon and a Japanese chrysanthemum, a Portuguese sailing ship and pious warnings inscribed in Chinese.

One of the more popular delicacies in Macau is the Portuguese egg tarts (above). Portuguese egg tarts were evolved from “pastel de nata”, a traditional Portuguese custard pastry that consists of custard in a crème brûlée-like consistency caramelized fashion in a puff pastry case.

MaMacau is best known as Asia’s largest destination for gambling taking in even more revenue than Las Vegas. Outside the ferry station the street is lined with busses shuttling eager gamers to the many casinos.  Above, Laura is in the lobby of the newly-opened Encore at Wynn Macau.  Those are jellyfish lit in black-light floating behind the front desk in the background. 

The Portuguese don’t simply lay down concrete sidewalks. Instead their streets are decorated with beautifully patterned limestone mosaics.  We walked these winding sidewalks up the steep hills that roll throughout Macau—Laura doing so at her own pregnant and leisurely pace.

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