Macau had a problem. It was a small former colony that faced the risk of being a backwater. Its younger sibling Hong Kong was oodles bigger, and lived next door, taking all the would-be traffic and business away. Though neither city has must-see attractions, Macau in particular languished in this area. There’s not a lot to do there. Its main attraction was the burned out façade of a former cathedral, now eerily standing, propped-up, on a hilltop. It’s good for a photo and nothing else.
So Macau remade itself. Its largest decision was gambling. Although it’s been legal there since 1847, in 1962 an exclusive license was given to a company under the direction of a man named Stanley Ho that started opening Western-style casinos, and soon Macau became known for gambling and not much else. Its economy perked up. Stanley’s exclusive license ran out in 2001 and from there the floodgates opened, with gambling companies, most from the U.S., pouring in and building mega-casinos. Macau’s gambling revenues were reported a few years ago as seven times what Vegas generates, though they’ve fallen since then.
What Macau failed to do is build up the non-gambling business. Vegas eventually put some concentration on things like restaurants, shows, and other entertainment to entice visitors into staying a while. Half of all visitors to Macau stayed just 24 hours and they (meaning men) don’t bring the family. They come to Macau for certain types of entertainment and then leave. Macau has a fraction of the hotel rooms that Vegas has.
This means that the rest of Macau hasn’t built up much. People who come there to visit the city, for non-gambling purposes, have few destinations except for around a central historic area called Senado Square. Like visitors to Vegas who never get off the area called “The Strip”, most Macau-trippers never see the rest of the city.
The first few times I visited Hong Kong, I didn’t bother going to Macau. It’s only an hour’s ferry ride away, plus getting to/from the ferry terminals, but you have to deal with customs and immigration both ways, with Macau’s different currency, and with other issues concerning an international trip, things they should have streamlined. It’s a bit easier these days, but still, what was the attraction of Macau unless you want to gamble?
I don’t gamble, almost at all. I’m not preachy against it; I don’t see the point of a system so clearly set up against you. You can lose the price of a good dinner in twenty minutes in a casino, and so I’d rather just eat the good dinner. I don’t enjoy the thrill of losing money. That limited the appeal of Macau for me.
When I finally visited, I found I liked the place. The one time in my life I visited Las Vegas, I hated it. There’s little there besides the unappealing gambling and entertainment industry. But Macau’s been a city since 1557 and it has a soul. I found it to be a place where I can just enjoy being there. I can laugh at the casino industry and then go eat Portuguese-Asian fusion, as food is the best thing about Macau. Between mealtimes, I can do my second-favorite thing: wander the back alleys.
There are canonical tourist sites in Macau outside the gambling and the gimmicks. There’s a maritime and a history museum, an old temple complex, an interesting old house of a mandarin, even a small wine museum. They are all small and quick, decent enough to fill some space between mealtimes, but not thrilling. If someone asked me what to do in Macau, the only one I’d truly recommend is the mandarin’s house. I would tell them to just walk around the rest of the time.
The only must-see in Macau is the ruins of St. Paul’s cathedral, rather dramatic, and the area nearby called Senado Square. There are several open and connected plazas at this central point, and they’re crammed with people. Macau is the most densely populated country in the world (if one can call it a country, a discussion I’ll just ignore), and besides the gamblers, it gets day-trippers, many from cruise ships. They all want to see St. Paul’s and then hang out around Senado. The alley leading from Senado to St. Paul’s is tiny and lined with shops mostly selling the local version of beef jerky. Lots of samples available. It’s thus jam-packed, and after traversing it twice, I hated it. I needed the back alleys.
The alleyway leading to St. Paul’s
I’m not sure what people do in Macau besides gamble and snap photos of St. Paul’s and buy souvenir boxes of the beef jerky. Perhaps that’s why they day-trip to Macau and don’t stay long. Telling you to get off tourist trail and wander the back alleys is trite, clichéd advice, yes yes, but Macau is a city where you can walk a minute or two outside the Senado or the gambling areas and wham you’re back in the local areas.
The northern half of Macau, the peninsula, is the old part of the city. Get away from the central Senado Square area and away from the east waterfront, where the gambling is, and you’re in areas worthy of exploration. Some of it looks like old-world Portugal. The buildings are in pastel colors not found in Chinese nature. The edges are rounded. They have arches and canopies.
Since Macau’s architecture isn’t emphasized much, not even Senado Square, I had no expectations and was thus pleasantly surprised, especially as I kept running into Portuguese buildings throughout the city. Macau still has trees and winding streets in parts. It feels like Southeast Asia, and that matches Iberia better than Hong Kong matches England.
Rua de Felicidade
My favorite alley is Rua de Felicidade, which is one long, almost-continuous two-story building running for ages. White, with all the lattice shutters and shop gates a bright red. So uniform, it looks brilliant. This is old China. It’s populated with small places, bakeries and restaurants, but not crowded at all. Red lanterns and red banners with gold Chinese characters hang about, and some storefronts have bamboo scaffolding. Everything was in Chinese, except for one sign, “Dragon Portuguese Cuisine”. Few people were there, but I followed an old Chinese man shuffling along, lending character. Here’s a place where one could get a sense of the past.
The back alleys behind the casinos are full of watch and gold shops, so many as to make you wonder. “You can buy a new watch now!” is perhaps the traditional congratulations-type of saying after a gambling windfall? Perhaps the croupier will say, “The watch shops are down the street to the left. I know you’ll need them!” I found later that many of them are just for a low-type of money laundering. Mainland Chinese visitors buy a watch with Chinese yuan and immediately sell it back for Macau or Hong Kong currency, which can be moved around easier than yuan. The watchseller takes a cut of course.
The southern half of Macau doesn’t have as many back alleys, but there certainly atmospheric walks to find. Many come with a backdrop of the massive development that the city has experienced. I’ll be exploring that part more on my next visit, but my first forays into the back alleys in the older part of the city were good enough.
I’ve written before about how the main attraction to Macau is its amazing food. Read about that here.
And if you are interested in B&W photo essays such as this, there are other ones listed below.