submit to reddit GoNOMAD Travel
Tags: Destinations Asia China Macau Janis Turk
A parade in Macau - photo by Janis Turk. Click on photo to enlarge.
A parade in Macau - photo by Janis Turk. Click on photo to enlarge.

Macau, China: Contradictions and Tiny Miracles

It's midnight in Macau, and a stout little Chinese woman is standing on my back.

“Whoa! This is unexpected!” I think as my chest caves into itself on the tall, hard massage table of the Wong Chio On Mo Chong Sam salon.

It's only 120 Hong Kong dollars (about $20 US) for a one-hour massage, and soon a stern-looking woman whisks me upstairs. The place conjures images of a Haight Asbury hippie coffeehouse circa 1969, or worse an opium den.

In a dark room, the woman covers my naked back with threadbare towels and proceeds to climb upon the massage table. In one quick astonishing move, she's standing on my back where she will stay for the next hour — working intricate miracles, surprises in my sinews, massaging my muscles with her toes.

Feeling oddly incredible and thoroughly re-aligned as I walk back to my hotel, it occurs to me that this strange encounter epitomizes my whole my Macau experience – moment upon moment confronted by the unexpected, the unforgettable, the exciting; strange.

Surprises, tiny miracles one after another, appearing before my eyes, jumping upon my back.

Contradictions

Words from Walt Whitman's “Song of Myself” ring in my ears: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).”

Some cities, most people, (and me most certainly) are just that — contradictions — and perhaps Macau most of all. Is it the Vegas of the Orient, or is it a quaint seaside village where fishermen drag in their nets?

Is it a Portuguese place with curvy mosaics in the streets? Is it China and chopsticks? Is it urban sprawl where teenage lust throbs through nightclubs and kids bungee jump from skyscrapers? Which Macau will I meet?

Neon to light the night - casinos in Macau
Neon to light the night - casinos in Macau

The Vegas Thing on Steroids

When I came here, I expected Las Vegas. I'd heard about Macau's grand gaming palaces — The Sands, The MGM Grand, The Wynn Macau Hotel Casino and Resort, the brand-new Venetian Macau Casino Resort and more.

The Venetian is the world’s largest hotel/casino complex and the world’s second-largest building — almost twice the size of the Pentagon. For starters, it houses 350 shops and 30 restaurants; and, at 6.9 million square feet, it’s actually large enough to hold 90 Boeing 747 jumbo jets.

Another Las Vegas-like attraction is the Macau Tower, which looks like The Stratosphere in Vegas, only larger at 1,109 ft. AJ Hackett’s 765-foot high tethered Sky Walk and bungee jump from the tower's outer rim is the world’s highest.

The Macau Tower is more than 1,000 feet tall.
The Macau Tower is more than 1,000 feet tall.

And, yes, in Macau, the Vegas thing is all there. On steroids. There's a replica of the Roman Coliseum, a volcano like the one at The Mirage, a Disneyesque version of the New Orleans French Quarter, and neon to light the night.

However, I sensed this city might be more than just sum of its casinos, and as I fell asleep listening to waves lap at the shore that first night, I knew I still hadn't seen the real Macau.

Often mistakenly referred to as an island, Macau is a peninsula just 37 miles southwest of Hong Kong and bordering mainland China. It is now one of two special administrative regions of the People's Republic of China.

Governed for 442 years by Portugal, it was the oldest European colony in the history of Asia before it was handed over to China in 1999. The Portuguese influence is apparent in the distinctive architecture, food, music and swirling mosaic patterns inlaid in city streets.

Real and Raw

I awoke early to wander with my camera. The best way to get acquainted with a city is to catch it early in the day before it has had time to wake up properly, before the human highway begins — to look into the faces of shopkeepers opening their stores, nod a hello to old ladies who wash the streets with brooms outside their houses, see the children in their uniforms walking to school.

Red snapper at the Red Market
Red snapper at the Red Market

You can tell a lot about a place by how it looks before it puts on its face.

The Red Market is a good spot to witness everything real and raw about Macau — get the startling uncut version with all its blood, guts and gore, its bulging eyeball fish and slimy eel lying in an ocean of ice on the stands of fishmongers, the chickens getting their heads whacked off, blood spurting out and dripping down the feathers.

I watch as a lady shouts her order and points toward a tank of muddy, gloppy frogs. The merchant scoops a hopping handful of them, jumping and croaking, onto a kitchen scale.

A renegade Mister Toad jumps off, so she sticks him back on the scale, then slides them into a plastic baggie which she ties shut with a quick twist.

After trading the gruesome stands of the fish and poultry vendors for aisles of fresh flowers and dried blossoms of daisy and chamomile tea, I walk across the street to a Macanese tea house on the second floor of an old building. Its name in English means 1962, the year it opened.

Having breakfast at the Red Market
Having brreakfast at the Red Market

With windows thrown wide to the wind, the room has an uncomplicated air, and old men sit squinting at sunny streets below while warming leathery hands around little porcelain cups of familiarity and tradition.

Rain Through Sunlight

Across town, a gentle rain falls through bright sunlight on Penha Hill, where a neighborhood of colorful Portuguese-styled houses of pink, blue and marigold-colored stucco dot the edges of slender twisting streets with a view across the Pearl River into China from an old Catholic church on the hilltop.

I learn a fascinating legend during my visit to the Macau Maritime Museum: Portuguese sailors find themselves tossed about by a ferocious storm in the South China Sea and fear all is lost, when suddenly a young woman appears on board and begins to pray.

The A-Ma Temple
The A-Ma Temple

Ordering the storm to stop, she instantly stills the sea. All are saved. Then the lady steps ashore, climbs Barra Hill overlooking the harbor, and disappears into the heavens in a halo of sweet fragrance and light.

Hundreds of years later, when Portuguese sailors land and ask the name of that place, the natives reply A-Ma-Gau (Bay of A-Ma) named for the goddess of fisherman and sailors, Matsu, the lady of the legend. Their mispronunciation of A-Ma-Gau, some say, became the name Macau.

Gentle Quietude

Nearby, on a hillside knee-deep in sun and clouds, the A-Ma Temple, built in honor of Matsu, rests overlooking the sea. People light enormous beehive-shaped incense coils there that take all day to burn, filling the air with a sweet intoxicating smoke, a haze of prayers and gentle quietude.

There I place an offering into a fountain of flowing water and shake a cylinder of numbered wooden sticks until one rises above the other and falls out. This helps determine my fortune, which is read from a delicate rice-paper sheet. Keep it till it falls apart, and the fortune shall come to pass.

Incense coils at the A-Ma Temple
Incense coils at the A-Ma Temple

One of the biggest landmarks in Macau is the Ruins of St. Paul's, the façade of what was originally the Church of Mater Dei, built in 1602-1640, and the ruins of St. Paul’s College, both destroyed by fire in 1835.

All that remains today is its Baroque front façade and the stone stairs leading down a hill into narrow streets of shops, bustling with people, paper lanterns, porcelain teapots and satin slippers.

Tourist Items

Shopkeepers sell gelatin-like sheets of meat: a cross between beef jerky and a fruit roll-Up. The scent of almonds is strong and sweet as vendors extend flat baskets of tiny warm cookies to hungry passersby.

"I beheld many fascinating faces."
I beheld many fascinating faces.

Kiosks with tourist items here are most entertaining — especially the T-shirts. One reads, “Love is all vraneed” — spelling an old Beatles lyric the way it must sound.

My friend João H. Rodrigues sees another shirt that says on front, “Every time you go away” and on back, “ you take a piece of meat with you,” another hilarious misquote of an ’80s pop song.

There are trinkets, coffee mugs, magnets — even nesting dolls with the faces of Marilyn Monroe, Mao Tse-tung, Princess Di, Elvis and Che.

Finding Matsu

During my time in Macau, I beheld many fascinating faces: dear little children, weathered old men, giddy newlyweds in their wedding clothes, schoolgirls holding hands.

I have smelled the sweet fragrance and felt the gentle halo of light that lifted Matsu to the heavens from this place now known for neon.

On the last day of my visit, I duck out of an afternoon rain shower into an antique shop, and see her — a smiling solid wooden head painted black with a gilded crown: the goddess Matsu of the legend.

Getting ready for business
Getting ready for business

As I return to the hotel carrying the head like a heavy bowling ball between my knees, I smile to think I'm bringing home one of the many precious faces of Macau: a city of beauty, grace, surprises and stories, casinos and contradictions — large, containing multitudes.

 

WANNA GO?

Where to Stay:

Rocks Hotel
on Macau Fisherman's Wharf
(853) 2878 2782
Email: info@rockshotel.com.mo

Where to Play:

The Venetian Macau Resort Hotel
(853) 2992 8888
Email: inquiries@venetian.com.mo

Old and new in downtown Macau
Old and new in downtown Macau

Don’t just live on the edge – Jump!

AJ Hackett Bungy Jump & Sky Walk
Macau Tower Convention and Entertainment Center
(853) 8988 8656
Email: ajhackett@macautower.com.mo

Visit:

Macau Museum of Art

Macau Maritime Museum

Macau A-Ma Temple
Rua de S. Tiago da Barra
Barra Hill, Macau

 

 

Janis Turk

Janis Turk is a travel writer, photographer, editor and professor who divides her time between Texas and Louisiana. Visit her website at janisturk.com.

 

Read more GoNOMAD stories by Janis Turk:

New Orleans Rising: Finding New Hope After Katrina

London Finally Figures out the Food Thing

The Four Corners Region: Exploring the Mysteries of Hillerman Country

The Marbles of Monroe County, Kentucky

 

Read Kent St. John's story: Miraculous Macau: Modern and Mystifying

Read Richard Frisbie's story: Macau: The Birthplace of Asian Fusion Cuisine

 

The Great Wall of China

Read more GoNOMAD stories about China

 

China

of University graduates, as China opens its doors and welcomes the arrival of foreigners in their bid
. Village of Huangshan, China. photo by Janis Turk Click to return to the story.
A TRAVELOGUE: Guiyang to Kunming, China by Road By David Winship Taylor Say China to most
A Guizhou, China: Meeting the Miao and the Dong ByA Mitchell Blatt Ancient Chinese poets
Watch Travel Videos on GoNOMAD China Great Wall of China Watch more Beijing videos at tripfilms.com
, China: Finding my Own Lost Horizon By Janis Turk As I boarded the plane in Beijing, I had no idea
. China: The Splendor of Anhui Province By Bill Pfeffer AWatch out for the water buffalo around
China Survival Guide: Taxis andA SubwaysA andA Tipping, Oh My! Larry Herzberg and Qin Herzberg
. Village of Huangshan, China. photo by Janis Turk Click to return to the story.
The Di Wang Building, an iconic skyscraper in Shenzhen, China. photos by Darian Gier Shenzhen
Kite flying in Tiananmen Square. Taming the Dragon: China With Children The GoNOMAD
How to Cross the Street in China An Excerpt from China Survival Guide By Larry and Qin Herzberg
The Sichuan Opera - photos by Lucy Corne Chengdu, China: Open for Business By Lucy
Wall of China by Fiona Tunstall Yao Zi Yu is a village just two hours travel from the cosmopolitan
The Eclipse in Xinjiang, China - photos by Ed Burleigh and Alex Hill Watching a Solar

New Travel Articles
Follow GoNOMAD.com Travel's board Destination Guides on Pinterest.
 
 
 


Subscribe to GoNOMAD's monthly enewsletter for all of our new travel articlesGet our free monthly travel newsletter
and help support sustainable and responsible tourism.
No spam, no selling
your email, we promise!

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...