Aug 27, 2010
My first week in Macau and the first thing I did was to buy a pair of jogging shoes in San Malo. The price was reasonable, and since I would be spending the rest of the month on the island I wanted to see it on foot. Before I tell you more about my walks down the Island’s lanes, let me give you a short history of the place.
The first people to settle in this tiny island were fishermen from Fujian and farmers from Guangdong. In those days this tiny island was known as ‘Ou Mun’ or ‘trading gate’ due to its location at the mouth of the Pearl River downstream from Guangzhou (Canton). This port city was a link between China and Rome for the silk trade.
Portuguese traders arrived in Macau in the early part of the 16th century and in early 1550’s they reached ‘Ou Mun’ or ‘A Ma Gao’, ‘place of A Ma’ in honour of the Goddess of Seafarers, whose temple stood at the entrance to the sheltered Inner Harbour. The Portuguese adopted the name, which gradually changed into the present name, ‘Macau,’ which in later years became a major entrepot for trade between China, Japan and India. With the Portuguese came the Christian faith.
We in India proudly claim that Christian faith was introduced to India in the very first century by one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, whose name was Thomas. Tradition has it that St Thomas travelled all the way from Jerusalem to the southern kingdom of Cochin in Kerala in the first century. It must have taken him several months to arrive there, travelling by boat. St Thomas spread the teachings of Jesus among the people of Kerala.
Nothing much has been written by historians in the context of the development of Christianity from the time of the death of St Thomas in the first century to the arrival of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese sailor who arrived in Kerala towards the end of the 15th Century. This is something we can talk about another time. But now let me tell you how Catholic faith came to this tiny island of Macau.
It was the Portuguese who established Europe’s first settlement on the China coast in 1557. This place was supposed to be the bastion of Christianity as well as a trading post, which the Portuguese called, ‘City of the Name of God, Macau.’ The first settlers included priests and some of the first buildings built were churches, which were constructed from wood and matting. Later on buildings were erected using clay (Taipa), and from the mid-17th century with stone and plaster.
The 16th century, particularly the time between 1540’s to 1552 is very important to Catholics in India. It was St Francis Xavier who came to India around this time and made Goa his place of living. St Francis was a Jesuit missionary and was sent to India by the founder of the Jesuits (known as the Society of Jesus), St Ignatius Loyola. St Francis, although he was not a Portuguese, came to India with the Portuguese sailors and settled in Goa which by then was the headquarters of the Portuguese government in India. From Goa, St Francis travelled to many parts of southern India as well as to Japan and other countries. He died on the shores of one of the Islands near Macau waiting for a ship to carry him to China. This place where St Xavier died is just 40 kilometres from Macau.
Today Macau is known as the Gambling Capital of the East. With a small population of less than half a million, Macau is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. Hong Kong which was the first SAR was handed over by the British to the Chinese in 1997 and later the Portuguese did the same in 1999 with Macau. Hence, although Hong Kong and Macau now belong to China they have been given the freedom to run the islands as the locals wish, thus the term SAR.
Macau is full of casinos, the largest being Casino Lisboa owned by the gambling magnate Stanley Ho. Some of the popular casinos include the Venetian, Sands, Wynn, Casino Rio and the Grand Lisboa. Thousands of tourists visit Macau to gamble; the largest number of tourists come from mainland China followed by Indians. Yes, Indians! I was told that Indians are aggressive gamblers. I met a lot of Indian tourists visiting Macau on package tours and most of them I talked to said they liked the place, except for the food.
Food can be a problem for Indians as the Chinese do not use spices the way we do. I tried Portuguese food which is close to Spanish cuisine and I liked it. Macanese cuisine is a mixture of Chinese and Portuguese. One finds in Macau almost all vegetables and fruits that can be found in any part of India.
A visit to the vegetable market can be very exciting. One of the fruits which is very common in Southeast Asia is Durian. I haven’t found it in India yet. Durian looks almost like a jackfruit but is a bit smaller in size. Once ripe, the scent of the fruit can be sensed from a distance of over 50 feet. It is extremely sweet and at the same time very high on sugar and cholesterol. In the Philippines, where I have spent my last sixteen years, it is grown as a commercial crop. It is jokingly said that a Durian ‘smells like hell and tastes like heaven’! Well, try it if you get hold of one. A few years ago Singapore Airlines had banned the fruit inside the flight cabin. But in the Philippines one can check-in a basket of Durians just like checking-in a basket of live crabs or a roasted pig called Lechon (Loitaovm in Goa). One can also find Durian candies or Durian ice cream in Southeast Asia.
There are a few Indian restaurants in Macau, however they are very expensive. What I enjoyed most during my month-long stay in Macau was traditional Portuguese cuisine with Portuguese wine and regular visits to the old churches that reminded me of Old Goa.