It’s China. No, it’s Portugal, Wait, it’s BOTH!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Getting to Macau was much more frustrating than I anticipated. It turns out that showing up at the ferry terminal at 9:00 am on Good Friday with no ticket booked and expecting to waltz onto a boat at 9:30 am is ridiculously ambitious. When I got to the terminal it was a madhouse. The lines to buy tickets were long, and though it wasn’t quite 9:00 am signs at the ticket window announced that the next available tickets were for departures at about 3:00 pm. This was not good. Macau was a bit of a whim to begin with – a short stop before I flew to Vietnam the next day. If I didn’t arrive until 4pm, and then had to leave the next day at 2:30… was there any point in going at all?

A bit more investigation revealed that I could get a first class ticket for an extra $100 HK and arrive at the southern ferry terminal on Taipa island by about 1:30pm. A compromise, but an acceptable one. I still wondered whether it might not be easier just to turn tail back to my cozy hotel room and spend another day in Hong Kong but in the end I decided that it was better to do something than to do nothing, and I bought the ticket and settled in to wait for the departure.

Well it turned out to be a very smart decision because Macau was instantly charming. If I thought I was in love with Hong Kong it must have been mere infatuation because clearly Macau and I were meant to be together. It’s tiny, just 28 sq. km in area, but with a population of just over 531,000. This makes it the most densely populated place in the world. I say “place” instead of country because like Hong Kong, Macau is designated as a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China. Also like Hong Kong, there were border controls and a new currency, so I’m counting Macau as country number 25. The charming part though is that unlike Hong Kong, which was a British colony, Macau was colonized by the Portuguese. Having visited Portugal I saw their influence right away. All the signs are in Chinese characters and Portuguese, and most of them are rendered in that familiar blue-and-white tile. And the streets! The sidewalks are paved with those little square white and black stones that are everywhere in Portugal. It was great.

Those Portuguese cobblestones, and, of course, Pam’s feet.

I knew I didn’t have much time in Macau so as soon as I’d settled into my hotel room I headed out into a rainy afternoon to explore. The hotel was near the old Porto, and not far from the main drag of Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro. But first I had to walk through a more local Chinese area and almost right away I stumbled onto what I am declaring Steve’s Weird Food for Macau. I think it’s called yuk gon, but I will simply call it the Sheet o’ Meat! It was EVERYWHERE. You could not walk 10 feet without seeing another sheet o’ meat vendor. And what, exactly is a sheet o’ meat? Well, just what it sounds like.

See what I mean?

They were large sheets – about the size of an 8-1/2 x 11 (A4) piece of paper, and about a quarter of an inch thick. The vendors all had tongs and scissors and would happily snip off a corner of any variety for you to sample before buying. I tried a bit and it was really good! I think the kind I had was pork and it was sort of halfway between a dry jerky and a juicy burger brushed with sticky sweet sauce. And it was warm, because the stacks are placed under warming lights. When you buy you just indicate how much you want and snip, snip, it’s in a bag and on the scale. I got three pieces about 3” x 4” each, and that cost $27 HK, about $3.50 CDN. (Macau does have its own currency, the pataça, but Hong Kong dollars are accepted at par, so I didn’t need to change money. Amusingly, the three letter currency code for the pataça is MOP!).

So I munched on my sheet o’ meat and quickly made my way to Largo de Senado, the main public square. The architecture was very European, and there were more Portuguese cobblestones. It didn’t feel like Asia at all.

Largo de Senado. If you had to guess, would you say this was Asia?

My ultimate destination was the Macau Museum, which the LP touted as one of the best in Asia, so clearly it was not to be missed. And I’m happy to report that the LP was right. Maybe I was just in a receptive mood, having conquered the ferry fiasco and chalked up another Weird Food, but I thought the Macau Museum was just great. It’s small, like Macau, and does a nice job of covering the history and culture of the place with well-maintained displays and nice bits of multi-media that all worked. I spent about an hour there, and I was taking my time.

The museum is located at Monte Forte, a literal high point in Macau, so I also wandered around the ramparts there and played with the automatic timer on the camera, so I can post the Rob H mandated picture of me for this post.

Me and a cannon

By this point it was clearly time for an aperitif, so I wandered around in the tourist area some more, dodging the sheet o’ meat vendors who were pushing samples on everyone passing by. There were also shops selling that quintessential Portuguese pastry the pastel de nata, which I’d sampled in Lisbon so many months ago. Again and again I’d run into something weirdly Portuguese, but Chinese at the same time. Buildings had signs outside naming them Farmacia Si Da Hau or Ferreiro Yim Kei or Mercearia Tak Cheong. And of course there were those distinctive blue and white Portuguese tiles, but with decidedly Asian subject matter.

I really had to look twice, because at first glance these tiles seemed to be standard-issue Portuguese stuff, but zoom in like this and you see the Chinese.

Without much difficulty I found a little café, had a glass of wine and availed myself of the free wifi, which was also everywhere in Macau. That done I went back to my room for a nap before tackling the issue of dinner, which I’d been looking forward to all day. I took the precaution of consulting the friendly guy at the Macau Museum reception desk about where he’d recommend and his suggestion tallied neatly with that in the LP, so I hiked south from the hotel and ended up at Litoral, a lovely place that featured Macanese / Portuguese fare. Since I was back in Portugal, sort of, it seemed appropriate to have some bacalhau (cod), and the piece I had arrived golden brown and surrounded by thick potato wedges. On top of it all was an absolute drift of crispy fried slices of garlic and it was all swimming in fragrant olive oil. Coupled with a bottle of beer it was exactly what I wanted. And naturally to top it all off I had a dish of chocolate mousse and a small glass of tawny port. I returned to my hotel room perfectly content.

The next morning I got up early so I could get the most out of my last few hours in Macau. My first stop was a small café where I enjoyed an iced coffee and a couple of those tasty pastel de nata custard tarts. Then I wandered around a bit more, killing time before the opening of the site of the day – the Pawnbroker’s Museum. Again it was small, but again I was really pleased by it. Pawnbrokers used to be a big industry in Macau, and they tended to build their shop with tall fortress-like towers behind to store the pawned goods with the most security possible. The Pawnbroker’s Museum was a restored shop and tower, and though it only took about twenty minutes to see the whole thing, it was twenty minutes and 75 cents well spent.

With more time on my hands than I’d anticipated I took a quick spin through the Leal Senado, home to Macau’s main municipal government and the mayor’s office. I didn’t get very far in though, because I was diverted by an art exhibit right inside the main doors. It was a presentation of works by Wucius Wong, and it was just astonishing. They were ink and water colour on paper and in a mostly Chinese style – lots of landscapes, but also lots of more abstract stuff. It was intricate and grand at the same time. The pieces ranged in size, but one of my favourites was a scroll about 18” high and 25 feet long, a rambling landscape of trees, mountains and streams. I tried to take some photos, but the they really don’t give the right impression. I would be ecstatic to own any piece in that exhibition and would have stayed much longer if I didn’t have one more thing to do on Macau before my time ran out.

Part of a piece by Wucius Wong

My last activity in Macau took me to Taipa island, south of the main Macau peninsula. It’s still part of Macau, connected by three different soaring bridges, but in some ways its a very different world. When I said Macau is part China and part Portugal that wasn’t entirely accurate. In fact, it’s part China, part Portugal and part Las Vegas. The gambling industry is big in Macau and growing bigger every day, and it’s mostly centred on the islands of Taipa and Coloane. Taipa and Coloane used to be connected by a narrow causeway, but land reclamation and development have created what’s called the Cotai strip, and it’s there that most of the big casinos are located.

I was heading for a casino complex called the City of Dreams. A friend of a friend had promised to give me a quick look behind the scenes at a new Dragone show* that’s set to open this summer. Because the show isn’t open to the public yet I won’t say anything specific about it, but I did spend a lot of time picking my jaw up off the floor, and I think I will be polishing up my resumé and sending it off to both Dragone (and the Cirque du Soleil) when I get home. It looks like incredibly challenging but incredibly exciting work.

And then, all too soon, my time in Macau was over. Just 25 hours after I arrived I took a short taxi ride to the ferry terminal where I was able to get a ferry directly to the departures area of Hong Kong International Airport. They even checked my bag all the way through to Hanoi, which was brilliantly convenient. Back in International Airport Land – a place where everyone speaks English and you can buy the Daily Telegraph – I had a nice lunch and tackled a fresh crossword. Does anyone think that “Actress presents poet with set of books” could be BARDOT? And does anyone besides me care? Comments, please.

* Edited because it was a Dragone show I looked at in Macau, not at Cirque du Soleil show, and I am stupid and always get the two companies mixed up. Sorry Dragone!


Anonymous said...

Definitely BARDOT. "Poet" = BARD, "Set of books" = OT (Old Testament).

Global Granny said...

Goodness girl, but you truly know how to maximize a single day in a new country! I also admire your dining expertise - dispelling all that hogwash about how awkward it is(n't) to dine alone.

And yes, Macau - reminds me of Mozambique (also once a Portuguese colony) - all those lovely Portuguese accents amid the African. From your description, it looks like I might have to pop Macau on my "list" should I ever again be in that part of the world.

(btw, I just checked Wikipedia and... one more bit of Macau trivia: "With a GDP per capita of US$59,451 in 2008, Macau is among the richest cities in China and the world.")

Oh and finally, you do realize that I'm watching each of your pics now like a hawk. I too bought the Lumix ZS3 because of you. The the vast difference in the quality of your posted pics after your old camera bit the dust simply took my breath away!

Pam said...

Ok I just have to add that as I was falling asleep last night I figured out the BARDOT thing... BEFORE reading this comment. But thank you anyways, Anonymous.

- Pam

Phoebe said...

Cirque huh? So you will run off and join the circus after this adventure? ;-)

I promise that I will get to the Japan digest for you in the next day or so. It is good that you bought the JR pass already. But note that it is not good for the Nozomi trains. (they are the fastest, and run most frequently)

Unknown said...

Nice photo of you in the posting. I really feel that you actually like that cannon. Thank you.

What happened to the scratch on the lens of your new camera? Got it polished? Replaced lens? Replaced camera? Miracle cure?

Macau sounds great - if you get a job there you will have visitors...


Pam said...

Granny and Rob,

To be clear, the camera I got was the Panasonic DMC-TZ7, not a ZS3.

And the scratches are still there, though they generally only show up in high contrast lighting situations, and the photos that get bunged up because of the scratches don't get put on the blog.


Anonymous said...

Cheers Pam!

I don't think you need to fret about not being able to take a Nozomi using your JR pass - any shinkasen is plenty fast.

Taking scenic photos from a JR train at full speed can be an exercise in frustration, because a telephone pole or bridge girder invariably flashes by just as the shutter clicks.

Do give ekiben a try!

Post a Comment