If Hong Kong is China + England then Macau is China + Portugal. Sandwiched between casinos and endless grey tower blocks there is a historic heart in Macau full of orange buildings, churches and winding narrow streets that betray its heritage. I spent a day there, exploring the fuzzy lines between old and new.
I left the bus from the ferry terminal at the wrong stop so my introduction to Macau began north of the centre in a neighbourhood full of sad grey tower blocks. There weren’t any signposted sights in this part of the city but it was interesting to wander around and see how people live away from the glitzy water front and the tourist stops of the old town. Tiring and keen to move on I asked a cheerful lady in a shop where we were. I tried and failed to hide my surprise when she pointed us out on my map: miles from where I thought and on the opposite side to where I’d been looking.
Only the façade of the cathedral is left standing at the Ruínas de São Paulo, making it seem a lot like a film prop. Looming above it from the ridge-line nearby is a fortress built by the Dutch. Stood on the ramparts the advance of the modern into the old was the clearest of anywhere else in the city: no longer could the cannon I leant against keep watch of the sea below, the view now blocked by ostentatious casinos and shopping centres.
When the Portuguese first settled in Macau they used the natural ridge line that runs roughly south west as a breaker for the weather blowing off the sea. This is where the old town sits, now not only in the shadow of the ridge but the casinos too. From the cathedral and fort I walked through its winding narrow streets to St. Augustine’s Square and the Sir Robert Ho Tung Library, where I sat under trees in the courtyard and wrote in my journal that Macau doesn’t hold anywhere near the same draw as Hong Kong.
On the crossing back the islands rose in the gloaming like great gently breaching whales. The wind had picked up and the irregular crashing of the boat as it crested a wave was sometimes enough to lift your stomach. A lady in front of me borrowed my paper bag as a precaution. Rocking beacons and buoys passed by, alone in the dark. The complete darkness outside the windows was a comforting change from the sleeplessness of the city; I look forward to being back in the countryside. When I next looked up from reading the pinpricks of orange light in the distance traced the outline of a join-the-dots city.
On my final day in the city I walked from Central out to the University’s Museum and Art Gallery to see Botticelli’s Venus. The sum of experiences in Hong Kong and Macau is starting to feel like a reintroduction to the western culture I’ll be returning to soon. It’s a welcome break from all the Chinese culture I’ve seen but I’d rather the change was to more that was alien to me. Near the exhibition I wandered through the arty quarter of Hong Kong, retracing my steps from earlier in the week. I’ll be sad to leave this city.