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Macau sqare decorated with balloons

Portuguese Macau

Macau is delightful! We hadn’t expected to particularly like it – colleagues who had visited had winced slightly when mentioned: it’s famous as the Vegas of China, full of giant tacky trashy casinos. Turns out it’s also got lots of Portuguese charm – and the juxtaposition of Portuguese and Chinese is curiously lovely. Everywhere in the world, translations are into English as standard: seeing Portuguese translations instead feels peculiarly home-like, even to me.

Flowery, formal Portuguese street names like “Estrada da Baía de Nossa Senhora da Espernça” – Our Lady of Hope Bay – have Chinese character subtitles; post boxes look decidedly Chinese with pagoda- type roofs, but are labelled Correilos; Lisbon-style cobbled mosaic pavements are surmounted by decidedly Chinese cafes and shops – cans labelled highest quality seal oil, eggs covered in black ash, wicker pots of unidentifiable meats and vegetables. And there are as many old school Lisbon-style squares and little hilly cobbled streets, as there are decrepit high rise apartment blocks. It was a colony for 400 years (a reward for clearing out pirates in the 1500s, apparently), and is only now, like Hong Kong, going gradually back to China – the 50 year handover began just 20 years ago.

We had a lovely day exploring. There seemed to be no tourists, but then we realised it’s all Chinese tourists, who flock here as the closest place for a European experience – rather as Europeans tend to visit the Chinatowns of Europe. And boy, do they flock: the popular “Ruins of St Paul’s” was jam packed.

And, of course, they come for the gambling. Macau is the only place in China where is legal, and when the monopoly was broken in 2001, all the huge new casinos shot up. They’re really on a par with Vegas – the Venetian has whole canals with gondoliers, after kilometers of pseudo Renaissance interior decor. There’s a particularly spectacular hotel casino shaped like a lotus flower, bling-tastic in gold. Over 90% of the high roller tourism is from China, with gambling revenue 6 times that of Vegas – 37 billion versus Vegas’s paltry 6. Being the most useless gambler ever, I did my usual token donation to the casino gods to no reward.

We wanted to try some Macanese food. It’s not popular here – all the posh casinos have expensive Chinese or Western options, and Macanese is only found in the most basic cafes. But when we went into a local place near the hotel – all bare tables and locals – and V accidentally used a word in Portuguese, the old Chinese man’s face lit up and he started gabbling away at top speed in Portuguese, delighted to have a tourist from Brazil. Admittedly, I understood about as much as V – the local accent is a long way from Brazil, and only a few distinctive words came through – but we felt warmly welcomed, and had a delicious meal of minchi (mince, potatoes, egg – solid and tasty) and amazing squid, some of the best we’ve tasted – gloriously coriandered, and cooked to perfection. Plus, another advantage of the Portuguese legacy is excellent coffee (I really don’t know why Brazil fails on this!) – had the best coffee we’ve had since Australia in another local joint near the hotel.

All in all: a satisfying start to the China trip, and more homelike than expected. Things will start to get more complicated once we hit the mainland – Macau and Hong Kong still have lots of exemptions, like being outside the Great Firewall. But we were pleased to find likely the only bar in Macau that celebrates St Patrick’s Day. Happy Paddy’s, y’all!

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