Portugal’s Napoleon Complex

The sound of rain hitting the siding of the ship almost drowns out the footsteps on the metal plank. People begin to stow their luggage as attendants hand out immigration cards. Located about 40 miles to the east of Hong Kong, Macau is China’s other Special Administrative Region (SAR). The city-states function essentially as independent countries and maintain international borders between themselves and China proper. On my final day in the South China Sea before returning to Beijing, I boarded a ferry from Hong Kong to explore the former Portuguese colony.

Macau served as Portugal’s last holdout in Asia until 1999, when it was handed back to China. Portugal’s other former Asian strongholds, Goa and Malacca, had long before been claimed by neighboring powers. As the final stop on the eastern sojourn from Lisbon, Macau became the terminal destination for many of the Crown’s conquered people. The Lusophone was at its peak in Macau – Brazilians brought açaí, Africans from Mozambique brought spices, Indians from Goa brought basmati, and Malaysians from Malacca brought Javanese noodles. Globalization, for better or worse, became an economic and political reality in Macau, 300 years before the British wrested Hong Kong from the Chinese.

Less than twelve square miles, Macau is exceptionally small and can very easily be covered on foot. While not well-known in the West, Macau is the world’s gambling mecca. With annual profits that eclipse Las Vegas’, the SAR attracts (mostly mainland Chinese) tourists from all over Asia that come to enjoy many of the vices outlawed in other parts of continent. While the city is almost exclusively known for gambling, the old city is one of the most fascinating I’ve visited. At the end of day, I found myself wishing Macau, along with its unusual blend of cultures and people, was larger.

The Portuguese influence is everywhere: cobbled back streets, baroque churches, stone fortresses, art deco buildings and restful parks and gardens. It’s a unique fusion of East and West that has been recognized by UNESCO, which in 2005 named 30 buildings and squares collectively as the Historic Centre of Macau World Heritage Site. Grand mansions and cobblestone roads are filled with Buddhist temples, Catholic churches, jade sellers, incense houses, and the sounds of clicking chopsticks and songbirds in a grand and lofty city that was built to resemble Lisbon. The old downtown of candy-colored colonial buildings, banyan trees, narrow hilly streets, and low-key neighborhood restaurants serve as living vestiges of the nearly 500 year Portuguese rule. The unique blend of Chinese and Portuguese culture, architecture, and food are irresistible for the peripatetic traveler.

A city with two faces, it is this fusion of Mediterranean and Asian peoples, lifestyles, temperaments, and food that makes Macau such an interesting place.

After waiting out the rain a bit at the international ferry terminal, I took a cab to Macau's central plaza

I used my (very limited) Portuguese!

At Macau's Plaza do Senado. Though the city is a gambling mecca with annual revenues quite a bit higher than Las Vegas, Macau is full of vestiges of Portuguese colonialism.

Candy-colored buildings all throughout the SAR make Macau a really neat place

The Macanese flag!

Trying to find St. Paul's Church...

The Plaza do Senado is completely tiled with black and white wave pattens

Catholicism, unlike neighboring Hong Kong or the PRC, continues to play a strong role in Macanese society - thanks colonialism!

Winding streets

Had some Macanese noodles flavored with coconut milk, turmeric, pulled pork, and African spices. Macau was heavily influenced by the other Portuguese colonies in Africa and India. Many of these people were indentured and traveled to Macau from Mozambique and Goa and fused their own cuisines with the Chinese.

Cloudy and pretty desolate day - perfect for exploring

Once a home for a Portuguese governor, now a court

Inside the "Portuguese Museum"

This cured pork is amazing. From these large sheets, it's cut into strips. Again, lots of African spices make these awesome snacks.


There is is - the ruins of St. Paul's Church

Built in 1602 by Italian Jesuits, the church (and the rest of the walled city) was destroyed in a typhoon and an ensuing fire in 1835, leaving only this impressive façade

At the top of hill facing away from the ruins, one can see modern Macau. The Hotel Lisboa can be seen in the distance.


Some of the walls of the old city remain

Oh, ni hao 你好

The ruins of St. Paul's Church are a UNESCO site; here, a parting shot

Just passing by

I love these buildings

A tiny temple behind St. Paul's Church


Empty park

The Eastern Foundation...?

Like moss in a stone crack, people live near and on colonial ruins

A lonely graveyard on a rainy day



I liked this store - the owners kept talking to me in Cantonese and ending up giving me some of their pork strips for free

I love slowing walking through these streets

Coconuts painted with Chinese characters

Very narrow between homes

Like a more run-down version of Lisbon

Street vendors are pretty much my favorite


More pastel-colored plazas

Government building. As Macau is technically a SAR like Hong Kong, it enjoys a huge degree of autonomy from the mainland

Deserted pathways

Cool tree

In different senses of the words, old meets new

Trash can sign!

Jorge Álvarez, the first Portuguese explorer to reach Macau in 1513, is memorialized in the commercial district of the SAR

In the distance, the Macau Tower. Apparently the locals overwhelmingly dislike it, as it it just another attempt by local authorities to turn their city into a gaudier version of Las Vegas.

Tiled sign

Having walked over two miles, I finally reached the best preserved mansion in the city. Here, the circular entryway.

Decorated wood portico

I want to live here

Central green space

Now, trying to find my way out...

Macanese life

The the southern tip of the Macau Peninsula, the A-Ma Temple pays homage to the Taoist goddess Matzu, the protector of seafarers.

Lighting incense


Like in HK, circular incense makes the area really hot!

Open and large circular windows

The land across the water is China, essentially a different country, as Macau, like HK, has an international border between itself and the PRC.

Finding a cab back to the ferry terminal was really difficult...back to Hong Kong, and from there, Beijing

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3 Responses to Portugal’s Napoleon Complex

  1. jml says:

    love the street scenes!

  2. sol lee says:

    Okay, this confirmed my long-time-ago-when-still-interested-in-Fulbright suspicion that Macau is worth checking out. It’s like Las Vegas (=home) + Portuguese (=my next language to learn) + China (=China!)!

    O, pseudo-Stratosphere! Here I come.

  3. Corrine says:

    Yesterday i spent 300 $ for platinium roulette system , i
    hope that i will make my first $$$ online

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