Saturday, August 18, 2012

Following the Portuguese - to Macau

I visited Macau a few weeks ago.  Partly to see what a casino looks like (no, I did not gamble) and partly to also explore the shared heritage of Macau and South East Asia.  Colonised for many years by the Portuguese, I was curious to see whether there were similar cultural elements to be found between these two parts of Asia.

Senado Square
Indeed, there were cultural similarities aplenty.  Much reconstruction has taken place in the old city centre, and new buildings sprout up beside the old colonial buildings (or in some cases, a tall modern structure towers behind an older facade).  But walking through the streets around Senado Square, the distinctive look of the colonial style buildings were strangely familiar.  Marked by the arched doorways and deep verandas, the buildings would not have been out of place here in Singapore.

Interior of the Lou Kau Mansion
In the streets around the square,  still remain older buildings, with graceful columns holding up  small balconies with cast-iron railings - good vantage points to take in whatever was going on in the street below.  We also visited an old mansion,  the former residence of the family of Lou Kau, a Chinese businessman.  Whilst the facade was unremarkable, the courtyard-filled interior (see right) was very similar to the traditional peranakan houses here in South east Asia.

Drinking glasses, just like Grandma's!
 Away from the city centre, we also visited the five colonial houses which make up the Taipa Houses Museum.  The first house was supposed to represent a typical Macanese family home.  Indeed, it did have that distinctive look and feel of a Eurasian home here in Singapore, with its blend of eastern and western furnishings (and a little family altar in the living room).  In a similar room in the Macau museum, I found drinking glasses just like those my grandmother has!  (I've been drinking in glasses like these since I was a little child!)

St Dominic's Church
Then we have the churches - Macau has plenty of beautiful old Catholic churches about.  The Jesuits came here many years ago, and built a church and seminary, St Paul's, up on a hill.  Originally built in 1602, this Macau church was destroyed by fire in 1835 and stands in ruins today, with only a magnificent facade left to show just how majestic this church must have been in its original state.  Pilgrims and tourists still come to this spot today, climbing the many steps to the top of the church and then visiting the little Museum of Macau behind.   Coincidentally, Malacca's St Paul's church too was built on a hill, and it too, now lies in ruins (see my earlier post on Malacca for more details). I also visited St Dominic's church - at the other end of Senado Square, the church was built in 1587 by the Dominicans - apparently, the first church to be built in China.

Then, there is the food. Whoever would have thought that the Portuguese liked their sambal belacan so much that they took it to Macau with them?  And yet, here it is, unmistakable, selling in the tourist food shops of Taipa and Macau.  I must admit I could not resist and bought a little bottle to try at home.

We tried quite a few Macanese restaurants.   The dishes are not that similar to Eurasian dishes in Singapore - you do not get curry devil or Feng, for example.  But the oxtail stew sold in the food court in the Venetian - who would ever have thought that it would taste remarkably similar (although not nearly so good) as my mother's? And the chicken curry noodles - removing the rather alien taste of the curry, the base of onions, tomatoes, tumeric and spices could be the base of a good chicken stew back in Singapore.

We also tried out the famous Portuguese egg tart.  Yes, we tried those at Lord Stowe's bakery, which had a handily located branch at The Venetian, where we were staying.  A crisp, flaky pastry, beautifully smooth custard under a caramelised top - yes, this has indeed become the definitive egg tart, at least for me.

Macau-style Pineapple pastries 
Last but not least, I have to mention the pineapple tarts.  Naturally, they are nowhere - nowhere! - as good as the pineapple tarts you get here in Singapore.  And they have started making it in neat pineapple filled pastry squares.  But nonetheless, just one more link tying Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia .... and yet another hint that the pineapple tart is a true blue Eurasian invention.

Naturally, Macau is not Malacca, nor Singapore.  It retains its own distinctive culture, and is obviously more "Chinese" than either Malacca nor Singapore.  But just like the Macau Museum seeks to illustrate, it is one more point on this planet when East and West met, merged, and created a new and distinctively different culture and way of life. 

For more photos of Macau (including some which are definitely not linked to its colonial heritage) click here.  For more about Macau and its heritage, check out this website.


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