Macau, Rhubarb and Custard Apples

Macau Harbour 1890

Macau is a tiny place; a mere pimple on the bum of China, but its impact on the world has been significant. By the year 1600, Macau had already had an influence on China, most notably on diet.

According to historian and author, Austin Coates, a number or fruits and vegetables were introduced into China from Macau including sweet potatoes, peanuts, watercress, pineapples, custard apples and chillies. Shrimp paste was another foodstuff transplanted from Portugal’s widely spread empire. Where would Chinese cuisine be today without peanut oil? Or Szechuan dishes without chillies?

Fruit and vegetables introduced from Macau to China

Most of these crops originated in the Americas.  Early Spanish explorers are believed to have taken the sweet potato from the New World to the Philippines, from where Portuguese traders introduced the crop to China via Macau around 1590.

Watercress is known by the Cantonese as xiyang cai or Western Ocean vegetable, Western Ocean being a colloquial name for Portugal.

Custard apples (another native of the Americas) are called ‘foreign devil’s lychee’ in Macau, recognising that they were introduced by Europeans. Interestingly custard apples are called Sakya in Taiwan because the skin of the fruit resembles the tightly curled hair on some Sakyamuni Buddha statues.

Mandarins and Rhubarb were introduced to the West from China via Macau

But the dietary interchange was not all in one direction. From China to the West came rhubarb, tea and mandarin oranges. The Portuguese transplanted the mandarin to Tangier in Morocco, then under Portuguese control, from where we obtained the word tangerine. (In Gulf countries, the Arabic word used for orange is the same as their word for Portugal.)

Rhubarb had long been cultivated in China for its medicinal, laxative qualities. Marco Polo wrote about it in his travel journals but it was not until the Portuguese settled in Macau that shipments began in bulk. Demand from Europe was such that the Chinese assumed Europeans to be a very constipated race.

Chinese tea had long been known about in the West but again traders based in Macau, many of them British, were the first to open up the market and begin shipping tea in bulk to Europe.

Chinese boars were another important export though Macau for cross breeding with European pigs to improve the standards of European pork.

It is not only China’s diet that was influenced by Portugal. Tempura, which we think of as a quintessential Japanese dish, was introduced by the Portuguese via their trading settlement and missionary base in Nagasaki. The name probably came from quattuor tempora, Latin for those periods when Catholics refrain from eating meat. Tempura may have originated from the Portuguese battered vegetable dish called peixinhos da horta, or ‘fish from the garden’ which resembles tempura (though not as tasty due to lack of dipping sauce).

Vintage Postcard Macau Panorama
Macau, pimple on the bottom of China

Macau’s Historic Centre

Macau's Historic Centre

When the Portuguese packed their bags and departed Macau for good in 1999 they left behind a rich cultural heritage stretching back nearly 450 years. Rather than try to expunge all traces of Portuguese influence from Macau’s history, the new Macau Special Administrative Region government has instead accentuated its past and has preserved and restored nearly all of the historic buildings and spaces that make Macau unique. These efforts were recognised by UNESCO in 2005 when The Historic Centre of Macau was added to the list of World Heritage Sites.

Map Showing The Historic Centre of Macau

The Historic Centre of Macau comprises twelve core buildings (shown on the map) and a number of other buildings and spaces of historical and architectural importance. These can be covered on foot as part of a Macau Heritage Trail for an enjoyable day’s outing (excluding Guia Fortress which is a taxi ride away).

A-Ma Temple

1. A-Ma Temple (1488).

This temple, after which Macau is named, is the only building on the list which pre-dates the arrival of the Portuguese in 1556 when Macau was just a small fishing village. The temple’s numerous pavilions follow Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and traditional Chinese folk beliefs.

MoorishBarracks

2. Moorish Barracks (1874).

This building housed two hundred soldiers recruited from Goa (a Portuguese possession at the time) to help support Macau’s police force. The Quartel dos Mouros is now the head office of the Macao Port Authority.

Mandarin's House

3. Mandarin’s House (1869-1881)

This sprawling compound made up of several courtyard houses was the residence of prominent Chinese literary figure Zheng Guanying. It is located adjacent to Lilau Square, a Portuguese style piazza. They say that one who drinks from the natural spring in Lilau Square never forgets Macau (dysentery perhaps)?

StJosephs

4. St. Joseph’s Seminary Building and Church (1728)

From this seminary, Jesuit missionaries fanned out across China, Japan and around the region to spread Christianity, with varying results. The Church (1758) is a fine example of baroque architecture. Inside the Church lies one of Macau’s most valuable religious relics, a piece of bone from the arm of St. Francis Xavier who died on the southern Chinese island of Shanchuan in 1552.

There are a number of other historic churches in Macau which, though not appearing on this list, are well worth visiting.

DomPedroVTheatreNight

5. Dom Pedro V Theatre (1860)

Built as the first Western-style theatre in China. It is still used for cultural events.

Leal Senado

6. Leal Senado Building (1784)

This was, and still is, Macau’s municipal chamber and it was from here that most of the important decisions concerning the city were made and they resented interference from their political masters in Portugal and Goa. Dubbed Leal Senado (Loyal Senate) in reference to Portuguese King João IV’s praise of Macau in 1654 that “there is None More Loyal”. The building retains original features including a courtyard garden where there are busts of Camilo Pessanha and Luís Vaz de Camões, Portugal’s national poet. There is also an ornate library on the first floor and a small chapel.

HolyHouseOfMercy

7. Holy House of Mercy (1569 – 18th century)

Santa Casa da Misericordia was established by the first Bishop of Macau, modelled after one of the oldest charitable institutions in Portugal and provided the first medical clinic and other social welfare structures that still function to this day.

StPauls

8. Ruins of St. Paul’s (1637-40)

This granite facade is all that remains of the Church of Mater Dei which was destroyed by fire in 1835. This is now Macau’s most famous landmark and symbolically appears on the logo of the Macau Tourist Office. It is continually besieged by hordes of selfie-taking tourists.

NaTchaTemple

9. Na Tcha Temple (1888) 

This tiny temple to the irreverent god Na Tcha was built adjacent to St. Paul’s Ruins after the Church of Mater Dei was destroyed by the fire of 1835. The fact that a traditional Chinese temple stands close to the remains of the main Jesuit institution of the region is held up as an example of Macao’s multicultural identity and religious tolerance.

The Historic Centre of Macau

 10. Section of the Old City Walls (1632)

The temple adjoins one of the last surviving sections of the Old City Walls. Fortification of Macau began in the early 1600’s to defend the city against the Dutch who were threatening to invade. The wall is made of a solid compound named chunambo, an elaborate mixture of clay, soil, sand, rice straw, crushed rocks and oyster shells compacted in successive layers.

Mount Fortress

11. Mount Fortress (1617-1626)

This square of strong fortress walls was built by the Jesuits and played a key role in repelling the tentative Dutch invasion of 1622. The ramparts were lined with cannons which were made in a foundry in Macau, producing the finest weapons of their kind in Asia. The fortress now contains the Macau Museum. 

Guia Fortress

12. Guia Fortress (1622-1638) (including the Chapel, pre 1622, and Lighthouse 1864)

Guia Lighthouse is believed to be the oldest lighthouse of the South-China seas. Guia Chapel was established by nuns, who resided at the site before establishing the Convent of St. Clara. In 1998 frescoes were uncovered inside Guia Chapel during routine conservation work. These frescoes depict both Western and Chinese themes and are an example of Macau’s unique multiculturalism.

Matchbox Cover in Macau Museum

Macau’s Gambling Habit

At the Macau Museum there is a section dedicated to cricket fighting, a sport where pairs of carefully nurtured bugs battle it out in little insect arenas watched by their owners, trainers and a crowd of eager gamblers. This pastime goes back a thousand years to Tang Dynasty China and was therefore probably one of the first forms of gambling to take place in Macau, albeit illegally.

Cricket Fighting Champions at Macau Museum
A cricket coffin fit for a prize fighter and some pickled former contestants on display at Macau Museum.

Licensed gambling was first introduced in this former Portuguese colony in the 1850’s to raise funds for Timor, another Portuguese far-eastern possession, which had become a drain on Macau’s coffers once its sandalwood trees had all been logged and not replanted.

Fantan Gambling in Macau
Fantan is still played in Macau casinos today.

Licensed fantan saloons sprang up (fantan is a Chinese game with some similarities to roulette) which proved popular with locals and weekenders from nearby Hong Kong, giving rise to Macau’s reputation as the Monte Carlo of the Orient (now Las Vegas of the Orient seems more apt). So successful was licensed gambling as a means of raising government revenue that the practice continued even after Macau ceased to have financial responsibility for Timor.

When I used to visit Macau in the 1980s and 90s,  Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau (STDM) had held a monopoly on the gambling concessions since 1962 and they had introduced western forms of gambling to the territory such as roulette, blackjack, baccarat and slots. High speed hydrofoils and jetfoils were also introduced to whisk Hong Kong gamblers, in under an hour, to the Lisboa, which was the main casino at that time.

Grand Lisboa and Macau skyline
The Lisboa is still going strong and the gold building dominating this photo is their latest extension, the Grand Lisboa.

Following the handover of Macau from Portugal to China in 1999, the new government decided in 2001 to end the monopoly system and allow new players to compete for concessions. Since then STDM has been joined by Wynn, Las Vegas Sands, MGM Mirage and others and Macau’s total gambling receipts have soared, surpassing Las Vegas by 2007.

The Venetian, Macau
The biggest of Macau’s 33 casinos is The Venetian with 3400 slot machines, 800 gaming tables and 550,000 sq. ft. of casino space.

To accommodate all these new casinos and hotels, a major land reclamation project was undertaken by filling in the sea between Taipa Island and Coloane Island. This new area is called Cotai and is home to a Las Vegas-style strip of grand casinos and 5 star hotels.

Galaxy Casino, Macau
One of the towers of the newly opened Galaxy casino and hotel complex which includes the Okura, Banyan Tree, Ritz Carlton, JW Marriott and Galaxy hotels.
Lobby of Galaxy Hotel
One of the modest lobbies to the Galaxy Casino.
Galaxy Casino Macau
Typical Macau casino.

Mainland Chinese visitors have long since overtaken visitors from Hong Kong and now may make up 80% of the total. Mainlanders flood across the land border through the Border Gate on Macau Peninsula or via the Lotus Bridge on Cotai.

Dependence on Mainland Chinese visitors does have its disadvantages. The recent clampdown on corruption in PRC has led to a decline in Macau’s gambling revenue. On the other hand, perhaps the current collapse in Chinese share prices might help Macau as investors sell their shares and look for other places to speculate with their wealth.

Casa de Penhores in Macau
Sign of a Casa de Penhores (pawn broker) in Macau.

The streets of Macau, especially near the casinos, have always contained a number of pawn shops, now more than ever as the number has risen to 170.  In Portuguese, still an official language in Macau, they are called Casa de Penhores which fittingly sounds like House of Penury (though maybe it means House of Pledges). Here desperate gamblers on a losing streak can pawn their Rolex watches for cash in the hope that their luck changes. Not for nothing did Charles Dickens call pawn brokers ‘receptacles of misery and distress’.

But in modern Macau they serve a another purpose. Mainlanders are only permitted to carry 20,000 Yuan with them to Macau (about US$3,200) and the most they can withdraw from the ATM while in Macau is 10,000 Yuan per day. While that is more than ample for most people it is insufficient for serious gamblers. So they visit the pawn brokers and buy an expensive item, say jewellery costing US$10,000 using their debit or credit cards. Then they immediately sell the item back to the pawn broker for cash, less a commission of 5 to 10%.  In this way, the pawn brokers provide cash advances against credit cards, thus circumventing the exchange controls, to say nothing of money laundering regulations. The pawn broking business in Macau must be even more profitable than casinos!

Macau Fisherman's Wharf
Part of Macau Fisherman’s Wharf, a Portuguese, Dutch, New Orleans, Spanish, Czech themed shopping and entertainment complex.

The Macau government aims to diversify away from its dependence on gambling and is trying hard to create more family oriented attractions. The nearly completed Macau Fisherman’s Wharf is one such example with shopping and entertainment, but even that will have its own casino. Despite government efforts it is still estimated that 99% of visitors to Macau come for gambling. My family and I were part of the 1% and more about that in the next post.