Macau shrines churches, shops and Michael Jackson

The Beauty of Macau: Diversity, architecture, shrines

Many people go for the gaming, but for me the beauty of Macau was in the surprising details. This former Portuguese colony hanging off the edge of mainland China has a fascinating cultural history -- a mix of Portuguese and Chinese, Catholic, Buddhist and Taoist. This manifests in mixed architecture, mixed cuisine and mixed people. You see it in the beautiful little shrines on the sidewalks outside businesses, and in the blue and white Portuguese tile work on the walls of the old parts of town.

The bulk of Macau's tourists hail from mainland China, where gambling is illegal. And it's gambling that draws them. The industry has proliferated with China's rising middle and upper class, and the casinos have grown in size and glitziness. The Venetian looks much like the one in Vegas. The Galaxy is absolutely huge and contains the world's largest rooftop wave pool and private villas you can rent, if their upscale hotel rooms aren't fancy enough for you. The City of Dreams complex has three big hotels and a shopping mall you could get lost in for days.

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Downtown Macau: Visit a different world

But venture to the old parts of Macau and you'll see a different world. In the narrow streets downtown, you'll turn a corner and find a row of woodcarving shops where workers carve and paint dragons and gods. Baskets of colorful wooden dragons await the annual Feast of the Drunken Dragon. This festival, which usually falls in May, involves drunk people cavorting in the streets with the aforementioned wooden dragon heads.

Turn another corner and you'll find shops designed to fulfill the needs of dead ancestors. The old practice of ritually burning Hell money, or bank notes for the departed to spend in the afterlife, lives on in Macau. Judging from the availability of cardboard sushi trays and cell phones, even dead ancestors like to keep up with the times.

Another modern idea that has caught on in Macau is training dogs and their owners to frequent Dog WCs. These patches of dirt or sand are clearly marked with a sign sporting a white dog silhouette and the letters WC. If your dog fails to use the designated spot, you can be fined $600 Macanese. Supposedly, dog WC custodians add a special dog-attracting scent, which makes dogs excited to confine their business to these areas. I saw one dog lift his leg on a street sign. The woman on the other end of the leash immediately washed the post down with a spray bottle.

Odd Museums

I've always been a huge fan of unusual museums. So when I was researching Macau before my trip, I knew I needed to visit both the Tak Seng On Pawn Shop Museum and the Michael Jackson Gallery. Tak Seng On, located on a narrow street downtown, first opened for business as a working pawn shop in 1917. People forced to pawn their valuables stood behind a shame screen that prevented passers by from seeing them through the window. There's not that much to see inside the museum besides old adding machines and the building itself, but it's interesting to learn the history of pawning. Pawn shops in Macau featured tall storage towers which were carefully constructed to protect goods from humidity. Tai tais -- the idle rich wives of merchants -- pawned their furs in springtime and reclaimed them in the fall. The furs were stored in the towers, safe from summertime humidity-induced mold, and the arrangement was cheaper than caring for the furs themselves. The Michael Jackson Gallery is tucked inside the Ponte 16 Hotel. Here you'll find monster masks from Thriller, a maze of mirrors you can walk through while Jackson's songs blast over speakers, a cafe where the workers dress in black pants, white button-downs shirts and black vests, and lots more Jackson memorabilia, including the glove. One blog reported that the glove Jackson wore while moonwalking on a TV special cost $420,000. I have since seen other places claiming to display the glove, leading me to believe Jackson had more than one. On my visit, the place was fairly empty, with most of the action centered around visitors debating how best to photograph a rhinestone-covered white glove inside a glass box.

Macau's Churches

Most tourists to Macau -- at least those who can pull themselves away from the casinos -- visit Mater Dei and the A-Ma Temple. Mater Dei, or Mother of God, is the famous facade of a huge Catholic church that burnt down in 1835. This huge facade of intricately carved gray stone is Macau's iconic image. Commonly called Saint Paul's, a Portuguese priest I met impressed upon me that Saint Paul's is the name of a college that was erected nearby, but that the church has always been named for Mary, Mother of God. In fact, the theme of female divinity runs through Macau, whose name derives from the Taoist goddess A-Ma.

The facade's carvings depict images specific to the merging of cultures. Boats show the arrival of the Portuguese. Lotus, dragons and tigers are reminiscent of Chinese temples. A triangle represents Jesus. The area behind the facade has been spruced up in recent years and now contains a sacred art gallery full of old relics, including a painted wood Indo-Portuguese sculpture of Saint Augustine and a 17th century silver incense holder shaped like a boat. You can also visit a solemn chamber and contemplate the bones of 16th century Japanese Catholic martyrs.

Macau is a treasure trove for fans of Catholic art. I grew up Catholic, and while not all the religion's tenets took, my love of statuary, artifacts and trinkets only grows. In Catholic art, I favor both the ornate and the strange. Macau's churches overflow with opulence. But you can also find a little bit of the strange.

Saint Francis Chapel in Taipa is named for Saint Francis Xavier, an early missionary to the Far East. After he died in China, most of his body was sent to Rome, but his left hand remained in Macau. It used to be housed at the Saint Francis Chapel, before being moved to Saint Joseph's Church. The chapel is a big yellow building that sits on a lively square. Outside the chapel, people eat at a courtyard restaurant until late into the night. Inside, the current Filipino priest has been busy decorating the church. And decorating. And decorating a bit more. The walls and statuary are mostly done in bold, primary colors. Behind the crucifix, the whole wall is painted like a cloud-speckled sky. The moldings are red and yellow and the altar is festooned with red Chinese lanterns. A local who is active in church affairs told me she has tried to dissuade the priest from adding to the decor, but he is unstoppable. She suspects his decorating has attracted more Chinese converts, who like their temples colorful. Perhaps the chapel's oddest feature is a life-size (and lifelike) statue of Mary as a baby, dressed in white and gold and reclining inside a glass box. Locals sometimes bring their own babies and lay them beside baby Mary.

It wasn't until well after I got home that I realized I'd never played a single nickel in any of Macau's thirty-odd casinos. And I still ran out of time in Macau before I'd seen everything I wanted to see.

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Teresa Bergen lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about health, fitness and travel. She's the author of Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide. In addition to writing, she teaches yoga and group fitness classes. You can learn more about Teresa at

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: June 26th, 2013

Updated: August 23, 2016

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