Macau March Madness

This past weekend, we decided to take another daytrip to Macau.  We thought we’d shave some time off the commute because I’d figured out the Tangjia train station near UIC.  It’s true: the train only takes 20 minutes to get from Tangjia to the Gongbei border crossing.  Unfortunately, once we arrived at the border crossing, we found this:

Macau Border Crossing.
Macau Border Crossing.

Just another day at the Gongbei Crossing.  Believe it or not, they’re actually in lines snaking towards the immigration building.  And equally remarkable, it only took us about 45 minutes to get through the line.

Once through, we lost a little more time because I suggested we hop on a bus without looking closely at where it would take us.  We did, eventually, get to the tourist district that was our destination but it took a looooooonnng time.  Oops.  Lesson learned.  (Or so I thought.)  (<—- That’s called foreshadowing!)

The facade of St. Paul's Cathedral.
The facade of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Note the ever-present crowds.

Our first stop of the day was at the Ruins of St. Paul’s, THE major tourist site in Macau.  The long and short of it: Jesuits built the cathedral in the late 1500s, establishing one of the most prominent Catholic churches and seminaries in Asia.  As power shifted in the region, the Jesuits lost their influence and the cathedral fell into relative obscurity.  A typhoon and fire ultimately toppled the structure in 1835.  All that was left standing was the front façade.  Now, it stands as a strange piece of architecture; at once a noble altar to Macau while also appearing as if an absurdist soundstage.  Here’s this magnificent cathedral entrance and behind it is—Nothing.

Ships and dragons.

Ships and dragons.
Mary stomping the hydra.
Mary stomping the hydra.

A close look at the façade shows some interesting iconographic fusion, with Chinese lions, Japanese chrysanthemums, and a Portuguese ship sharing the space.  Not to mention the Virgin Mary trampling a 7-headed hydra.  I must have skimmed over that chapter of the New Testament.

From the ruins, I picked up an events brochure and discovered that we happened to be in Macau on the day of the Feast of Bao Gong.  Not much detail was provided, other than this being a special feast for a rarely-celebrated temple festival.  Cool.  We consulted our maps and sought out the Bao Gong Temple.  We found it,  but there was nothing going on, as far as we could tell.  No streamers or lanterns or feasting, as the brochure promised.  Ah well.  Such is tourist life in China.

Door handle, Bao Gong Temple.
Door handle, Bao Gong Temple.
I wish I knew who the deities were in these temples.
I wish I knew who the deities were in these temples. This might be Bao Gong, “an immortal symbol of justice in ancient China.”
Deities in the wings, awaiting their day in the altar.
Deities in the wings, awaiting their day in the altar.

From the temples, we wandered to Luis Camoes Garden, named for the most beloved poet of Portugal.  He wrote his most famous work here in Macau.  (While exiled from Portugal and forced into the army to pay off his debts in lieu of a prison sentence. You gotta pay the dues until you become the most beloved poet, I guess.)  The park is quite large and features areas with sidewalk vendors, tables full of old men playing games, and a lovely playground with swings.  Swings are rare in mainland Chinese playgrounds, for some reason.

Still likes to hold Daddy's hand on the stairs.  At Camões Garden.
Still likes to hold Daddy’s hand on the stairs. At Camões Garden.
Slow day for the fortune teller.
Slow day for the fortune teller.
Simon's favorite ride at the playground.
Simon’s favorite ride at the playground.

Back at the Ruins of Saint Paul’s, there was a lion dance sponsored by the Macau Government Tourist Office.

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Fighting lions.
Fighting lions.
Note the ever-present crowds.
I think they’re actually just trying to see over the crowds.
Catching their breath after the performance.
Catching their breath after the performance.

The area around the ruins consists of narrow streets lined with little tourist shops.  There are a few competing chains that sell very popular peanut cookies and ginger candies.  Tourists carrying their little brown shopping bags are ubiquitous on the streets.  Fortunately, all the shops offer free samples!  I wandered through and had a taste of everything.  The classic peanut cookies are reminiscent of peanut brittle, the soft nut cookies reminded me of pecan logs, and the candies are potent little ginger chews.  All were good, but none good enough for the exorbitant prices charged at these shops!  In the end, I settled for an egg tart, which is apparently another classic treat here.  It’s a tiny pie crust of phyllo dough (or something similar) with an egg custard inside, served piping hot and the top carmelized like an creme brulee.  It’s tough to find creamy desserts in mainland China, so it was quite a treat.

Egg tarts.
Egg tarts.
Yes! It's so convenient when you can pick up your fresh cuttlefish balls and lobster pills at the same counter!
Yes! It’s so convenient when you can pick up your fresh cuttlefish balls and lobster pills at the same counter!

In addition to street food, many shops sold regular grocery supplies.  There were many shops full of dried goods.  Mushrooms.  Fish.  Berries.  Sea cucumbers.  And many things that were unidentifiable to my eye.  One of Joel’s vivid memories from his trip to Hong Kong/Macau in 1998 was the dried shark fins.  Sadly, this hasn’t changed and we saw many display cases full of fins.

Will happily accept Mastercard for all your endangered species purchasing convenience.
Will happily accept Mastercard for your endangered species purchasing convenience.
I think Joel has a picture of himself in about the same pose from 1998. Note that the shark fin is taller than Simon.
I think Joel has a picture of himself in about the same pose from 1998. Note that the shark fin is taller than Simon.

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We grabbed dinner at a little Portuguese place where Simon was entertained by the waitresses and vice versa.  By then, it was time to head home.  We hopped on a bus destined for the Gongbei Border Crossing and guess what?  I had us get on the wrong direction.  Again.  So a bus ride to go about two miles ended up taking us 50 minutes.  Lesson really learned this time. (I think.)  We finally made it home around 9:30, tucked a sleepy boy into his Peapod and crashed.  I wish I had a pedometer to log how much walking we do on these sightseeing days, but I can assure you that it’s a lot!

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