Sixty kilometres west across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong lies the former Portuguese enclave of MACAU (澳门, aòmén). Occupying a peninsula and a couple of islands of just thirty square kilometres in extent, Macau’s atmosphere has been unmistakably shaped by a colonial past – predating Hong Kong’s by nearly three hundred years – which has left old fortresses, Baroque churches, faded mansions, cobbled public squares, unusual food and Portuguese place names in its wake. But what draws in millions of big-spending tourists from Hong Kong, the mainland and neighbouring countries are Macau’s casinos, the only place in China where they have been legalized. Their combined income – reportedly over five billion US dollars annually – now exceeds that of Las Vegas, and has funded a construction boom for themed resorts, roads and large-scale land reclamation.

Macau comprises several distinct parts. The largest and most densely settled area is the peninsula, bordering the Chinese mainland to the north, where the original city was located and where most of the historic sights and facilities remain. Off to the southeast and linked to the peninsula by bridges are Taipa and Coloane, once separate islands but now joined by a low-lying area of reclaimed land known as Cotai, which is being developed as a new entertainment strip. It’s all very compact, and it’s possible to get around much of Macau on foot, with public transport available for longer stretches. A day-trip from Hong Kong is possible (tens of thousands do it every weekend), though you really need a couple of nights to do the place justice.

Brief history

For more than a thousand years, all trade between China and the West was indirectly carried out overland along the Silk Road through Central Asia. But from the fifteenth century onwards, seafaring European nations started making exploratory voyages around the globe, establishing garrisoned ports along the way and so creating new maritime trade routes over which they had direct control. In 1557 – having already gained toeholds in India (Goa) and the Malay Peninsula (Malacca) – the Portuguese persuaded Chinese officials to rent them a strategically well-placed peninsula at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, known as Macao. With their trade links with Japan, India and Malaya, the Portuguese found themselves in the profitable position of being sole agents for merchants across a whole swath of East Asia. Given that the Chinese were forbidden from going abroad to trade themselves, and that other foreigners were not permitted to enter Chinese ports, their trade blossomed and Macau grew immensely wealthy. With the traders came Christianity, and among the luxurious homes and churches built during Macau’s brief half-century of prosperity was the basilica of São Paulo, the facade of which can still be seen today.


By the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, Macau’s fortunes were waning alongside Portugal’s decline as a maritime power, and following the British seizure of Hong Kong in 1841, Macau’s status as a backwater was sealed. Despite the introduction of licensed gambling in 1847, as a means of securing some kind of income, virtually all trade was lost to Hong Kong.

As in Hong Kong, the twentieth century saw wave after wave of immigrants pouring into Macau to escape strife on the mainland – the territory’s population today stands at 540,000 – but, unlike in Hong Kong, this growth was not accompanied by spectacular economic development. Indeed, when the Portuguese attempted to hand Macau back to China during the 1960s and 1970s, they were rebuffed: the gambling, prostitution and organized crime that was Macau’s lifeblood would only be an embarrassment to the Communist government if they had left it alone, yet cleaning it up would have proved too big a financial drain.

Return to China and recovery

By the time China finally accepted the return of the colony in 1999 – as the Macau Special Administrative Region (MSAR) – the mainland had become both richer and more ideologically flexible. A pre-handover spree of violence by Triad gangs was dealt with, then the monopoly on casino licences – previously held by local billionaire Dr Stanley Ho – was ended in 2002, opening up this lucrative market to international competition. Response has been swift, and there are currently 34 casinos in the territory; tourism has boomed alongside and the once-torpid economy is boiling – though an unforeseen embarrassment is that mainland officials have been accused of gambling away billions of yuan of public funds during holidays in the SAR.

Meanwhile, Macau’s government operates along the “One Country, Two Systems” principle, with very little dissent. The reality is that, even more than Hong Kong, Macau desperately needs the mainland for its continuing existence, as it has no resources of its own. To this end, some giant infrastructure projects – including a bridge to Hong Kong – are in the pipeline, as the SAR seeks to tie its economy closer to that of the booming Pearl River Delta area.

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