Off the beaten track in Macao

While Portuguese tarts, glittering casinos and the ruins of St Paul's cathedral are must-see and must-taste icons of Macao, I often look for another side of the destination that reflects the true character of the place and its people. 

The iconic ruins of St Paul's cathedral in Macao
To explore Macao, a tiny peninsular of mainland China linked by bridges to the islands of Taipa, Coloane and Cotai, we travel by coach to popular sites in the tour itinerary.  But a walking tour is still the best way to see a bit more than what the brochures say.  Even as the guide leads our group on the walk, I will listen to his commentary and linger a little longer, or if time permits, venture further for a glimpse of life in that locality.

Touring is tiring but while others may doze off for forty winks in the coach or car, I stay awake – armed with my camera – to capture any interesting sights that we pass.  Very often I discover fascinating insights into the local lifestyle that are keeping the destination attractive to tourists.  Here are some fascinating scenes of Macao that should interest you to go off the beaten track, every once in a while.

1]       Responsible pet owners

A pet owner who came prepared with old newspapers
to pick up her pet's poop in a public place
At the Dom Pedro V Theatre and the adjacent St Augustine church in the historic centre of Macao, our group decides to see the theatre first because the congregation was still in the church.  The crowd had already left when I head over to the church but what makes me pause is the sight of a young lady cleaning up responsibly after her dog had defecated.  

I’m impressed that she came prepared with sheets of old newspaper to clean up and I only wish more pet owners practice such good habits when they bring their pets to public places here.

2]        Spotted on a balcony: drying fish next to undergarments!

I spotted fish drying next to clothes on this balcony!
In our tour of Macao, the route by coach takes us through various districts to reach the sites and attractions.  While the guide gives a running commentary and point to landmark buildings in the passing neighbourhoods, I learn more about the areas’ heritage.  Looking around, I suddenly spot a balcony where sheets of cardboard are hung up to shield from the blazing sun while clothes are drying next to rows of fish!

3]     Even in the morning market, locals gather to indulge in games

It appears that gaming is a way of life among the locals in Macao
While browsing around the morning market, I stumble upon a group who seems like regulars who meet here to play some games.  One group was watching a pair playing Chinese chess while another group was gathered around what appears to be card game.  As I pause to take in the scene, I’m amused that Macao’s gaming culture even permeates a quiet corner in a busy morning market!

4]                Tea sampling

Check out what the sign says on the facade of this tea shop in Macao
In some communities, tea drinking is an art and connoisseurs of good tea go to great lengths to find tea that suits their taste.  We walk pass many tea shops that display cute teapots with matching tea cups and a range of tea leaves but the sign above the entrance of this shop caught my eyes.  It must be a literal translation to English but the message is clear.  They welcome tea lovers to sample their tea and use the opportunity to promote their quality teas.

5]         Eye-catching range of fresh vegetables in a wet market stall

Look at the size of that winter melon!
I always like to a peek at what the locals eat and where they buy their food so I nip into the Taipa Municipal Market, better known as the Red Market, for a quick walkabout.  My eyes are riveted to the stalls stacked with a range of colourful range of fresh vegetables – leafy stalks, gourds and cucumbers – but the gigantic size of the winter melon made me stop for a closer look.  Our melons are just half this size but this ginormous species seem to be typical of melons in Macao because I spotted similar large melons at other stalls.
6]        Clean city side lane cafes

A clean city side lane that welcomes patrons in
Our guide takes us on a number of shortcuts in the walking tour to show us interesting sites and mercifully, avoid steeper slopes.  In one such detour, we pass a side lane that attracted my attention because it was so bright and clean.  

Unlike most small lanes which are often cluttered and filthy, this little lane was dotted with cute figurines that beckoned patrons in.  If only we can adopt this idea to clean up our back lanes and turn them into safe and clean walking routes too.

7]         Fa├žade of a traditional Chinese medicine shop

A traditional Chinese medicine shop in Macao with its name Portuguese name posted above its entrance
At a glance this traditional Chinese medicine shop, typically designed with rows of wooden drawers to store a range of medicinal herbs, may look like any Chinese medicine shop in Asia.  But as I look at its wooden signboard, I’m reminded that we are in Macao, a trading post with a Portuguese heritage when I read its name in red capital letters, “Farmasia Chinesa Hang Vo Tong.”  The business remains relevant even to this generation as the old floors are paved to an increased height while the wooden counter is carefully preserved!
8]           Bamboo-pressed noodles sprinkled with dried shrimp roe

A serving of bamboo-pressed noodles with shrimp roe
Who would have thought that bamboo-pressed noodles sprinkled with dried shrimp roe is among the Cantonese specialties listed in the 2015 Hong Kong Macao Michelin Guide?  

With more than 30 years’ experience in making these noodles using the traditional bamboo-pressing method, Wong Kung Sio Kung owner, Cheng, is modest about being listed in the food guide.  A taste of these skillfully made noodles and their classic crab congee is reminiscent of comfort food from my grandma’s kitchen!

9]        A traditional cloth strainer to make local Macanese brewed coffee

Can you see that dark stained cloth strainer?
In a traditional coffee-shop in Taipa, customers are enjoying the local brew while I watch the kitchen staff brewing the hot beverage step-by-step, one cup at a time.  

No, she’s not a barista but a coffee-brewer who brews humble cups local coffee using a ceramic pot traditionally used for brewing medicinal herbs.  The dark stained cloth strainer she lifted up caught my eye because it’s reminiscent of the ones used by traditional kopitiams here!

10]            Leisurely yum cha tradition in tea houses

A section of diners at Long Wa Tea House, an old-school dim sum place in Macao
Yum cha, which literally means “drink tea” is a tradition the Cantonese take very seriously.  It’s a morning ritual every generation enjoys together over cups of tea and dim sum, small portions of delicacies that are usually steamed.  At Long Wa Tea House, an old-school dim sum place, there’s natural ventilation through open windows and ceiling fans to keep the air circulating.  To maximize space, wooden furniture are designed in booths that line the walls and diners enjoy their meals at leisure, just as they did here since the 1960s!

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 5 May 2016 

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