Spending two days exploring the unique historical center of Macau, just a 1-hour ferry ride from Shenzhen, was a fitting conclusion for an eventful and exciting year for me. It wasn’t the Christmas of my childhood, which smelled like ginger bread, mulled wine and fir needles – but I am not the same person I was back then either. It’s okay to miss something but at the same time not want it back. In the Chinese temples, Portuguese food and fusion of cultures unique to the Macanese experience I felt in my element, despite the obvious unfamiliarity and newness of it all. My incense scented Christmas in Macau fit my exploring soul and I felt a sense of gratitude, peace and wonder in my heart.
Macau is the perfect size to be explored on foot. In fact, exploring it any other way would be missing out on the narrow streets and architecture that completely took me back to Southern Europe, while at the same time keeping me firmly entrenched in China. We stayed at an airbnb on a quiet side street right by the iconic St. Paul’s Ruins in the heart of the historic center. On our first day, Christmas Day, we made our way via Rua Central, Rua de São Lourenço and Rua Padre António (all street signs are in both Portuguese and Chinese) to Mandarin’s House.
Dating back to mid-19th century, the house of Zheng Guangying’s family blends architectural elements from both Chinese and Western culture. Walking from room to room, I admired the simple yet sophisticated aesthetic created by the white walls, contrasting dark wood, red shutters and the Chinese decorative elements. Tasteful Christmas decorations used sparingly and a tranquil atmosphere with birds leisurely chirping outside contributed to a unique blend of exoticism, minimalism, familiarity and zen. This place is definitely a must-see in Macau and an ideal place to visit for those of us who crave an authentic cultural experience and not the glitz of the casinos.
Continuing down Calçada da Barra, we arrived at Largo do Pagode da Barra just as the sun started setting. One moment we were discussing how the narrow street and its buildings to us were reminiscent of New Orleans’ French Quarter, and the next, smelling the incense from the A-Ma Temple to our left, overlooking a large European-style plaza and the harbor behind it. With sun rays still peaking through the clouds before the inevitable falling dusk and the smell of incense in my nostrils, the moment was magical.
As the saying goes, pictures never replace having been there and this is especially true of the A-Ma Temple. The atmosphere was everything. I was torn between wanting to put my camera away to be fully present in the moment and wanting to capture it all in pictures and film. I attempted to do both, not fully succeeding in either. But I did get a sense of being in a sacred space that is both ancient, yet still relevant today.
What’s remarkable about this temple is that it actually has six parts, all from different time periods and reflecting different influences: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and various folk beliefs. First entering through the gate, you don’t even realize that the temple extends all the way up the hill and following the pathway all the way up is rewarded with a gorgeous view of the bay and harbor. It is of course no coincidence that the temple is dedicated to Mother A-Ma, or Māzŭ, a goddess of the sea, highly revered in the Southern Chinese and Southeast Asian seafaring coastal regions. She would need a place like this to have full view of the harbor she is protecting.
A Macanese Christmas
The spontaneity and sense of adventure that my husband and I share often lead to wonderful serendipitous discoveries. With no plan or schedule in mind, we arrived back at Saint Paul’s Ruins just in time for a light show that was part of the Macau Light Festival. The iconic ruins provided a distinct backdrop to a creative yet not too over-the-top show that was a delight to experience on Christmas Day.
Again, with no plan or reservations, guided only by intuition and chance, we found a lovely spot for our Christmas dinner: the Dragon Portuguese Cuisine. I wanted to take it slow and spend some quality time with my husband over a tasty meal – hopefully Portuguese and vegetarian – in a cozy Christmas-y atmosphere. I got everything I asked for! As it turns out, Dragon is one of the most historical and authentic Macanese restaurants, and they offer quite an extensive vegetarian menu as well, including vegan meats. In the intimate atmosphere I appreciated the nostalgic Christmas carols playing softly in the background, the candles, the unhurried service and the delectable white sangria.
Incense Scented Christmas
Incense is not something I grew up with, but it captured the essence of Christmas for me in Macau. My curiosity wasn’t peaked by the many Catholic churches so abundant in the city so long ruled by the Portuguese. I don’t gravitate towards the familiar. I crave the different, the mysterious, the unknown. The spiritual. My Christmas spirit came alive in the incense scented temples of A-Ma, Na Tcha and Sam Kai Vui Kun, where it welcomed me to pause, be present and be grateful. How far have I come to find myself here, I thought, “here” being not a place but a state of mind. In my soul, I was at home.
All images © Pauliina Parris. // All rights reserved.