The first thing residents tell you about Macao is that it is not
a colony. Since 1974, it has been described officially as Chinese
territory under Portuguese administration.
On Dec. 20, 1999, administration by the Portuguese ends, 442
years after they first set foot on China's coast. Portugal would
have preferred to transfer sovereignty in 2007, rounding off 450
years of rule, but China insisted it had to be accomplished before
the end of the century.
The origins of the enclave are obscure. No treaty gave Macao to
Portugal. One historian claims that it was granted to Portugal by
China for the help Portugal supposedly rendered in fighting
pirates. But it is generally accepted that Portuguese traders began
to settle here around 1557.
At that time, only three tiny Chinese fishing villages dotted
the small peninsula, along with several Taoist temples, including
the A Ma Temple, which gives Macao its name (from A Ma Gao, or the
Bay of A Ma.)
The enclave grew quickly as a trading center connecting China,
Japan, and India. Canton (now Guangzhou, China) was closed to
foreign trading in 1522, so illegal imports moved through Macao.
Then the Dutch captured Malacca (modern-day Malaysia), Japan
closed its ports to the outside world, and the Portuguese and
Spanish monarchies broke their union, ending the colony's trade
with Manila. Macao went slowly but graciously to seed.
Yet it has endured, its very seediness - expressed in the
crumbling old buildings or in the modern gaudiness of its gambling
emporiums - creating an ambiance that sets it apart from almost any
other city on Asia's coast.
These days, Macao has put on a bright new look. Since 1992, the
government has been working to restore older buildings, including
churches and temples, to their former brilliance. The evidence is
everywhere in explosions of bright pinks, yellows, oranges, and
A few years ago, the heart of old Macao, the Plaza of the Leal
Senado (loyal Senate), looked rundown. No longer. Portuguese
craftsmen were brought in to lay the wavy blue-and-white
limestone-and-basalt pavement that gives the square a distinctly
Mediterranean look. The buildings have been freshly painted, too.
Macao is famous for its churches and its churchmen. Italian
Jesuit scholar Matteo Ricci studied Chinese here before serving in
the late Ming dynasty court of the Chinese emperor. Much care has
been taken to refurbish the many churches, cathedrals, and
seminaries that dot the city.
The most famous religious site in Macao is a ruin. …