Macau was a place I had wanted to see for a long while. I was fuelled by my interest in the Lusophone world. And to me, Macau stood as a beacon of hope and a strange sort of recognition of the Portuguese language’s legitimacy as a global language along with its impeccable one-of-a-kind culture and history.
To me, Portuguese as a language is one of history and colonial legacy. The fate and construction of the Portuguese Empire very much defined the history of the country and Macau was at the edge of that empire. Macau, the last European colony in Asia, finally reclaimed by China in 1999.
Upon arriving at the airport was when my vision of how my trip to Macau would go soon came into fruition. There was very little Portuguese signage. Even the bus that took us from the plane to security had no Portuguese; only English and Cantonese. The security building was the first place I saw Portuguese, with the bilingual glass doors to it saying ‘entrada’. I said a solemn Bom Dia to the security officer as she examined my passport and passed me along. Getting my baggage proved to be very quick so I left fairly rapidly.
Before I left the airport for good, I decided to see if the tourism staff would be able to speak Portuguese (as they ought to since aside from casinos, Macau is known for its Portuguese influence). I entered the tourism office which was very nice looking. It had comfortable seating areas and even had Portuguese pavement on the floor, similar to that of virtually every pavement of the downtown areas of Portuguese cities and even some of the bigger Brazilian cities like Rio, São Paulo, Recife, and Curitiba. This made it quickly obvious that right after the casinos, Macau’s Portuguese heritage was what brought tourists. Here is where I tried to use Portuguese for the first time, supposing that the receptionist would respond accordingly. Instead, she shook her head when I asked ‘Se fala português?’
This situation happened multiple times while in Macau, even in the authentic-looking Portuguese restaurants where one might expect to find Portuguese speakers. Instead, people seem to speak English for the most part when it comes to non-Asian foreigners.
Officially, Macau is bilingual and all of its civil servants should be able to speak it, but this usually isn’t the case. The police certainly don’t and neither do those in the airport. Only about 0.6% of Macau’s population speak Portuguese on a native level with total numbers varying (I once read 6% in total).
My cab driver drove from the airport, across the bridge that connected Taipa and the island of Macau, by the port, through the city, passing Largo Do Senado, and finally to a small but wide pedestrian street that housed many Chinese restaurants and a couple of Portuguese ones. The closer you go into the centre of Macau, the more Portuguese influence and signage you would see. Already in my area, the entire sidewalk was made up of Portuguese pavement and indeed so was the entirety of downtown and old Macau which happened to be surprisingly extensive.
As soon as I got settled in my hotel, I went outside to check out the Largo Do Senado where the main Portuguese architecture was located. It is probably Macau’s most famous tourist attraction with hundreds of mainland Chinese tourists strolling along. It was certainly the centre of Macau’s heritage and without a doubt the most noticeable one.
Architecturally, it would be accurate to say that Macau is primarily a mix between Portuguese baroque architecture and Hong Kong’s big concrete buildings. The Portuguese pavement is nearly everywhere on the main island, no matter the buildings that are next to it. Most buildings are typical in the tall big-Chinese-city style made of concrete and not taken care of. Other buildings are very obviously Portuguese. All buildings have the name written in both Cantonese and Portuguese.
Largo Do Senado and the area surrounding it has most of the pretty Portuguese buildings including a path which leads you to Macau’s trademark Ruin’s St. Paul and Macau’s fort, Monte do Forte just up the hill (it’s a bit of a climb but worth seeing). Within the fort is a museum about Macau’s history. St. Paul also has a museum under it but it’s more of a small exhibit.
Unfortunately, this interesting fusion of cultures is not reflective of the general population. As you may already know, the vast majority of Macau does not speak a word of Portuguese or Patuá (Macau’s Portuguese creole language).
Macau’s Portuguese community is an interesting one. They are numbered very, very few. You won’t get many chances to talk to them. And unless they overhear you speaking Portuguese with someone else, they will assume you’re a foreigner and automatically speak to you in English. They’re incredibly educated and are always trilingual in Portuguese, Cantonese, and English. If you want an opportunity to speak Portuguese with them, I recommend you go to a mass service conducted in Portuguese or one of the local Portuguese restaurants or cafes that are operated by Portuguese themselves. One restaurant that you might want to try out is Caravela Pastelaria. I didn’t go there myself but I hear it’s frequented very often by the Portuguese Community.
The way I was able to interact with them was by attending the Portuguese mass on Sunday at around 11am at Sé Catedral de Macau, which is a quick walk from Largo do Senado. Most churches in Macau conduct their masses in Cantonese, Portuguese, and English. I highly recommend taking up this opportunity if you’re in Macau even if you aren’t religious or a Catholic. They don’t let tourists in so dress appropriately to blend in as if you were attending mass at any other church (but not too formal). The interesting thing is that not only do you see Portuguese people, but also Africans, (assumably) Brazilians, some Southeast Asians, interracial Portuguese-Chinese couples, and mixed-race Macanese. It’s the one place in Macau where diversity is present so strongly that everyone can look like they fit in.
On the right, is Sé Catedral de Macau
When it comes to food, Macau has plenty of it. I would say, at least 1 in every 20 restaurants is a Portuguese restaurant. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you go walking, you’ll run into plenty of them. Not all of them are authentic or run by Portuguese or Macanese speakers, but the recipes do stay true to Portuguese cuisine with many dishes being mixed with a few Chinese influences. Pastéis de Nata are very popular in Macau with long lines to enter one specific restaurant that sells them.
Another location I recommend going to is Livraria Portuguesa, which is a Portuguese-language bookstore also near Largo do Senado. The cashiers all seemed to be from North America judging by their accents and loud chatting which can be irritating when you’re trying to read in the language of Camões.
Some great buildings I would recommend going to would include the Dom Pedro V Theatre in St. Lourenço Parish and the Edmund Ho Library which is nearby. Largo do Lilau is also a good place for a quick rest and will have you wondering whether you’re really in China or in a small square at the centre of a village in Portugal. Farol da Guia is a lighthouse in São Lázaro Parish that looks like it belongs somewhere in Alfama.
If you want to know more about the culture and society of Macau’s lusophone residents, I highly recommend you watch this video of Fernando de Senna Fernandes, a pillar of Macau’s lusophone community talking about the unique culture of Macau.
Here is also an interesting thing that I am sure you (Yes, you. The reader) have never thought about. Portuguese classes in Macau. For those of us living on the west coast of North America, Asia, Australia/Oceana, or New Zealand who are interested in Portuguese culture or are interesting in learning European Portuguese but blown away by the absurd flight prices to Portugal, learning Portuguese in Macau could be a serious option. Here are a couple of opportunities to learn Portuguese in Macau:
University of Saint Joseph Portuguese courses – This one is run by a university so it is probably more intensive and organised than a normal language school but also more expensive.
Jingdou Language Centre – This one is a bit odd, its website isn’t that complex and hasn’t had any announcements since 2017. They teach Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. Probably the cheapest option.
Instituto Português do Oriente – This was founded by Instituto Camões as its Asian wing. This is definitely my top pick as its very professional but also has a less formal approach compared to the University of Saint Joseph course. If you aren’t familiar with Instituto Camões, it’s basically Portugal’s premier organisation for promoting the Portuguese language around the world, much like Spain’s Instituto Cervantes or France’s Alliance Française. So you know they’re reliable. Only thing is, much of the details about the classes in the link are bilingual in only Portuguese and Cantonese.
Thanks for reading and I hope you got some useful info!