Ilona Kauremszky scours the ruins, temples, antique shops and alleyways of Macau in search of Lady Luck.
The colour of good luck
I have never taken the notion of good luck too seriously. Back in university, my Asian roommate used to sweep the floors and corners spotlessly before New Year’s Eve because she swore it improved the feng shui. She also had me change my black turtleneck to a red one because red was the colour of good luck.
Unlike in Asian cultures where superstitions are often strongly held, I subscribe to the belief that ‘whatever happens, happens.’ But I did take my former roommate’s pearls of wisdom with me on a trip to Hong Kong making a side trip to Macau.
After several days experiencing Hong Kong’s frenetic pace, friends coaxed me to shift gears and visit nearby Macau to see the bougainvillea in full bloom.
“Besides, you’ll really get a taste of this former Portuguese colony that is being transformed before our eyes,” Winnie professed as she accompanied me to the jetfoil ferry, which would bullet me over to Macau in less than an hour.
I figured if I really wanted to see Old Macau, I’d better do it now. My earliest impressions of this place came during high school and, in later years, on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I came across the self-portrait of George Chinnery, whose bespectacled profile had a sombre look.
The British painter’s landscapes of Macau, completed during the mid-1800s, are now eulogised as part of the old city that is fast disappearing in the 21st century.
Crossing the murky brown South China Sea, I recalled Chinnery’s face and made a mental note to visit his final resting place, here in Macau at the Old Protestant Cemetery.
At the Macau pier I left the madding crowds of Hong Kong arrivals, who were undoubtedly headed for the ubiquitous casinos to try their luck.
Instead, I darted to Avenida da Amizade to flag down a trishaw driver. After some negotiations using sign language and a little bit of broken English, the driver assured me that he would take me to “where Macau really started.”
Incense and lions
At A-Ma Temple, Mr. Ho, my gracious driver, drops me off and declares: “This is where Macau began.” According to legend, a poor girl named A-Ma was seeking passage to Canton.
A fisherman gave her refuge and then a storm hit, destroying everything but his boat. When land appeared, she vanished into the hills and reappeared to seafarers as a goddess.
At the site of the near-tragic incident, a temple was erected. Walking in between a pair of ornate stone lions, I head to the Chinese-styled Prayer Hall.
Smoke wafts from the smouldering honeycomb incense burners to the rafters above. An Australian woman whispers that I should seek a fortune teller.
“There are plenty at Kun Iam Temple performing all kinds of ancient rituals,” she suggests, then with great ceremony drops her wooden sticks on the stone floor.
Ancient Chinese belief
I wandered over to Largo do Senado, where a lively scene unfolded as musicians plied their craft. This famous square, surrounded by colonial buildings, is located near the Ruins of St. Paul’s and teems with markets and Chinese medicine shops.
Among the ruins a series of vignettes form impressions of another era: tinsmiths ping bowls, locksmiths prepare intricate padlocks and, tucked further down the alley, tailors measure their customers for suits and brocade dresses.
Along the way, a mélange of canvas sacks brimming with dried chanterelles and tables of dried fish are the prizes for the passersby who are welcomed by friendly vendors waiting for a sale.
Along Rua da São Paulo antique shops are crammed between ateliers, calligraphers and woodworkers carving fine wooden furniture. A lacquered wooden chest revealing a scene of cranes on a desert isle catches my eye.
Somewhere I had heard an ancient Chinese belief that the crane represents longevity, but it’s the simple design rather than the folklore that sold me.
Clutching my new purchase, I head over to Camões Gardens, a quiet oasis that typifies the sweet lingering lifestyle the Macanese are renowned for.
Crimson bougainvillea cascades over a wall where a bird seller reading a newspaper sits next to his gilded cages, while a mother and her child play ball by the jacarandas.
“This is where I should find the Old Protestant Cemetery,” I think to myself when, suddenly, I see the entrance gate. It’s locked. I’m drawn to the choral sounds from the Morrison Chapel and wait for a pause when the choirmaster speaks. He obligingly opens the gate and directs me to George Chinnery’s gravesite. It occurred to me that perhaps some good luck from earlier in the day had brushed off on me after all.
“Whatever happens, happens,” I mused as I finally arrived at this restful place in Old Macau.