Friday, January 26, 2007

San Malo - Macau

Macau is overflowing with glamorous hotels, top notch night clubs, and exclusive restaurants. If you wanted to spend the afternoon sitting at a sidewalk café sipping wine and feasting on Lisboan specialties you could easily head to Fisherman’s Wharf. In fact the Macau tourism board wants you to go there so badly that they have dedicated cars painted black with gold calligraphy penned on their doors reading ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’ that will drive you there for free! Visitors go there to get the feel of Portuguese Macau and enjoy the local culinary specialties’ but contrary to what I was lead to believe, this is not the old Macau. Having read about the old Macau in various books I was more eager to see where the ethnic fusion really takes place. I wanted to find an area where Chinese culture has collided with the traditions of the Portuguese giving birth to the Macanese. Heeding the advice of some locals I addressed on the streets, I headed for San Malo.

San Malo is what I perceived as a commercial district heading inland from the crowded coastline of Macau. It is not separated from the main city but rather seemed like it supported the people who keep the city working and functioning. There were numerous narrow streets with shops on the ground floors and apartments on the higher floors. The buildings were old, built in colonial times and they still adorned their classic features. The shops sold everything from electronics to jewelry to clothing. None of the shops were fancy or decorated in a modern fashion. In fact the clothes I saw were straight out of the 70’s. There were some classic polyester t-shirts that I would have bought. But the most lucrative vendors in the area appeared to be the bakeries.

Step off the main road into any one of the numerous alleyways and the smell of warm pastry fills the air. It is awesome. People are bustling around buying, making, and selling traditional Macanese pastries. They smell like cake but are filled with sweet pork meat. That may sound strange to some but if you like meat like me, it is off the hook!!! There were also other fruity and creamy varieties for the traditionalists.

Walking through the area you can see a proper fusion of eastern and western baking techniques and I am sure the cross culture also effected the flavor of the pastries. I could have spent hours there trying all the different stuff but everything was for sale in dozens and I could not eat that much of one thing, plus I did not want to carry anything around. One of the downsides of traveling alone is not being able to sample all the food you would like to. Even when settling into a restaurant you can hit up maximum 2 dishes so you have to be careful to order only what you will like for sure, where as in a large group you can go for broke and take all the risks you want because there is a safety net sitting right next to you.

The narrow alleyways lead to larger courtyards and playgrounds. What I particularly liked was the signage on the buildings. They were painted on ceramic tiles with bright blue trimming. This really gave me the sentiment of the history of Macau. And the signs read in Chinese and well as Portuguese. There is clearly a Latin American or western influence on the architecture as well which should really come as no shock.

But a stroll around San Malo does pack its fair share of surprises. Hidden away between the clumps of short colonial buildings I came across this dilapidated Chinese temple. It always amuses me to see such ancient structures tucked away in the corners of modern booming cities. The inside of the temple had some beautiful gold Buddha statues and there were some priests milling around. The atmosphere was dark and serene, so I did not think it was appropriate to bust out my camera and start flashing all over the place.

I was about 3pm by this time and I had not eaten a morsel of food all day. I was hoping to find a nice café where I would plant myself and indulge in some local delicacies but all the places I passed were closed. I think the Macanese might follow the Spanish ‘siesta’ system where they close shop in the afternoon for a peaceful nap. The only places that were open were very small snack shops with food a little too local for my tastes. I finally found a tea house locally known as a ‘casa de cha’.

When I walked in the joint every head in the place turned to look at me. And it was not a tiny place so there must have been at least 40 people in there. The average age of the patrons there seemed to be around 50 years old and not only was I the youngest person there but also the only non-Chinese. As I tried to make sense of the all Chinese written menu with no luck I did feel some hostility towards me so I randomly pointed at the one picture on the wall that looked like something I could digest and quietly took my seat. I also ordered a variety of dim sum, which was combination of the pastries I saw on the street.

The atmosphere in the tea house was vibrant. The patrons of the establishment all seemed to be well acquainted with one another as they shouted comments across the room. A couple of old men had situated themselves in the corner of the room near a stage with a full range of instruments. One guy was playing the Chinese harp, the other had a full range of percussion instruments, and the rest had string instruments, flutes, and trumpets. On the stage there were one young girl and an old man performing Chinese opera. It was surreal. The singing sounded very squeaky at first but once it settles in the melody can be quite soothing. The crowd was really getting into the whole affair and the old men took turns singing with the young girl. The lyrics might have been funny or raunchy because the elderly crowd was getting quite jovial, and there was not a single table in the joint with a bottle of beer or a lit cigarette on it.

It took almost half an hour for my food to come in which time I had consumed quite a bit of tea. As none of the other people were drinking beer or smoking I thought it more respectful to follow suit. But I had a clear view to the cooler at the front of the restaurant and a cold one was just calling out to me. I stood my ground though and was quite proud of myself for it. It seems I had ordered a large basket of prawns cooked in tea leaves for lunch. As they brought the large dish to my obscure table many heads turned and followed it. Once they placed it in front of me I received several smiles and nods of approval. The dish was quite large and I invited some of the mature men sitting around me to join in the feast but they cordially declined. Initially I tried using the chopsticks to eat my prawns not knowing the proper etiquette but I soon gave up and started peeling them away with my fingers. This made some of the young ladies there giggle and point at me. Throughout my meal people kept smiling at me and some of the guys even ordered more tea for me. By the time I finished my meal and got up to leave I even got a few handshakes. Like I said, it was a pretty surreal experience.

I would have liked to visit some old churches and explored more of Macau during my last trip there but this was all the time I had. San Malo was as far off the beaten track that I could go but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. At some points I wondered if I would have been better off getting tipsy at a café on the Fisherman’s Wharf while putting down oysters and prosciutto, but I figure I can do that in so many other places. I have been in China almost one year and this was the first time I actually got to listen to locals perform an opera and actually spend the afternoon in a real tea house. Spending time amongst seasoned human beings also seemed to make me feel more calm and collected. The energy in that room put me in a very new train of thought. Walking around this old area of Macau should probably not be the number 1 thing to do on your list when visiting the city, but given the time and interest, it is well worth the effort.

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