Understanding 500 years of Italian culture in Macau

The majestic ruins of the Italian-inspired St. Paul’s Cathedral

Those who know their geography will be aware that Macau has a long and proud Portuguese heritage. This peninsula to the south of mainland China saw Portuguese sea merchants settle here in the 16th century, who recognised the area as being a strong logistical base for Portugal to improve its trading links with China, Japan and India. Whilst Macau did become genuinely acknowledged as a Portuguese colony, it was eventually returned to the control of the Chinese state in 1999.

Nevertheless, Macau has seen a string of other western nations leave their mark on the city who have contributed to its multicultural way of life. In fact, Italians have lived in Macau and nearby Hong Kong for more than five centuries, as authors Gianni Criveller and Angelo Paratico testify in their 2013 book500 Years of Italians in Hong Kong & Macau. Both Criveller and Paratico use the book to outline that Italians have been actively involved in the European presence in Macau since the 16th century, making significant contributions to both Macau and Hong Kong alike.

There is a very distinct Italian legacy in the heart of Macau, with the powerful UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Ruins of Saint Paul’s Cathedral standing proud as one of the city’s primary landmarks. It took 38 years to build in the early 17th century, becoming one of Asia’s largest Catholic churches at the time. The now infamous stone façade of today’s ruins of St. Paul’s was overseen by Italian Jesuit, Carlo Spinola.

St. Paul’s was at risk of being demolished in the late 1990s, but the ruins were eventually preserved and used as a basis for excavation to understand the building’s foundations and the initial architectural plans for the Cathedral.

The Macanese government has since transformed this Italian-inspired masterpiece into a museum, with tourists allowed to climb to the top of the façade using a steel staircase. According to the Macau Daily Times, the city’s Italian population has grown by 55% since 2010, with increasing numbers of Italians feeling comfortable in a place where east truly meets west. Walk the streets of Macau and you’ll find lots of cosmopolitan Italian cuisine as well as local Asian and Portuguese-influenced delights.

The Venetian Macao – One of the most popular casino resorts in the city Photo by Henry_Wang, Public Domain

In more recent times, Macau has become an undisputed gaming Mecca given its status as one of only two Chinese regions to legalize casinos – as well as Hong Kong. Although it is only inhabited by 600,000 people, it welcomed over 30 million visitors in 2016, generating $28 billion in casino revenues in the process. This comfortably surpassed Las Vegas revenues by four-to-one, making Macau the new gaming capital of the world.

There are now 40 bricks-and-mortar casinos in Macau; many of which line the Cotai Strip, which is the number-one rival to the Las Vegas Boulevard Strip. The city’s pre-Millennium casino scene had a seedy underbelly, overrun by gangs and mobsters. Thanks to the Chinese state, who introduced tighter regulatory control on the city’s casino games, it has flourished as a genuine entertainment industry.

Although Macau’s gaming industry is state-of-the-art, the city’s future is focused on reconnecting with its past. Portuguese is very much back in vogue in the city. Meanwhile the Chinese government is working hard to rebuild trade links with other lusophone countries such as Angola, Mozambique and Brazil.