There’s more to Cotai than casinos and croupiers. Carolynne Dear takes a walk on the cultural side of the peninsula.
Cobbled alleyways and pretty pastel-coloured terraces don’t exactly spring to mind when you contemplate booking a weekend in Macau.
But before the builders moved in after the Portuguese pulled out in 1998, the peninsula and surrounding islands was just that – an attractive, low-rise, quiet destination by the sea.
However, the early 2000s saw the transformation of Macau into a glitzy casino capital as much of the land between peninsula Macau and Taipa and Coloane islands was reclaimed. Taipa and Coloane eventually ended up connected via the flashy Cotai Strip. The casino era had arrived with a bang.
Today, having welcomed resort after resort, the Macau government is looking to its past and showing some love for the older parts of the peninsula, namely Taipa Village.
Taipa village was originally a fishing hamlet located in the south of Taipa Island which was home to local residents who made their living through fishing, firework production and handicrafts. Despite the recent years of dramatic urban change, it remains a living community that has retained its culture and heritage.
“Our goal is to promote Taipa Village as an exciting and culturally rich non-gaming destination,” says Pamela Chan, senior marketing manager for Taipa Village Destination (TVD). Billed as the “authentic Macao”, Chan explains that TVD is offering the area as an alternative to the city’s casino resorts.
Following a decade of regeneration in the area, Chan and her team are now hoping to attract locals and tourists back to the area, offering heritage attractions, dining, niche retail offerings and a diverse arts and entertainments scene.
On a blustery day, I catch up with Hilda Leong, from the TVD team, and after a delicious tapas-style lunch at Casa de Tapas, one of the many Mediterranean-style restaurants that line the laneways, we set out to explore the village.
We start at the Pak Tai temple, one of the biggest and most significant temples in Taipa. As the two main village industries used to centre around fishing and firework-making, it follows that the local community worshipped the god that was believed to protect against both floods and fire.
Next door to the temple is the locally renowned “Si Toi” bicycle hire shop. The flat, cobbled streets, many of which are too narrow for traffic, make for an ideal cycleway for families. The square outside the temple is covered with bikes for hire come weekends, says Leong.
We wander around the corner to the Museum of Taipa and Coloane History. The compact mint-green and white building used to house the Municipal Council of the Islands. It now promotes and preserves the history and culture of Taipa and Coloane with a small but interesting range of exhibits spread across its two floors.
Back on the cobbles outside, Leong leads me to the edge of Taipa Village where the elegant low-rise buildings rather dramatically collide with the golden monolith that is The Galaxy. The paved area marking the edge of Taipa was once a little beach overlooking the sea. While Leong reasonably points out that the gaming industry has brought both money and jobs to the peninsula, I can’t help thinking that the hotels loom like rather unfortunate frogs over what is a very attractive part of the peninsula. But I guess that’s progress.
We move on to the Taipa Houses-Museum, five pretty pastel houses that were once the residences of the Portuguese governor and other high-level civil servants and their families. They are situated on what was once the seafront, but is now a lily-festooned lake that is all that is left of the original waterscape. Leong explains that the lilies were introduced for their ability to change salt into freshwater, and when they bloom in the summer they make a dramatic backdrop for the little Museum houses on one side, and the shiny skyscraping hotels on the other (reclaimed) side.
The houses are currently shrouded as they are repainted and smartened up, but inside each one offers a different display focusing on Macanese and Portuguese culture and history. In 1992 they were acclaimed as one of the top destinations in Macau for outstanding beauty and important architectural value.
We walk back to the restaurant for a restorative coffee, passing by the old fireworks factory. It is immense, the old yellow boundary wall running the full length of one of the main thoroughfares. After a fire on the peninsula in 1925, the industry was moved lock, stock and barrel to one location in Taipa Village, employing thousands of locals during the 1950s and 60s. However, by the 1970s the industry started to dwindle in the face of mass production in mainland China.
The Village is bursting with art galleries, boutiques, enticing restaurants, museums and stunning colonial architecture. If you’re looking to escape the crowds and the bling of the Cotai Strip, Taipa Village is a real breathe of fresh air.
Take a boat from the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal, Shun Tak Centre, Sheung Wan to Macau. Crossings take approx. one hour, don’t forget your passport and HKID.
From Macau, take a taxi to Taipa Village (approx. fifteen minutes).
For more information about Taipa Village, see taipavillagemacau.com.
Taipa’s blast from the past
Although Taipa Village was originally a fishing settlement, it was also once an important hub for the firecracker industry.
Macau was not rich in natural resources, but it was able to offer cheap, skilled labour in the 1950s and 60s, which gave rise a large, productive fireworks manufacturing industry.
At one point, Macau was home to five fireworks factories, creating many job opportunities for local residents. By the 1980s, however, fireworks production began to slow in Macau as workers left in search of more lucrative jobs and safer working conditions.
The Iec Long Firecracker Factory in Taipa Village is the best preserved industrial heritage site in Macau and stands today as a reminder of the village’s manufacturing past.
Macau celebrates its explosive past every autumn when the world descends on the peninsula for an international firework contest. Best viewing points are on the waterfront or on top of Penha Hill on Macau peninsu
It’s free to watch, see fireworks.macaotourism.gov.mo.