Macau’s Portuguese Legacy

Custard tarts and patterned stone pavements. These are the attractions that stood out for me in Macau when I visited it with my husband before China reclaimed it. Both are Portugal’s legacy to China.

You may know that Hongkong once belonged to the British. But it’s neither the first nor the only Chinese region occupied by European settlers. Portuguese traders settled in Macau in the mid-1500s, three centuries before the British colonized Hongkong following the first opium war of 1839 to 1842. Though the Portuguese empire administered Macau through a lease agreement with China, it wasn’t until 1887 that Macau formally became a Portuguese colony.

With such a long history of occupying Macau, the Portuguese inevitably left its marks on the local culture. Of these, custard tarts—a mouth-watering legacy—have been the most ubiquitous, spreading not only to all of China but everywhere else the Chinese have immigrated. If you’ve been to a Chinese dimsum, you’re likely to have had custard tarts.

When faithful to the craftsmanship of the best Portuguese custard tarts (like Pasteis de Belem,in Lisbon) they are, to me, a work of art. But their appeal is more tactile (our taste buds) than visual. Visual is how most art like paintings and sculptures satisfy our sense of beauty.

I think both the visual and taste buds appeal of good custard tarts begin with the layers of delicately crunchy buttery shell made like puff pastry. Nestled in that shell is creamy custard, yellow from abundant egg yolks and flecked with brown from the baking. Beautiful and scrumptious. At Pasteis de Belem, these tarts are made daily from scratch using traditional methods and a secret recipe from the 500-year old Jeronimos monastery. When the process of crafting anything is done with such pride and care, is that not also art?

Jeronimos Monastery

More obvious as art form is the Portuguese legacy of the undulating pattern of alternating black and light gray stones adorning the pedestrian streets of places most tourists visit in Macau. In Lisbon, you see pavements crafted in stones like a mosaic of intriguing decorative forms or less frequently, of images.

Lisbon Pavements

Macau Pedestrian Streets

This type of uniquely Portuguese pavement is not Macau’s most famous attraction, however. That distinction belongs to the ruins of Saint Paul where a Jesuit church once stood. All you see now is its façade. It’s a rather remarkable sight, perched on a hill like a flat drawing on blue paper (the cloudless sky on a nice day). At the bottom of the stairs when you see the church towering over you and the neighborhood around it, you wonder what sort of construction technique allows it to keep standing. And it’s been that way for nearly 200 years.

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