As if by fate, Macau was born from the water that gave it life. One day during the late 15th century, in the Zhujiang River Estuary, a man who was caught in a storm prayed for his life when the Goddess of Seafarers Mazu appeared and calmed the seas. Back on dry land, he decided to build a place of worship dedicated to her. The temple was constructed in 1488 and the land near his rescue place took its name from that of the deity: ‘Ma-zu’, ‘Ma-cau’. Thus, the birth of Macau was steeped in the belief of its people that water could bring new life.
Several decades later, navigators from Portugal, a land that equally depended on livelihood at sea, set anchor in Macau. It was 1513. Portugal was at the height of its glory during the Golden Age of Discoveries. Macau was their new-found treasure, and their key to enter the Far East. It took 40 years to formally establish trade with China, in 1553, and four more years until the first Portuguese – about only 1000 of them – officially settled in Macau. But the result was the flourshing of Portugal’s international trade, with Macau as an intermediary port along three key routes across the world: Malacca-Goa-Lisbon, Manila-Mexico, and Guangzhou-Nagasaki (Japan’s only port for trade at that time).
China also understood Macau’s position, and gave the Portuguese a trade monopoly, banning other nations from trading directly with Japan. Despite lucrative trading relations, China was reluctant to grant Portuguese sovereignty over Macau. Rather, it allowed the Roman Catholic Diocese of Macau to be established in 1576. Jesuits arrived, followed by Dominicans. At once a trading port and a religious centre, Macau witnessed a period of prosperity. Portuguese missionaries built churches and schools, the locals built temples, the government built roads. The different peoples – Portuguese, European, Chinese, Japanese – came to Macau, without a common language but with the common goal to begin a new life in the new port that welcomed all with open arms like the open sea.
In the early 1600s the shogun rule in Japan decided to curb European influence and cut off the Portuguese port from its trade route. And by the late 1600s, Macau got muscled out of the competition as the Chinese emperor opened up international trade with Britain, France, the United States, Russia and other countries. As the British continued to dominate throughout the 18th century – and obtaining Hong Kong in 1842, Portugal tried to reassure its foothold in Macau in the later part of the 1800s. Although Macau was no longer a major port, a role which was subsequently taken up by Hong Kong, it became a symbol of social and religious peace. It was declared a neutral territory throughout the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and World War II, kept out of the conflicts and avoiding occupation. Even as communist rule gripped mainland China, Macau’s population – always a mix of ethnicities and religions – grew and continued to thrive through the most tumultuous years in its modern history.
Today, one can admire the concentration of eclectic architecture in Macau Historic Centre that became a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2005, a recognition long due following 442 years of Portuguese and Chinese coexistence: “With its historic street, residential, religious and public Portuguese and Chinese buildings, the historic centre of Macao provides a unique testimony to the meeting of aesthetic, cultural, architectural and technological influences from East and West. The site also contains a fortress and a lighthouse, the oldest in China. It bears witness to one of the earliest and longest-lasting encounters between China and the West, based on the vibrancy of international trade.”
Located in Taipa, one of Macau’s oldest districts of Portuguese influence, Okura Macau continues the city’s tradition of East-meets-West by bringing a taste of Japan to the heart of Macau and its until-recent status as the Asian Las Vegas. Its signature restaurant, Yamazato serves Kaiseiki menu that is known for its strict adherence to the use of seasonal ingredients. A private dining room with 12 seats gives guests the opportunity to experience the more intimate nature of the Japanese dining tradition that remains authentic in the true melting pot of Macau.