Macao’s most attractive feature is the sheer variety it embraces. In the morning, at the Vasco da Gama square opposite my hotel, I watch folks exercise with Chinese fans and swords, keeping alive age-old traditions. A few hours later, I marvel at the scale and immensity of the city’s casinos, with their laser displays, neon lights, and artificial skies. The cuisine is rich and varied, a representation of the city’s mixed Chinese and Portuguese heritage. And nothing embodies that more than the two unique festivals I attended in a single week—held just a 10-minute walk from one another but bridging two vastly different cultures.
The two festivals couldn’t have been more different from one another, but they had one thing in common—a strong sense of community. Though the tenor of the conversations were varied, both occasions were marked by neighbours greeting each other with smiles and gentle words. And coming together to mark an important occasion on their cultural calendar.
Feast of the Earth God
FokTak Shrine, Horta da Mitra district
Bright green flags fluttering gently in the wind marked the entry to the alley that led to the Fok Thai Shrine. Strains of Chinese opera filtered out, like an invitation to go closer and explore. Most of the space in the alley was taken up by round tables, covered in chequered green and white cloth, and set with bowls and chopsticks, cups and bottles of water. Elderly members of the community sat around them on brightly coloured stools, chatting and watching the performance taking place on a stage set up on one side of the alley. The opera singers were dressed impeccably in lavishly adorned and embroidered costumes. They sang against the backdrop of an idyllic rural scene, accompanied by a team of musicians. By contrast the shrine was almost sombre, with simple statues surrounded by vases filled with fresh flowers.
As people walked through the narrow path left between the tables, they greeted neighbours and friends, the bonhomie evident even though I didn’t understand the language. Cheery red and yellow signs created a canopy overhead. The atmosphere was nothing less than that of a giant street party and I left feeling energised and happy.
Procession of Our Lord of Passos
Macau Cathedral to St. Dominic’s Church, Macao Old City
I walked the streets around Senado Square and St. Dominic’s Church several times during my visit to Macao, and they were always alive and buzzing, and full of tourists. On the Sunday of the procession, a fixture on Macao’s religious calendar for nearly two centuries, the crowd was bigger than I’d ever seen it. Many of those gathered were the devout who’d come to be part of the procession; the rest were tourists who stood around calmly, respectful of the local tradition they’d come to witness.
The procession started shortly before 5 p.m. from Macau Cathedral, where the statue of Christ carrying the Cross has been brought the previous day for an overnight vigil. It sat on a wooden pallet decorated with purple blooms that was carried and escorted by men dressed in rich purple robes. Behind the statue followed little boys and girls, impeccably dressed in white dresses and black suits. Further behind them were the police band, and a large crowd of the faithful.
I walked along the procession as it solemnly wound its way through the cobbled lanes of Macao’s old city. Occasionally, it stopped at pre-determined spots, where a young woman dressed all in white performs the role of Veronica, and sings O Vos Omnes. There was an air of ceremony and gravity to the event that threw a hush over the large crowd, right until the moment the statue entered St. Dominic’s Church. (The statue is normally housed in St. Augustine’s Church, which is currently under renovation.)
Neha Dara is a travel writer and editor. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.