A Native American chief complete with his feathered war bonnet was standing two feet from me posing for a selfie with a Chinese grandma, beaming in spite of two missing front teeth. Across him, two beautiful boisterous ladies in their big hooped skirts were bantering with a petite fellow who had a giant Venezuelan flag draped over his shoulders. I pinched my arm to make sure that I was really wide awake and standing in a hotel lobby in Macao. It seemed like the perfect surreal beginning to the day of Macao’s Latin City parade.
Macao is a Janus-faced city, with one face turned towards its past and the other towards a glittering future. Since my arrival I had done the regulation sightseeing tours, museum visits, even an obligatory Cotai Strip casino tour. However, it was the parade that brought it all together for me. The mixed crews with their vibrant costumes and multitude of languages seemed to be in sync with the city’s multifaceted identity. As the day unspooled through colour and music, what amazed me the most was the gusto with which the event celebrated the region’s cosmopolitanism and its Portuguese, Chinese, and Macanese heritage.
A view from the top made the parade look like the sparkly trail of a giant comet. And as I followed a train of strange and beautiful creatures, from the ruins of St. Paul’s to Tap Siac Square, I ended up collecting bits of Macao’s past like pieces of confetti saved after the last wedding hurrah.
The Portuguese arrived on Macao’s shores in the 1550s and over the centuries, they left an indelible impression on the region’s cultural identity right up until they finally left in 1999. The first Desfile Por Macao, Cidade Latina (Latin City parade), was held in 2011, and has since continued as an annual event that commemorates the city’s handover from Portugal to China. Interestingly, what the parade celebrates is the melding of the two cultures. Performers from Latin American countries as well as Mainland China and Macao showcase an array of dances, traditions, costumes, and art forms ranging from the traditional to the wildly inventive.
I had landed in Macao three days before the event and the place was already thrumming with impending festivities. Distant drumbeats and clashing cymbals interrupted my single-minded focus on food as I queued up for a pork chop bun at a street kiosk. Exploring the narrow streets around the imposing Ruins of St. Paul, I spotted girls in spangly costumes and boys cradling traditional lion head masks like warrior helmets of yore. There were men at work around Senado Square, setting up a stage and decorations. This beautiful square with its iconic Portuguese pavements, skin care boutiques with candy-coloured displays, pastelarias selling traditional snacks, and fast food kiosks is a vibrant pinwheel. It is part of the Historic Centre of Macao which is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, ancient Chinese temples lie cheek by jowl with churches and western custard-filled tarts get a local eggy spin. In this part of downtown Macao, East and West do meet, and all around me there are signs of this synergy between the cultures, right down to the Portuguese-style mosaic pavement under my feet.
In the run up to the parade, there was a little bit of magic thrown into the mix. Vividly coloured life-sized models of odd little creatures graced street corners. These fantastical characters were drawn from the Chinese fantasy epic Shan Hai Jing (Classic of Mountains and Seas)—the theme for this year’s parade. They were the brainchild of local artist Un Chi Wai, and included the Mottled Flying Fish, the Torch Dragon, and the towering Hairy People.
A post-dinner walk just the night before the parade turned disastrous as my phone sputtered and died taking with it a map back to my hotel. After an hour and a half of following my instinct and limping from a bloody shoe bite, I realised that I was irrevocably lost. After many wrong turns, it was another parade icon, the daunting three-headed Qiyu Bird at the corner of a public square, which helped me finally reorient and return to my hotel room. And thereafter in my walks around Macao, it was this motley crew from Shan Hai Jing’s universe that helped guide my way.
There are many marvellous places and all manner of imaginary beasts listed in Shan Hai Jing and I join the thronging crowds at the foot of the Ruins of St. Paul’s, waiting for them to appear. It is one of those days where the sky is the shade of cornflowers, and the light is dappled with sunrays streaming through the many arched windows of the Madre de Deus church’s massive stone facade. This is one of the most notable structures of Macao, part of the 17th-century St. Paul’s Jesuit college complex which was an important centre of western education and arts in this part of the world. Although the complex was destroyed in a fire in 1835, the baroque facade of the church and the stone steps remained intact and continue to endure as Macao’s most iconic tourist spot. This complex is flanked by the Mount Fortress which houses the Macao Museum, an excellent repository of the life and culture of the diverse communities of the city.
The clock strikes four and VIVA, the mascot of the Macao parade emerges at the top of the church steps. As he starts descending, he literally crosses over a time gate—a portal from 21st century Macao to the magical world of Shan Hai Jin. In his wake, come the paraders from far corners of the world. They are the dragons, the goddesses, beasts from Africa’s savannah, giant serpents, puppets, acrobats, clowns, robots, and more. Thousands of onlookers including me are gathered at the head of the city’s Rua de Sao Paulo to witness this moment. And the quiet afternoon bursts around us like a thousand piñatas as crew after crew in dazzling costumes, dance their way down the steps to a frenetic soundtrack of drums and cheers.
Meanwhile, there is another prong of the parade that starts at Senado Square and joins up with St. Paul’s brigade. Not wanting to miss a single moment, I tail a couple of intrepid photographers who take it upon themselves to weave through the sea of heads to make their way back to this point. I find myself behind a line of whistle-tooting girl scouts who have been roped in for crowd control. The majestic 18th-century Leal Senado building towers above the stage that has been constructed for the event. Originally the seat of the Portuguese government, today the sprawling two-storey neoclassical structure houses a public library specialising in foreign languages and Portuguese history, and offices for the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau of Macao.
This seems like a good vantage point. Just as I position myself behind a very accommodating little girl with a smart blue beret, the magnificent dance of the lions begins. They are green, black, and white, tall, sinuous, and fierce. Each “lion” comprises two dancers, the body and the head, who move as a single organism to the beat of a gong and drums. These energetic band of multicoloured cats lead the way down from Senado Square through Rua de Sao Domingos past the cheery yellow baroque church of St. Dominic, dating back to the late 16th century. The parade snakes past a lovely little bookshop, the Livraria Portuguesa, which has a wonderfully curated collection of books on Macanese history, culture, food, and customs along with some nifty maps, graphic novels, and souvenirs. I cross at least ten outlets of the Koi Kei pastelaria and each one is milling with crowds. This bakery specialises in traditional snacks, and beef and pork jerky in myriad flavours. Enthusiastic attendants tempt passers-by with generous samplers of their delicious products.
Back near the ruins, the drama continues as characters from a Chinese opera descend the stairs. Young girls dressed as matadors twirling their red capes with panache follow a train of adolescent boys carrying a giant serpent. Suddenly the air grows dank with the sharp smell of rice wine. Old men stumble down the stairs dancing, or rather reenacting an ancient myth where a village is saved from the plague by a magical dragon. The group comprises old men and young boys carrying wooden heads and tails of dragons, and pots of wine. They drink and spit into the air to ward off evil spirits and propitiate Lord Buddha. A lot of the wine clearly makes its way into the gullet of the dancers and as the parade progresses, their inebriation seems to increase proportionally. Their dance is clumsy, but completely uninhibited.
I follow them, maintaining a safe distance from the alcohol sprays, past St. Anthony’s church. The current baroque-style building is on the site of the original wooden structure which was built in 1558, and subsequently destroyed in a fire. Since St. Anthony’s was a popular venue for Portuguese weddings, it is also known as the Church of Flowers.
I trail the parade, sometimes on the sidelines, sometimes joining its raggedy tail, and sometimes using my media access pass to walk alongside performing groups that I love at first sight. However, I have to be nimble so that I am not in the way of photographers or security staff. I have to dodge projectile props and save myself from being stampeded by energetic troupes. Sandwiched between graceful Balinese dancers and a nattily dressed jazz troupe, I make my way down narrow cobbled lanes, flanked by elegant Portuguese-style manors, old Catholic churches, and traditional Chinese apothecaries. I take a pause from the parade to look around this charming historic quarter. I notice that we pass manicured public squares lined with heritage lamps, and brightly coloured shop fronts with intricate Chinese motifs and lettering. Roads are signposted on beautiful Portuguese azulejo tiles and these blue and white tiles help me orient myself on the parade route.
One such sign informs me that I am in Calçada da Igreja de São Lázaro. This is the area around the 16th-century St. Lazarus Church. Among the oldest in Macao, this church was a beacon of hope, built on the site of a hermitage providing care and shelter to lepers. As the parade snakes up cobbled streets, I fall in line with an eccentric looking group from Spain who call themselves the Robots. Dressed in the motley garb of clowns, they look straight out of a steampunk sci-fi film with Tin Man hats, armour plates, and stilts and blades on which they walk, hop, and jump.
They are crowd pleasers and their silver painted faces crinkle into broad grins as they oblige young ’uns with selfies, and make little tots laugh with their antics. The moving is sometimes pretty slow but I enjoy walking with the robots as they come up with games to keep the crowds entertained. Occasionally I take a pause from their antics and stop to take in the neighbourhood. This very European part of Macao with tree-lined streets has hidden courtyards, art galleries, graffiti on the walls, a cemetery with marble angels, and a grand old church presiding over it all. The parade also passes by the Albergue da Santa Casa da Misericórdia, a set of beautifully restored 400-year-old buildings set around a courtyard with two massive camphor trees. Originally a charity and home for old women, today this is an eclectic arts and entertainment space: It has art galleries, a Portuguese restaurant, and a lovely little boutique selling Portuguese crafts and food supplies.
From St. Lazarus, the parade crews take different routes, finally converging at Tap Siac Square for one last blowout. This is a fitting place for a finale. Paved with Portuguese tiles, this erstwhile training ground for soldiers has been transformed into a central public space in Macao where people gather to relax and celebrate different cultural events through the year. Tap Siac Square is where parade mascot VIVA has his “love, peace, and cultural integration party” and where all the crews present one last performance. It is a magnificent celebration and one which all of Macao takes part in as giant inflatable puppets float above the stage like strange and benevolent gods. Below, under the strobe lights, fantastic beasts, and creatures big, small, and weird come together and make merry. On this night in Macao, history truly feels like a sum of its glorious differences.
Macao is a peninsular region in southern China and was the last European colony in Asia, governed by the Portuguese until the late 1990s. The most convenient way to reach there is to fly to Hong Kong, and get to Macao by ferry. Indian travellers are eligible for a visa on arrival in Macao, and must fill a pre-arrival registration form on www.immd.gov.hk/eng for a visa-free entry to Hong Kong.
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.