Searching for Macau's cultural future
It’s late Saturday morning in Macau and next to the crowded, touristy Rua de Sao Paulo, a century-old street called Rua da Tercena is eerily quiet. The paved stone street is lined with rickety antique shops and there's nary a passerby.
"This street is falling apart,” says So Mo-cheung, a woodcarver who’s been manning a Chinese antique store on the street for more than two decades. "Back in my youth there used to be antiques spilling out onto the streets, but now the shops are more often closed than open."
Rua da Tercena and the adjacent Rua de Cinco de Outubro are right next to "The Historic Centre of Macao,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The center includes a list of twenty or so historic spots in Macau. The major tourist attractions on the list such as A-Ma Temple and Senado Square are well maintained by the government. Other places in Macau with an equally rich history, such as Rua da Tercena, feel forgotten, and a glance at the neighborhood confirms its years of neglect.
Macanese lawyer and staunch cultural advocate Miguel de Senna Fernandes reckons the sorry state of Rua da Tercena is a sign of the government’s concentration of resources on obvious tourist attractions, combined with the lack of a comprehensive plan to fully develop Macau's rich heritage.
“Macau has a strong multicultural heritage, but in the past 10 years, I cannot see a clear government cultural policy. Even if there is one, it’s low-profile and timid, ” says Fernandes. “Government projects are always geared towards the interest of casinos. But apart from casinos, Macau has nothing to offer. If Macau depends on the gaming industry in the long run, it’s as good as dead."
Macau's gambling revenue fell sharply in early 2009 -- hard hit by the global financial crisis -- but has since recovered. Dramatically. Macau's 33 casinos (at the end of 2009) recorded their biggest ever month in January this year, pulling in revenues of 14 billion patacas (US$1.7 billion) -- a rise of almost 65 percent on January 2009.
And that was not a one-off rush on the tables. The last quarter of 2009 was up 50 percent year-on-year to 36 billion patacas. With Macau casino revenues now surpassing Las Vegas, the city has become a vital earner for the American casino operators like Wynn, MGM Grand and Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian that have recently set up shop here.
But visitors to Macau stay an average of only 1.5 days, mostly spending them in casinos. A visit to the sparkling, casino-laden Cotai strip jars with the experience of shabby Rua da Tercena.
Fernandes thinks lucrative government income from gaming could be better spent on riskier ventures for nurturing local culture. Urban planning policy needs tightening up to prevent “buildings with very bad taste springing up in the city’s old districts” and local artists and performers need a channel for expression.
“We don’t need another Andrea Bocelli coming in to perform," says Fernandes. "Macau may be small, but it doesn’t mean that we have to emulate or import other people’s moves. Macau needs to nurture its own local artists and performers. Culture is the most important capital of all.”
It’s a view partly echoed by Frank Lei, artistic director of Ox Warehouse, a privately-managed art commune that’s hampered by lack of space and promotion. While Ox Warehouse curators diligently scout local and regional artists to showcase their work throughout the year, their showroom is woefully under-attended, with no more than a few hundred visitors on weekends.
"Obviously we want more people to come, but in terms of advertising we do not have enough resources or manpower," says Lei, a photographer and professor at the Polytechnic Institute of Macau.
“Macau is still at a fledging stage when it comes to artistic and cultural development. But it doesn’t mean that we should stick with whatever is hot right now and not take chances. We want to encourage a creative spirit in the local artistic community and for the government to give more support to local arts not only in terms of money, but in encouraging cultural dialogues with regional artists.”
In an ironic juxtaposition, Stanley Ho’s landmark Grand Lisboa casino is visible from all corners of the dilapidated Rua da Tercena. While casinos continue to proliferate in Macau and gaming returns soar, Rua da Tercena remains a dusty shadow of its former self.
Below are more scenes from Rua da Tercena, capturing the atmosphere of a bygone era of Macau. A small but rewarding flea market occurs in the afternoons on the pavement near shop 50.