Searching for Macau's cultural future

Searching for Macau's cultural future

Culture is the most important capital of all, according to one Macau resident, so CNNGo looks to Macau's future with a visit to a forgotten corner of the city's historic center
Old shopfronts on Rua de Cinco de Outubro, adjacent to Rua da Tercena.

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.

 So Mo-cheung has been based in Rua da Tercena for decades.

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.

Rua da Tercena neighbors a World Heritage Site.

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.”

Frank Lei, artistic director of Ox Warehouse.

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.

Lei Heng Keung is the fourth generation owner of 141-year-old ice cream shop Cocos Hung Heng. Lei says the area was a bustling commercial district a century ago, with shops selling what was then considered luxury products, such as dried seafood and imported fabrics.

The intricate tiled floors, red signage, antiquated sewing machine, and equally old shopkeep betray Wah Seung Tailorshop's age.

Wah Hing Noodle Makers’ industrious shop front was a rare hub of activity on the quiet Rua da Tercena. The shop supplies fresh egg noodles to eateries across town.

Portuguese and Chinese signage on shops that double as recreational and living spaces.

Most of the shops on Rua da Tercena are closed and passersby are a rare sight. 

Former CNNGo staff writer Tiffany Lam produced and scripted current affairs documentaries and was a reporter for a local English newspaper before making the brave, brave decision to write about things she’s actually interested in.

Read more about Tiffany Lam
CNN Partner Hotels

Destination Berlin

The tiny town of Goerlitz has become a star in movies like Wes Anderson's latest production, while Potsdam and Leipzig ooze charm and history