In the 1630s, the Portuguese completed St. Paul's Church, a massive house of worship with an elaborate granite facade surmounted by a carving of a ship with billowing sails watched over by the Virgin Mary. It was the grandest ecclesiastical structure in Asia. But the mercantile empire that funded Catholic evangelism fell under increasing attack from Protestant trading companies from Holland and Great Britain.
In 1639, Portugal was expelled from Japan and lost the source of silver it had used to purchase porcelain, silk and camphor at Cantonese trade fairs. The following year, the dual monarchy that had linked Portugal with Spain for 60 years ended, and with it went Macau's access to the Spanish-American galleon trade. The Dutch captured Malacca in 1641, further isolating Macau. Three years later, Manchu invaders toppled the Ming dynasty.
Macau's glory days were drawing to a close. In 1685, China opened three other ports to competition for foreign trade. By the time St. Paul's accidentally burned in 1835, leaving little beyond the facade, Macau Chinese outnumbered Portuguese six to one and the city's commercial life was dominated by the British East India Company. China's defeat in the Opium War, in 1842, ended the cooperation between the mandarins and the Portuguese. China ceded Hong Kong to Britain and, after nearly three centuries as a guest in Macau, Portugal demanded—and received—ownership of the city.
Still, Hong Kong continued to eclipse Macau, and by the early 20th century, the Portuguese city's golden age was but a memory. "Every night Macau grimly sets out to have fun," French playwright Francis de Croisset observed after visiting the city in 1937. "Restaurants, gambling houses, dance halls, brothels and opium dens are crowded together, higgledy-piggledy.
"Everybody at Macau gambles," de Croisset noted. "The painted flapper who is not a school girl but a prostitute, and who, between two brief spells of dalliance, wagers as much as she can earn in a night; . . . the beggar who has just managed to cadge a coin and now, no longer cringing, stakes it with a lordly air; . . . and finally, the old woman who, with nothing left to wager, to my amazement took out three gold teeth, which, with a gaping smile, she staked and lost."
The Portuguese legacy can still be found in Senate Square, the 400-year-old plaza where black and white cobblestones are arranged to resemble waves hitting the shore. Two of the colonial-era buildings surrounding the square are especially noteworthy: the two-story Loyal Senate, which was the seat of secular authority from 1585 to 1835, and the three-story Holy House of Mercy, an elaborate symbol of Catholic charity with balconies and Ionic columns.
"Prior to the transition [in 1999], I worried about the fate of Portugal's patrimony, but it seems China intends to protect our old buildings," says Macau historian Jorge Cavalheiro, although he still sees "an enormous task" ahead for preservationists. Indeed, the city is growing not by clearing old buildings, but by reclaiming new land from the sea.
Nowhere is that reclamation more evident than in the area called Cotai, which links two islands belonging to Macau, Taipa and Coloane. In Cotai, three of the six gambling concessionaires are spending $16 billion to build seven mega-resorts that will have 20,000 hotel rooms.
"This is the largest development project in Asia," says Matthew Pryor, the senior vice president in charge of more than $13 billion in construction for the Las Vegas Sands Corp. "Three of the world's five largest buildings will stand alongside this road when we're complete in 2011. Dubai has mega-projects like these, but here we had to create the land by moving three million cubic meters of sand from the Pearl River."
It's a bitterly cold day, and rain clouds hide the nearby Lotus Flower Bridge to China. But some 15,000 men are working round-the-clock to complete those 20,000 hotel rooms. They are paid an average of $50 a day. Nobody belongs to a union. "The Sheraton and the Shangri-La are over there," says Pryor, pointing to the skeletons of two reinforced-concrete towers disappearing into the clouds. "That cluster on the opposite side will contain a 14-story Four Seasons, 300 service apartments and a luxury retail mall I call the Jewelry Box."