In many ways Macau is symbolised by a building that is not there – the church of São Paulo, built in the early 1600s and for two hundred years one of the largest Catholic churches in Asia, until it was destroyed by fire in 1835.
But not completely destroyed. What remains is the mighty southern stone façade, intricately carved between 1620 and 1627 by Japanese Christians in exile, and it is this very Catholic ruin that remains the most famous landmark in the city, standing as it does at the top of a long flight of steps. All that remains behind the façade are the foundations and the crypt. Bizarrely it always puts me in mind of a film set for a Western; a one horse town with a saloon bar that is nothing more than a wooden front.
When the sixty-eight steps leading up to the façade are not overflowing with tour groups taking selfies, the ruins themselves form a striking image – and perhaps an appropriate one. After all, what is a façade if not something to be projected with nothing to support it, and what is Macau if not a complex reality hiding behind a superficial – if attractive – aspect. The vision of Macau that the tourist board presents is one of entertainment, vacations and good times. The gambling is wholesome and combined with shows from big name stars – Las Vegas eat your heart out – and when you’re tired of the slot machines and baccarat, explore the history and food, shop for Portuguese cakes and biscuits. Join the queue outside Lord Stow’s bakery.
But don’t look behind that façade. Don’t look at the prostitution. Don’t worry about the money-laundering. Don’t talk about the increasing political repression, and the erosion of a Macanese identity in favour of the glorious motherland. Don’t concern yourself with the writers and activists banned from visiting the city.
Have a plate of African chicken and perhaps some garlic prawns, wash it down with a Macau beer, then get back to the casino.
Don’t look to see what lies behind.