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A Brief History of Macau: A Blending of Cultures

Macau (also spelled Macao) was born centuries before Hong Kong was even conceived. The first settlers were farmers from Guangdong and fishermen from Fujian, but even in ancient times, its strategic location at the mouth of the Pearl River, downriver from Guangzhou (Canton), made it a port of call for ships laden with goods from the Silk Road on their way to Rome.

Portuguese ships first landed in southern China in 1513; in 1557, Portugal acquired Macau from China with permission from Guangdong's mandarins. The Portuguese adopted the name for their new city from the Chinese A-Ma Gao, which translates as the "Place of A-Ma" and refers to the temple honoring the goddess of seafarers, which still stands at the entrance to the sheltered Inner Harbor. Before long, Macau had achieved a virtual monopoly on trade among China, Japan, India, and Europe, making it Portugal's most important trading center in Asia and the East's greatest port by the early 1600s.

As the only Europeans engaged in trade in Asia, the Portuguese made a fortune acting as middlemen. Every spring, Portuguese ships laden with Indian goods and European crystal and wines sailed out of Goa, anchored in Malacca to trade for spices, stopped in Macau for silk brought down from China, and then traveled on to Nagasaki to trade the silk for silver, swords, and lacquerware. Using the monsoon winds, the ships returned to Macau to trade silver for more silk and porcelain, and then sailed back to Goa where the exotic Asian goods were shipped to eager customers in Europe. The complete circuit from Goa and back took several years.

As Macau grew and prospered, it also served as an important base for the attempt to introduce Christianity to China and Japan, becoming a springboard for Jesuit missionaries to China and a refuge for Asian Christians, including Japanese Christians who faced persecution and death at home. Many churches dotted Macau's hills (many of which still stand), and a Christian college was built beside what is now the ruins of St. Paul's. Many Portuguese married local Chinese, creating a new community of Macanese (Eurasian) families with a blend of the two cultures. This blending is still evident today in the Macanese population, cuisine, and architecture.

Needless to say, because of Macau's obvious prosperity, it attracted jealous attention from other European nations. Dutch invasions were repelled several times in the first decades of the 1600s. In response to the threat of invasion, the Portuguese built a series of forts, foundations of which, like Guia Fortress and Monte Fortress, still exist. Despite growing competition from the Dutch and British, Macau survived as a trading center thanks to its preferred status with the Chinese, prompting many large trading houses, like the British East India Company, to set up shop in Macau and rent elegant mansions like the Casa Garden. European merchants working in Guangzhou often traveled to Macau for recreation and leisure.

In the 1630s, Japan closed its doors to foreign trade, granting a limited admittance only to the Dutch. This was a great blow for Macau, but the coup de grace came in 1841 when the British established their own colony on Hong Kong Island, only 64km (40 miles) away. As Hong Kong's deep natural harbor attracted trading ships, Macau lost its importance as a base for trade and slowly sank into obscurity.

It wasn't until the 1970s that Macau gained a new foothold in the world of trade by producing electronics, clothing, toys, and other items for export. At the same time, tourism began to grow, and with the establishment of casinos, Macau attracted a large number of Chinese gamblers from Hong Kong. In 1995, Macau opened an airport, making the colony easily accessible for the first time in its history.

On December 20, 1999, Portugal's 442 years of rule came to an end, with Macau's transition to a Special Administrative Region of China. Like Hong Kong, Macau is permitted its own internal government and economic system for another 50 years. In addition, after the handover two independent developments came together that would radically change Macau's outlook for the future: the liberalization of its gaming industry, thus ending gaming operator Stanley Ho's 40-year monopoly, and mainland China's 2003 implementation of its Individual Visit Scheme, thereby allowing mainlanders to visit Hong Kong and Macau on their own in addition to group tours. Several mega-developments have opened since then, including Fisherman's Wharf, the Venetian Macao-Hotel-Resort, and City of Dreams, with more scheduled to open in the coming years.

Today, 94% of Macau's population of 542,400 are Chinese (almost half of whom were born in China). There are about 2,500 Portuguese and an additional 20,000 Macanese, of mixed Chinese and Portuguese heritage. Tourism and gambling are the economic mainstays of the economy, with visitors from mainland China accounting for almost half of Macau's tourists.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.