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Macau (China) > Culture and festivals > History


Macau history 

The Portuguese 

Though archeological finds indicate that Macau has been continuously inhabited for the last six millennia, until five hundred years ago, its history was little different from that of any other coastal area along the South China Sea. However, the expansion of European seafaring saw Portuguese traders reach the Pearl River Delta in 1513, having founded colonies in India in 1510 and Malaysian Malacca in 1511. In 1542 they also secured a settlement in Japan and, this being an awfully long hop from Lisbon, the Portuguese wanted a staging port along the way. 


 In 1557 they finally managed to negotiate themselves a strategic piece of land at the entrance to the Pearl River Delta, known as Macau (or Aomen in Mandarin).  Nearly 300 years before the British acquired Hong Kong, Macau was a flourishing international port, which superseded the Silk Road as Europe’s trading gateway to China. With the Portuguese came Christianity and many of the ruined churches you can see today were built in Macau’s brief heyday in the late 1500s. However, the good times were short-lived and Japan’s expulsion of the Portuguese from Nagasaki in 1637 and the Dutch capture of Malacca in 1641 saw the trade network collapse, leaving Macau to fall into decline. 


Gambling, Gangsters & Return to the PRC 

In the mid-19th century the Portuguese legalized licensed gambling in an attempt to generate funds. Although this may be Macau’s best bet for the future, it did little to improve the situation at the time. Hong Kong’s rise to glory only furthered Macau’s demise and it gained a reputation as a sleazy gangster town, which it is still trying to shrug off today.  


Macau’s perceived value was humiliatingly shown when China refused to accept Portugal’s offer to return the territory in 1966 and again in 1974. An agreement was finally signed in 1987, but when it actually happened in 1999, despite being the final piece of Asian soil to be ceded by European powers, Macau’s return was a far quieter affair than that of its noisy neighbor two years earlier. 


Modern Macau 

While Macau holds the same SAR (Special Administrative Region) status as Hong Kong, economic dividends have been slower in coming. But this may be about to change, once again with the help of the Chinese obsession for gambling. In 2002 Macau’s gambling laws were relaxed and in 2005 the first Vegas-funded casino, Sands, opened its doors. Now the financial tides are turning Macau’s way, heralded by ever-grander construction projects like the Macau Tower and the Venetian Casino development on Cotai, between Taipa and Coloane. 


 But this recent building boom could spell the end for Macau’s gentle island pace and wonderfully decrepit old buildings. This said, although modern Macau becomes more Chinese day by day, its Portuguese legacy endures, not only in its architecture and trade-route influenced cuisine, but also in the several thousand Macanese residents numbered among its population of 500,000, some of whom still speak Portuguese. 

See also: 

   Introduction : Macau main attractions - orientation 

   Macau Sightseeing - Architectural Treasures 

   Macau Sightseeing - Churches & Temples 

   Macau Sightseeing – Parks 

   Sightseeing – Taipa and Coloane 

   Macau museums 

   Tourist information

   Events and festivals in Macau
   Macau adventures : Bungee, Golf, Gambling, Casinos, Watersports

   Macau Walks – St. Malo, Churches, Coloane

   How to get to Macau 

   How to get around Macau 

   Entry requirements (visa) 


 Back to Macau travel guide homepage 


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Macau (China) Travel guide : Macau (China) History