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A tale of two SARs: What can Hong Kong learn from Macao's heritage efforts?

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong

Before the Cotai Strip, it was Macao’s heritage conservation efforts that drew it worldwide praise. These Unesco sites are still tourist havens. Nik Addams finds out what us Hongkongers can learn from our neighbours in terms of preserving history

Egg tarts. Pork chop buns. Ostentatious entertainment resorts and an old church ruins. It’s not exactly a secret that Hongkongers have a tendency to oversimplify matters when it comes to our sister SAR. The irony, though, is that we have more in common with Macao than we probably care to admit. Like Hong Kong, Macao’s contrasts are immediately apparent. However, unlike our city, their landscape is contested in two distinct – and colourful – spheres: the resorts and the heritage areas. And it’s in the latter where it can be said that our brethren over the water treat their history in an entirely different manner. They preserve it. Indeed, there are some serious lessons that we can learn from our neighbouring city when it comes to heritage.

The conservation of Macao’s colonial-era buildings is firmly on the world stage. It’s one of the few places on the planet in which an entire section of a city is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. The Historic Centre of Macao, listed in 2005, ‘provides a unique testimony to the meeting of aesthetic, cultural, architectural and technological influences from East and West’, according to the UN body. Peer recognition on conservation’s biggest stage is of twofold importance, says UK-trained Macanese architect and conservation specialist Adelina Chan. “On the national level,” she tells us, “it shows China’s acknowledgment of the city’s colonial past and role in connecting China with the world. On an international level, it’s one of the world’s most complete and lively heritage sites that demonstrates the assimilation of cultures.”

Macao’s conservation efforts demonstrate commitments enshrined in legislation. While there were already heritage laws established by the colonial government before the 1999 handover, this suite of policies continued into the millennium. Certainly, there’s an economic element behind the decision to maintain this framework. “In a small and single economy like Macao,” says Chan, “it’s a lot easier to include conservation as part of overall tourism marketing.”

By extension, the policy framework implicitly recognises the cultural and social significance of Macao’s heritage sites. Architect, urban planner and assistant professor at Macao’s Institute for Tourism Studies, Dr Sharif Imon, thinks so. “The social reasons – related to social harmony and national identity, for example – are just as important as the economic reasons,” he says. “It’s believed that protecting the Portuguese legacy was one of the main reasons for so much interest in conservation before the handover.” Chan sees this in her daily life. “Macao is a city moulded by multiple cultures,” she notes. “I think the most significant value we hold is openness and intimacy among ourselves. This is fundamentally social but helped by the setting of heritage sites.”

While much of the history seeker’s attention is focused on the Macao peninsula, the island of Taipa is also starting to revitalise its more local areas. Taipa Village Destination Limited, for example, has been recently established to ‘promote the brand concept’ of its namesake village in an effort to foster ‘sustainable heritage’. Through the parent company, local businesses in the community are promoted as enhancing a sense of community – heritage by the people, for the people. Most recently, the Taipa Village Art Space has been set up in a former village house, showcasing the work of local creative talent.  


Guia Fortress
Guia Fortress

It’s that Unesco history and the raft of current projects that Hongkongers could learn from when it comes to heritage and preserving historic sites. Indeed, Macao’s successful conservation work puts the people at its heart. But a case can be argued that it’s not quite the same for us. “To make World Heritage status, you need to consider the community’s point of view,” says associate professor Dr Lee Ho Yin, head of the University of Hong Kong’s Division of Architectural Conservation. “You have to be very inclusive,” he adds. Dr Lee points to Tsim Sha Tsui’s Heritage 1881 site as a prominent example of specifically not putting Hongkongers first, the driving factors of which, he claims, were primarily legislative. “Hong Kong had always packaged conservation with economic benefit through tourism,” he says. “So Heritage 1881 ended up as an exclusive shopping mall that caters to a very small number of people. Most Hongkongers would not find it of benefit to them.” 

The legislation that allowed this to happen, though, was a hangover from Hong Kong’s colonial past. In short, in the late 1970s, when the Portuguese were more concerned with upholding their cultural legacy, the British decided to maximise profit from the remaining jewel in their colonial crown. Establishing a property market was the best way to do so. And that meant the old making way for the new. With no development bureau in place into the 2000s, conservation work fell under the Home Affairs Bureau. The policy framework behind Heritage 1881 was driven by a sub-agency of the Bureau for Business and Economic Development – one that recently became the Hong Kong Tourism Bureau. “The agenda was always very clear,” says Lee about Heritage 1881. “It was for commercial tourism. All the stops were pulled out, as Hong Kong is always supportive of commercial development.” 

And, today, it still seems like our heritage sites are more about the cash rather than the culture. But it isn’t all roses over the water, especially where the behemoth entertainment complexes are concerned. For Chan, while the two ‘spheres’ complement one another to an extent – ‘one looks back to the past, the other projects the future’ – there’s a risk of cannibalisation. “There is a danger of ‘Disneyfication’ of heritage sites among the new complexes that mimic the old,” she states, “as well as when new becomes the new norm and the old is only relevant when placed next to the glossy new buildings. A coherent narrative has yet to be found.” 

For Dr Imon, resources are key to these seemingly competing spheres. “Resource availability often limits how much we can protect,” he says. “And our priorities also influence this. Hence the difference between Hong Kong and Macao and within Macao.” Chan also notes the importance of resources in the Hong Kong context. “The two systems of conservation are different,” she says. “One is heavily controlled by the government and the other is driven by capitalism. In Hong Kong, finance and land development are king and conservation projects are expected to be self-sustainable. There are lessons to be learned mutually.”

For more information on Macao’s heritage, head to

Unesco Macao
Your guide to Macao’s main listed structures...

Ruins of St Paul’s
One of the oldest and most iconic landmarks in Macao. The ruins are what’s left of St Paul’s College and the Church of St Paul, built in the 16th century but destroyed by fire during a typhoon in 1835.

Guia Fortress
This 17th century fortress consists of a colonial military fort, a chapel and a lighthouse. The fort was invaluable in fending off an attempted Dutch invasion in 1622 and the lighthouse was the first modern one to be built on the Chinese coast.  

A-Ma Temple
A traditional Chinese temple that predates the city’s existence. The name Macao, in fact, probably comes from the words A-Ma-Gau, which is where the A-Ma Temple is located. Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have all been worshipped under one roof here.

Dom Pedro V Theatre
An important Macao landmark, this pastel green structure was built in 1860 and was the first Western-style theatre in China.

Moorish Barracks
Built in 1874, this brick and stone building sits atop a raised granite platform above the street. It was constructed to accommodate policemen from Goa, India, who have nothing to do with the Moors. Seems like a little was lost in translation.

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