From ‘drunken dragons’ tottering the street to traditional Catholic processions, Macao’s festivals offer a thrilling glimpse into the dual heritage of this remarkable destination…
Later in the year, Macao’s sights turn towards the spectacular Macau Grand Prix (15–18 Nov); away from the racetrack, however, it is preceded by another big event on the calendar. Mid-autumn Festival is a China-wide harvest folk ritual marking the full moon, but it has taken on a wider meaning over the years, even in modern cities like Macao. It’s a time of moon cakes (hefty sweet/savoury pastries stuffed with lotus seed and red bean), colourful lanterns and family reunions, while visitors will find a friendly welcome and a chance to explore the city’s Chinese roots.
Nam Van Lake is a good place to start, with firework displays typically sounding out over the water, while the black sands of Hac Sa beach are filled with strolling families taking in the moon. The eve of the event is usually the most festive, as children heave lanterns around the town and every landmark is typically lit up in celebration. Just grab yourself a moon cake and soak up the atmosphere.
No event dominates in this part of the world quite like Chinese New Year. The celebrations are incessant, fuelled by enough firecrackers to keep you jittery all day, with locals allowed to set off fireworks in two locations: the waterfront at Estrada Almirante Marques Esparteiro in Taipa and Avenida Dr Sun Yat-Sen, near Macau Tower. Needless to say, it’s glorious chaos as the night sky lights up in a thousand personalised, unique displays.
For something more organised, the biggest parade usually bursts into life between Sai Van Lake and Senado Square, as lion and dragon dancers tousle their manes and scales, frolicking the streets in a riot of colour. But be sure to also visit the region’s temples (try the ancient A-Ma or Kun Iam Tong) to see the season’s traditional side. During this period, locals typically offer incense for good luck, and the scents and colours make it a sensory experience like no other. An incredible time of year to visit.
One of the more unusual celebrations in Macao sees local fishing communities take to the streets to perform a ‘mock’ drunken dance while parading a ceremonial wooden dragon. As they stumble the streets, they hand out ‘longevity rice’ and shower the air in beer and Shaoxing rice wine, typically spraying it from their mouths in a downpour of Tsingtao.
It might sound like an alcohol-induced uprising, but it’s an event that actually has its roots in a Buddhist legend from Guangdong Province, and it’s no surprise that it coincides with the Bathing of the Buddha Festival. So it goes: a village appealed to the deity to save them from a plague, only for a sea dragon to emerge. A local monk slew it and the town miraculously recovered; then, believing the dragon to be divine, they set about honouring it in kind. The tradition has continued since.
For a pretty raucous parade, it actually begins rather sedately. Head to Kuan Tai Temple, near Senado Square, where prayers and blessings precede the festivities. Then, as things get louder and the rice wine flows, participants make their way to the centre in a shower of drink and rice grains. There’s nothing quite like it, but bring an umbrella to avoid the spray!
Macao’s Portuguese heritage is rarely far from sight, whether it’s in the cobbled streets of The Historic Centre of Macao or the plethora of restaurants serving Portuguese classics. Yet its past is never more visible than in mid-May, when the Procession of Our Lady Fátima takes to the streets from São Domingos Church. Join thousands of local Catholics on the streets, as white-robed women parade the statue of the Lady up to the hilltop Penha Chapel.
Regardless of creed, the sight of this annual march is nothing short of spectacular. Its origins date back to the old country, in honour of a 1917 sighting of the Virgin Mary in Portugal, and last year was the 100th anniversary of the procession. At the end, it all culminates in a solemn mass, but it’s worth catching a glimpse as it passes through the streets of Nam Van and Sai Van – a sight like no other in Asia.
Dragon boats are raced all over China, though the origins of this tradition trace back to the folk rituals of the south’s fishing communities. This race, however, is part of a larger event, Dragon Boat Festival, which is said to commemorate the death of the 3rd-century poet Qu Yuan, who protested corruption by drowning himself – it is said his countrymen raced out to find his body, drumming to keep away the bad spirits. This morphed into an annual competition in his memory, though there is little history out on the water these days; instead, all eyes are typically on the teams.
Interestingly, dragon boat racing had rather fallen out of fashion in recent centuries, even though races were still held intermittently in Macao from the 1930s on. This festival was revived China-wide in 1979, and now annual races are held here on Nam Van Lake, with local and foreign teams taking to the water as the sound of drums batter the shores and eardrums of spectators. The festival is a lively, colourful event that stretches beyond the furious splashing of the paddlers, however, and well worth seeing.
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