The life and times of Rua da Felicidade

By Jonathan Evans
Photo Credit: Louis Li / Amy Wong 

Away from the congested tourist centres of peninsular Macau, such as Senado Square and the Ruins of St Paul’s – which host all kinds of architectural riches, but have also become highly commercialised – it’s easy to forget that equally fascinating, far more authentic sightseeing experiences can be enjoyed just a few minutes’ walk away. For any casual visitor searching for the true soul of Macau, just wandering through the backstreets around Rua da Felicidade delivers a heady mix of local and foreign life in a cultural hotchpotch laden with both history and contemporary colour. At the foot of old tenement buildings, small street-level businesses still thrive, selling specialist foods such as almond cookies and dried fish to devoted locals.

But in terms of architecture and cultural history – not to mention its sheer attractiveness – “Happiness Street” (the direct English translation) itself is the major draw. While the European grandeur of colonial times is on full display nearby at the city’s best-known tourist areas, Rua da Felicidade today bears testament to the Asian influence over the city – and most especially, the longtime Chinese presence in Macau. Small houses along the street, home to many noodle and seafood restaurants, continue to attract visitors. Shark’s fin is particularly popular here, and at the end of the street is Fat Siu Lau (“The House of the Laughing Buddha”), established in 1903 – one of Macau’s oldest and most popular restaurants serving up Macanese and Chinese food such as its signature dish, roasted pigeon.  

More modern outlets such as Naughty Nuri’s – Ubud’s successful pork-rib franchise – also have a place on this stretch, in smart-looking, detached houses that lend their tenants an upmarket appearance. (Even the launderettes look beautiful – check out Lavanderia Hok Sine, with its green door and traditional street lamp.) Portuguese-style food is available, as well as Macanese snacks and appetisers such as minchi rice, at Belos Tempos teahouse.

Photography: Face Book / Naughty Nuri’s 

Movie lovers may recognize the street from Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Doom, whose opening scenes – ostensibly set in Shanghai – were filmed here. Film buffs will also find curiosity value in SanVa Hospedaria, the oldest guesthouse in Macau, which was originally a private club in the 1870s before being transformed into a hostel in the 1930s, and has been the setting for many movies from Korea, India and Thailand. 

Photography: SanVa Hospedaria - Transport yourself to the olden days of Macau

With its long parade of two-storey, grey-brick houses fronted by scarlet shutters and doors, and bearing decorations and inscriptions that speak of old legends, Rua da Felicidade expertly blends traditional Chinese architecture with Western street iconography. The street’s name and harmonious ambience may conjure a feeling of idyllic contentment, but in bygone days the scene here was far from salubrious. The “happiness” to which the thoroughfare’s name refers was the temporary relief enjoyed on the street in the late 19th and early 20th century by brothel patrons, gamblers and opium smokers, making this area Macau’s unofficial red-light district. It wasn’t until the late 1940s, when the Macau government outlawed drugs and prostitution, that business slowed down on Happiness Street.

In its 19th-century heyday the courtesans who worked here were daughters of destitute parents, but their work involved much more than wearing slinky cheongsams, assuming provocative poses and selling their bodies. The “sing-song” girls, as they were known, also played music, sang romantic songs and learnt Confucian poems to seduce customers. Almost every house here was at one time a den of iniquity – whether that involved narcotic, carnal or gambling pleasures – but by the 1960s, the vice trade had died out and in 1996, a full-scale makeover was carried out in an attempt to restore the area’s faded bohemian glory (minus the illegality). Four years ago, further heritage efforts were afoot to build a “brothel museum” adjacent to the main street, though these were eventually not realised.

Thanks to this forward-thinking heritage conservation, Rua da Felicidade became not just the only intact brothel site in China but also a major tourist draw. The former blue and green colours of the façades were replaced by red doors and louvers, creating an attractive backdrop to the numerous businesses that have now settled here, while the once-exposed brick frontage was replastered and painted. But in the years after the 1996 restoration, some buildings became damaged due to their age, leading the Macao Cultural Heritage Department to propose a more ambitious project in 2014 – a façade makeover of the 86 classified heritage houses on Rua da Felicidade, Beco da Felicidade (“Alley of Bliss”) and Patio da Felicidade.  

The idea was to preserve the houses’ authenticity by returning to the original architectural features of the 19th century. Number 59 on Rua da Felicidade, a grocery store, was the first house to be restored, its brick walls once again exposed, with the first-floor window panes made from translucent oyster shell (capiz) returned to their original dark-green colour. The restoration started in October 2014 and, with typical efficiency, was completed by January 2015.

Photography:Go during early mornings to avoid tourists photo bombing your selfies, and to get a beautiful shot of the closed doors and windows as your background.

Though it’s always been an area of cultural exchange, one of the more surprising aspects of modern-day Rua de Felicidade is the extent of its multiculturalism. Aside from other South-East Asian outlets such as Naughty Nuri’s, passersby will notice the considerable influx of Filipino businesses in the area (or “Chinoy”, as some of them advertise themselves), with names such as Anak Philippine Bread, Ara Mart, Pinoy Street and Lutong Bahay. While Rua da Felicidade’s history is assured, its ongoing evolution is fascinating to witness, many decades after its years of notoriety came to an end.

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