Macau’s new boutique makeover

By Jonathan Evans
Photography: Amy Wong

Throughout last October, an intriguing new festival was unveiled in peninsular Macau that aimed to bring together historic local culture and modern entrepreneurship. The Festival Travessa do Armazem Velho was held around its namesake street (also known as Guan Chin Kai) and Rua dos Ervanarios near Camoes Garden, which together make up one of Macau’s oldest areas and once housed a thriving business district. The activities included rickshaw riding, renting traditional clothes, filming, traditional craftsmanship, site tours and art exhibitions – cultural explorations that sought to re-create the sight and sounds of the area’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

In this nostalgic age where vintage artefacts have never been more hip, and crafts and trades of the past have seen a global resurgence, the organisers displayed impeccable timing in tapping into this new cultural philosophy where everything old is new again. The festival brought a blaze of fresh colour to this celebrated area, with lively street art providing the backdrop to the activities, while makers of all descriptions – costumiers, artisans, toy and accessory designers, painters, textile artists and jewellers – brought their wares to the streets in the hope of making a sale. But more than offering up nostalgia for its own sake, the event also increased younger residents’ awareness of the area’s heritage – as well as adding heft to the new creative industries that are blossoming around these cobbled streets, where trendy boutiques, gift shops and cafés are dominating the sidewalks.  

The narrow pedestrian street of Rua dos Ervanarios (“Herbalists’ Street”) – one of Macau’s oldest three streets, known under the collective association name of Sam Gai Wui – was in a past life known as the location for an iron door that prevented criminals from entering the city centre (its Cantonese transliteration means “the street before the barrier”). The juxtaposition of old and new here, as well as the open appearance of some older businesses which have no front doors, made it the perfect launchpad for new outlets, as the quiet street is designed in such a way as to encourage visitors.

Photography: (Bottom) A Porte da Arte in the background 

Among the traditional Chinese businesses along this stretch are a physiotherapist, a tailor, shops selling incense and Chinese New Year paraphernalia; and numerous outlets where customers can pick up knick-knacks including jade and gold jewellery, religious items and utensils. Now, visitors to the area are just as likely to come across a hip cultural hub with a jewellery store and make-up studio (A Porte da Arte); or a strikingly designed café (Pace Coffee). It’s no surprise this quiet, atmospheric street away from the centre was also chosen as a venue for last year’s Macao Light Festival.

Photography: Macau Light Festival (Click for more information) 

Photography: Senado Square (left), Camoes Garden (Click for more information) 

Rua dos Ervanarios is far from the only road lying between Senado Square and Camoes Garden that’s become ripe for creative gentrification. Aside from last year’s heritage festival, Travessa do Armazem Velho has for many years hosted one of Macau’s best-known street markets, which sells antiques, clothes and accessories, and where one customer reportedly bought a jade object worth MOP1 million for just MOP20. Neatly summing up the old-meets-new vibe of the area, it’s also bookended by a museum of vintage audio equipment (Museu de Gramofones) and an influential contemporary art gallery (Iaohin).

But the main attraction for hip treasure hunters in the area is a short stroll northwards at Patio de Chon Sau, an appealing alleyway which over the last five years – under the direction of urban designers Number 81 Co. Ltd. – has transformed into a goldmine for cosmopolitan cafés, boutiques, street art and bars. Foodies should note that in this small area several cuisines are represented, including Macanese (at Sab 8), tapas and ramen. Boutiques selling ceramics, coffee, Murano glass, French cookies, Italian gelato and Korean clothing have already graced this colourful international oasis – perhaps the most successful of all being the now-closed South African art and handicrafts store Paper Scissors Rock, which shipped orders to devoted customers across Asia. 

Photography: Alleyway Patio de Chon Sau

With festivals and new outlets continuing to bring in new generations of visitors – crucially, not at the expense of older buildings – the contemporary reinvention of Macau’s old quarter looks to be in safe hands for some time to come.

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