As I look along the barrel of an ancient cannon, I see it is pointed directly at The Grand Lisboa Hotel. Now a global icon of Macau, the casino-hotel is one of Asia’s most unusual pieces of architecture, a 261m-tall skyscraper covered in golden-hued glass and shaped like a spurting water fountain. No other structure here is quirkier in appearance and none is more recognizable. It symbolizes modern Macau — a brash, cutting-edge city built on casino gaming.
Yet, for several centuries prior to that tower being built, the most significant structure in Macau was the one where I’m standing right now. If Grand Lisboa represents what Macau has become, then Monte Fort signifies what it once was, and tells us how it got here.
Monte Fort was a symbol of the Portuguese expansion into East Asia. In 1557 they made Macau their first major settlement in this region; not long after, they had to build a base from which they could defend this strategic jewel. By 1626, on a lofty spot overlooking Macau, they made a fort so commanding that it would go on to determine the course of the region’s history.
Back To The Beginning
While Macau was owned by Portugal up until just 20 years ago, the most significant remnants of colonial influence left here are the city’s European architecture — as seen in the historic enclave of Taipa Village, or the 17th-century Ruins of St Paul’s — and Chinese-Portuguese fusion food. In 1999, Macau returned to Chinese sovereignty, and it now exists as a Special Administrative Region of China, with its own money, passports and legal system, separate to mainland China. Hong Kong had gone through a similar transfer from the UK just two years before that.
The handover of Hong Kong left Macau as the last European colony in all of Asia; after 442 years under colonial rule, it was also the oldest permanent European settlement on the continent. Portugal would never have held on to Macau for that long if not for Monte Fort.
In the mid-1500s, Portugal was one of the world’s most powerful nations, with a vast fleet of ships and a growing number of foreign territories. Its people had made their first foray into Asia about 50 years prior and were looking to create a new oceanside settlement they could build into a vast trading port. They chose Macau, which at that stage was only a cluster of fishing villages, and leased it from China. Portugal would hold the area under these terms — still nominally under Chinese authority — until 1887, when they acquired perpetual colonial rights.
The region quickly became an important trading hub connecting the East Asian markets of China, Japan and Korea with Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Through its busy seaport passed boatloads of Chinese porcelain, Korean paper, Japanese wood crafts, Indian spices and African ivory. Huge sums of money began to be earned and accumulated in Macau. This made it a lucrative target for invasion.
Portugal’s main European rival in Asia during the 16th and 17th centuries were the Dutch. They, too, were creating settlements across the region, competing with the Portuguese for a share of the maritime trade market. In 1602, the Dutch began invading Portuguese colonies across the world; around this time, they made three separate but relatively minor raids on Macau. With the city having become a roaring success, the Portuguese knew it was only a matter of time before the Dutch tried to seize it for themselves, so in 1617, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries began constructing Monte Fort.
From my lofty vantage point 52 meters above ground on Mount Hill, which looks over the enormous Ruins of St Paul’s church, I can see why the Portuguese chose this spot to build the fort. The cathedral was the hub of Macau in that period, and the hill’s proximity to the region’s commercial heart as well as its sprawling views out to sea made it a strategic location. Slowly a high, granite walled exterior was constructed there, in the shape of a trapezoid, forming the boundary of the fort.
The fortress featured barracks to house Portuguese soldiers, as well as huge storehouses for weapons, food and other key supplies — this meant it could withstand a long siege, if necessary. It was embellished by two watch towers, from which Portuguese guards looked out for Dutch and pirate ships.
The fact that both of these towers were built on the fort’s southern structures looking back to the Chinese mainland — showed that the Portuguese feared an attack only from the ocean. To ensure they could react to any invasion, they installed 32 bronze cannons along the 9m-high walls of the fort — these weapons were used only once in June of 1622 when the Dutch attempted to seize Macau.
As I’m walking slowly along the southeast edge of the fort, running my hand along its rough wall, I peer out to sea and imagine what that invasion would have looked like. With their huge sails flapping in the wind, thirteen Dutch ships advanced on Macau on June 21; on board was a total of 1,300 men and huge caches of weapons.
As news swirled around Macau that day of the looming invasion, the ships having been spotted from the fort, the Chinese community mostly left the city. The Portuguese contingent that remained was outnumbered and outgunned, but what they did have was Monte Fort.
The fort’s powerful cannons first allowed the Portuguese to damage the Dutch ships. Then, when Dutch soldiers came ashore and stormed the city, the large guns rained death upon them. Unable to penetrate the sturdy fortress, the invaders were forced to retreat on June 24. Having successfully carried out such attacks all over the world, from the Americas to Africa and Asia, the Dutch had not expected to encounter such stiff resistance. Monte Fort had helped Macau to stay in Portuguese hands, where it would remain for another 377 years.
Were it not for this impressive defensive structure, Macau would be a far different sight: Today, its streets are lined with elegant Portuguese villas, streets have Portuguese names, and its food stalls are as well-known for their pasteis de nata (custard tarts) as they are for dim sum.
And yet, earlier that day, before I climbed up to Monte Fort, I found myself outside a large school. Located right beneath the looming tower of the Casino Lisboa, this school’s exterior walls are covered in Azulejo tiles, intricately patterned ceramic plates you would find on buildings all over Portugal. Escola Portuguesa de Macau, also known as the Macau Portuguese School, is the only school left in this city which still uses the same curriculum taught in Portugal and which conducts classes in the Portuguese language — it’s emblematic of the dying sway of Portuguese culture here.
As I’m exploring Monte Fort, amid crowds of tourists taking pictures with its cannons, I wonder how many of these visitors are aware of how much this one structure has helped shape the area. Macau, with its booming tourist-driven economy, has over the years become synonymous with glitzy casinos and gambling, both of which were introduced by the Portuguese — a part of history that started at this iconic old fort.