How Did Macau Get Its Name?

A-Ma Cultural Village, Coloane, Macau
A-Ma Cultural Village, Coloane, Macau | © Macao Government Tourism Office
Photo of Matthew Keegan
29 June 2018

Macau’s oldest temple holds the story of how the city was named.

Perched on a mountaintop in Coloane, Macau, is the world’s tallest statue of the Chinese sea goddess A-Ma (also known as Mazu). Erected in 1998, the statue was built with white jade and is 20m high. Macau owes a lot to goddess A-Ma, including its very name.

The world’s tallest statue of the Chinese sea goddess A-Ma in Macau. | © Rick McCharles / Flickr

Legend has it that A-Ma was a poor girl trying to make her way to Canton in mainland China. While a number of wealthy boat owners refused to take her, one fisherman offered to help and took her onboard. During the journey, a typhoon hit and all the other vessels were destroyed, all except for the fisherman’s boat carrying A-Ma.

When they came ashore in Macau, A-Ma vanished only to reappear as a goddess – at the mount where she reappeared, the fishermen built a temple in her honour. A-Ma became known as the goddess of seafarers and fishermen, and they believed her spirit could protect them from the dangers of the sea. To this day A-Ma (Mazu) remains the most worshipped sea goddess in China’s coastal areas.

When Portuguese sailors first arrived in Macau in the 1550s and asked the local people where they were, the reply was that they had docked at the ‘Bay of A-Ma’, (pronounced ‘A-Ma-Gau’ in Chinese). The Portuguese heard this as ‘Ma-Cau’ – which is how the city got its name. For over 400 years, Macau was a Portuguese outpost, until it was officially handed back to Chinese sovereignty in 1999.

A-Ma Temple

Built in 1488, A-Ma Temple is the oldest and most famous temple in Macau. In 2005, the temple was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as part of the Historic Centre of Macau.

Located halfway up the western slope of Barra Hill at Largo da Barra (Barra Square) on Rua de Sao Tiago da Barra, the A-Ma Temple consists of the Gate Pavilion, the Memorial Arch, the Prayer Hall, the Hall of Benevolence, the Hall of Guanyin, and Zhengjiao Chanlin (a Buddhist pavilion). It’s thought to be the biggest temple dedicated to goddess A-Ma in the world.

A-Ma Temple | © Blowing Puffer Fish / Flickr

A-Ma Cultural Village

In addition to the main A-Ma Temple, in 2003 a local businessman built a multi-million dollar park for the worship of goddess A-Ma. Perched on a mountaintop in Macau’s Coloane Island, A-Ma Cultural Village is beautifully designed with traditional architecture and features a large temple complex (Tin Hau temple). At a total of 7,000 square metres, it’s a very grand temple and attracts visitors from all over who can learn more about Macau’s centuries-old link with the goddess. In addition, a visit here has become a popular way to escape the hustle and bustle of the casino strip and to witness a more cultural side to Macau. Plus, the top of the mountain offers some fantastic views.

A-Ma Cultural Village Macau | © Macao Government Tourism Office

A short distance below the cultural village is the world’s tallest statue of A-Ma, located at Macau’s highest point, Alto de Coloane (172.4 metres (560 ft) above sea level). Both the statue and cultural village are reachable by a free shuttle bus that runs between Façade at Estrada de Seac Pai Van (at the foot of the hill) and Tin Hau Palace every 30 minutes.

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