Steeped in history and a myriad of cultures, Macao is a city for heritage lovers. From Portuguese-style cobblestone streets and Catholic cathedrals, to centuries-old Chinese temples – it’s no wonder UNESCO describes it as “unique testimony to the meeting of aesthetic, cultural, architectural and technological influences from East and West.”
All this explains why tour guides are everywhere. In fact, many of them were trained by the Macao Heritage Ambassadors Association (MHAA), an organisation established in the lead-up to the city’s historic inscription as a World Heritage site.
UNESCO wanted Macao to create a community dedicated to cultural and heritage-related events, explains the current MHAA president, Matias Lao. To do that, the Cultural Affairs Bureau (IC) and Junior Chamber International Macao joined forces to train up the city’s first batch of heritage ambassadors. It was they who went on to form the MHAA, back in 2004.
“That [initial] training aimed to strengthen young people’s sense of belonging to the city,” says 32-year-old Lao. “And afterwards, those original graduates wanted to pass on the spirit of promoting Macao’s culture and history. To maintain the training, they established the association.”
In its almost 20 years of operation, the MHAA has trained more than 500 people to be heritage ambassadors.
How to become a heritage ambassador
The MHAA’s two-month training sessions are in hot demand. More than 100 people apply for most intakes, and those applicants get whittled down to a class of just 35. To get in, you must be a polite person between the ages of 16 and 35, and have at least a basic understanding of Macao’s history and heritage, says Lao. Extra points if you’re a news junkie, and enjoy working in a team.
Applicants tend to be a mix of high school students, university students, and working professionals. Once accepted, prospective ambassadors are tutored in various aspects of Macao’s history, culture, and architecture – as well as the fundamentals of heritage conservation. Training sessions also offer tips on the art of tour guiding. For example, guides become adept at connecting what their groups are seeing with everyday life today. They also learn interactive games designed to engage children with history.
To qualify as an ambassador, each prospect must pass a series of tests: written, oral, and leading a tour out in the field.
One of the MHAA’s classic tours is its free-to-the-public Heritage Night Stroll, which takes place after dusk. The route varies each year, aligning with the association’s annual theme. This year it’s “Maritime Silk Road”. Over two hours, the audience learns about Macao’s long-held role as a trade hub between China and the West – via sites including the archeological pit on Rua de D Belchior Carneiro (where artefacts dating back to the late Ming dynasty were found in the early 2010s), the Ruins of St Paul’s cathedral, the Pátio do Espinho walled village, and a typical 19th-century shophouse.
The association also offers tours to schools, businesses, and community groups. Guides get paid by the hour.
Training to become a heritage ambassador can be life changing, according to Lao. There are people who switch their university majors (usually to history) after completing the programme, and school students who find their calling during it. “Some of them consider studying archaeology, history or architecture,” says Lao. “Our role is to inspire them to go deeper into their interests.”
Appreciating Macao’s rich cityscape
Lao, who volunteers for the MHAA while working a full-time day job, became a heritage ambassador in 2018. He grew up in Macao but studied urbanism at a university in Australia. “I tend to look at Macao from an architectural perspective,” he says, acknowledging a fondness for the Special Administrative Region’s “rich cityscape”.
Becoming a heritage ambassador inspired Lao to get involved in heritage conservation – the act of protecting unique architecture. He says he finds the legal side of it interesting, as well as community engagement. “[The course] broadened my concept of heritage conservation and its operation,” he says.
For Lao, and most trainees, the hardest part of the MHAA’s course is leading a tour for the first time. “I had to practise a lot,” he admits. “Before the test, I went through the routes and memorised all the details by heart. Then, I learned to notice the audience’s responses and find ways to engage them.”
Asked about his favourite heritage site, Lao says he never tires of the Ruins of St Paul’s. This 17th-century cathedral, almost entirely destroyed by a fire in 1835, is one of Macao’s most iconic landmarks. Lao enjoys watching his tour groups respond to the ruins, and their wonder at the details he’s able to point out – such as Chinese text on the Jesuit building’s remaining façade.
“[Seeing their reactions make me] feel happy that I’ve fulfilled our mission of promoting the city’s heritage,” he says.
Promoting heritage through research and publishing
The MHAA has a sister association focussed on the research and publishing side of promoting Macao’s heritage. The Macao Cultural Heritage Reinventing Studies Association (MCHRSA), as it’s called, was established in 2014 and is currently led by Harry Kwah, who graduated as a heritage ambassador in 2019.
As a law student at the University of Macau, Kwah found himself veering more towards the subject of history – especially that of his own hometown. “We didn’t study Macao history at school, so I did not know it at all,” the 30-year-old admits.
“At first, I felt like I was learning everything from scratch. As I got more involved in the MHAA with a group of friends, we got more and more interested in the city’s history and urban planning. Now we are working to improve the city and promote the dissemination of Macao culture and history.”
Kwah and the MCHRSA are responsible for much of the research that goes into books about Macao’s heritage, including textbooks used by trainee heritage ambassadors. They also create heritage-themed souvenirs, advise the government on its urban planning projects, and run month-long training courses for people interested in urban planning and cultural heritage management.
Learning through doing
Twenty-three-year-old Lorna Ng is the MHAA’s director, a role she performs alongside her studies at the Macao Institute of Tourism Studies – where she’s majoring in culinary arts.
Ng grew up listening to stories about Macao’s colourful past, as retold by older members of her family. She remembers always being fascinated by history and was glad when a relative brought the MHAA’s training programme to her attention.
A self-described introvert, Ng says the training helped her open up – especially the tour guide aspect of it. “At first, I was very shy to speak in front of a group of people, but I worked to conquer it,” she says.
These days, Ng draws immense satisfaction from showing people around Macao’s hidden gems. Like Lao, she enjoys the surprise people feel when learning unexpected facts about Macao’s historic buildings. “Many people find it surprising to learn that the Dom Pedro V Theatre was the first Western-style theatre in China,” she shares.
Social media has become a crucial tool for spreading awareness of what the MHAA offers, according to Ng. She believes teaching locals about Macao’s cultural heritage helps foster a sense of community, through “strengthening one’s sense of belonging to the city and understanding of one’s self.”
“We want to emphasise that the cultural relics we try to protect are for the benefits of future generations [of Macao people], not just to entertain tourists or to conform to government regulations,” she says.
Celebrating 20 years of the MHAA
Next year is the MHAA’s 20th anniversary, and its management team is eager to mark this milestone by launching a new offering. “We hope to create an exchange platform,” Lao says.
“We’ll work with more groups, such as historical and education organisations. We will also proactively seek cooperation with groups in the Greater Bay Area and the mainland. As Macao is small, we hope to enhance its influence through its rich heritage. I hope to encourage more people to visit the city and discover its history.”