The name is thought to derive from the A-Ma Temple, built in 1488 and dedicated to Mazu, the goddess of seafarers and fishermen, referred to locally as "Maa Gok" and which in Portuguese became "Macau."

Year:  2017

Area: 28.2 sq km

Population: 597,425 -- 170th in World

Flag: The flag is green with a lotus flower above a stylized bridge and water in white. There is an arc of five gold stars, one large in the center of the arc and two smaller on either side. The lotus is the floral emblem of Macau; the three petals represent the peninsula and two islands that make up Macau; the five stars echo those on the flag of China.

No other city in China has the kind of rich colonial history that Macau does. It began 500 years ago, when in June, 1513, Jorge Alvares landed in Southern China. At that time, Macau was an insignificant fishing village. Its location and lack of value in the eyes of the Chinese made it an ideal location for the Portuguese, and it became the first port to be settled permanently by Westerners in the Far East.

The Portuguese gained clout to establish a settlement in Macau when they defeated pirates in a 1556 battle. After that, the local authorities reached an agreement with merchants from Portugal to open official trade. By 1576, the Portuguese had gained such a foothold in the area that the Catholic Church made Macau a diocese. Money began pouring in to construct cathedrals throughout the city. The Jesuits had some success in converting Chinese intellectuals though an anti-western backlash would destroy much of the physical evidence of their influence. Nonetheless, they did have a significant role in education and science in the region, even establishing a printing press with movable type as early as 1588. It was in Macau that the Bible was first translated into Chinese.

These early decades would be a time of great economic prosperity for the city as Portuguese traders became the middlemen for the lucrative trade between Japan and China. However, their economic prosperity brought increased competition and on July 24, 1622, the Dutch assaulted the city. Their attempt failed, but this event marked the beginning of the end for Macau as the sole gateway of the West to the East.

Continued interest in China led to the forced opening of other ports on China’s east coast -- decreasing Macau’s importance. The closing of Japan to the West in 1639 also hurt Macau’s lucrative trade operations there.

The period from 1750 to 1840 was rather uneventful for Macau as commerce remained restricted to local trade. The influence of this period is apparent in Macau’s cuisine and architecture which began to fuse Chinese and Portuguese cultures.

However, the growing trade at Canton began to involve the English more and more as they looked to trade opium (that was being grown in the Indian colony) for tea which had become immensely popular back in Britain. This would lead to the greatest blow to Macau’s economy, which came in 1841 when the British occupied Hong Kong Island. This possession would soon surpass Macau as the financial hub of Southern China, and Macau’s economy nearly collapsed. In an attempt to counter the decrease in revenues, the Portuguese made gambling legal in 1844. This decision resulted in Macau becoming a center for all manner of illegal activities.

Macau saw an increase in revenue through this action, and to this day, casinos remain the dominant force in Macau’s economy. The government in Macau gained greater autonomy, and after centuries of mixed relations between the Chinese government and Portugal, the two sides finally came to an agreement on March 26, 1887. This agreement made Macau an official colony of Portugal, though the borders remained a matter of some dispute for decades to follow.

On December 20, 1999, Macau became the last colony to be handed back over to the People’s Republic of China, thus ending Portugal’s colonial rule.

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