It’s Sunday, December 19, 1999, and I’m lazing around on my sofa in Lisbon with the TV on. On the other side of the world, it’s almost midnight. Here, daytime is drawing to an end. So is the 20th century, so is the Millennium.
I’m following the ceremony in which Macau is handed over to China after 442 years of Portuguese administration. This marks the end of Portugal’s presence in Asia. This also marks the definite demise of its once extensive maritime empire.
After long warm handshakes, President Jorge Sampaio delivers a speech, praising the uniqueness of Macau and remembering the promises made during the negotiations leading up to that moment — similar to Hong Kong’s two years earlier — of “one country, two systems” for the respect of civil rights in the territory.
The Portuguese flag is then lowered for the last time to the sound of its anthem. Sampaio is visibly moved, his big blue eyes seem to well up. But this isn’t out of nostalgia or a frustrated neo-colonialist feeling. I get him. He’s a softie, too. The solemnity of the occasion and witnessing history in the making, or rather in the undoing, just gets to anyone…
President Jiang Zemin looks content as the flag of the People’s Republic of China is raised afterwards. After recouping Hong Kong and Macau, he’s now setting his sights on Taiwan, which he believes to be only a matter of time. More goodbyes and energetic handshakes ensue as the world leaders leave the hall empty symbolically to a tune called “Canção do Mar” (Sea Song).
Hong Kong and Macau went through the same transition process in those years and now share the same status — but their starting points are different. In 1842, Hong Kong was among the spoils of the first Opium War that China was bullied into. As for Macau, it was conceded through negotiations back in the 16th century with the Guangzhou province’s authority, after a few decades of smuggling and illegal settlement. The Portuguese already had a base in Malacca and engaged in trade with Japan. They were desperate for a trading harbor to access China’s goods legally, especially in such a privileged location, on the mouth of the Pearl River.
Contemporary Hong Kong is a flashy, tech-savvy, consumerist, Cantonese embracing anything Western…Macau is more of a laid- back, mixed-raced bon vivant with a serious gambling problem.
The Guangzhou authorities, in turn, were happy to charge taxes at a time of deep economic crisis and to control the Portuguese in one coastal city. While fending off pirates in the South China Sea, the Portuguese worked as middlemen in the region’s trade, Japan and China had severed diplomatic relations at that time, and there was a huge interest on both sides, essentially in silver from Japan and porcelain and silk from China. This was only possible by respecting the protocol and customs of the Chinese mandarins.
Up to this day in modern Portuguese, the idiom negócio da China (China business) is used to designate a very lucrative business. Although the administration was Portuguese, the actual sovereignty of China over Macau endured until the 1880s, when it became a colony. Contemporary Hong Kong looks like a flashy, tech-savvy, consumerist, Cantonese embracing anything Western — often at the expense of its own heritage. Macau is more of a laid-back, mixed-raced bon vivant with a serious gambling problem.
I finally set foot in Macau 18 years after the handover. As a Portuguese, I had been fed with news from the territory and its society. The name “Macau” had a special ring. For better and worse, it already had a reputation in my mind, and most of the sights were very familiar.
Strolling the streets, the architecture felt somewhat comforting, especially after over a week in mainland China. But the truth is, for most of the buildings attributed to my ancestors, they still look quite exotic. It doesn’t entirely feel like home. They’re obviously not indigenous, either — more like a middle ground.
Reading signs is effortless here and I don’t need to double check to see if I read it right the first time, but I’ve never heard of most of the people honored on them. Everything is bilingual, either Portuguese names with an approximated phonetic adaptation to Cantonese, or Chinese names with a Romanised transcription. Everything goes both ways and comes back again.
Pharmacies, doctors, lawyers, etc., are all easy to find (I’m just glad I don’t need any of them). The tiles are on every street, ironically with that blue color in dynamic traits and gentle strokes that we in fact brought from China centuries ago. Everything goes both ways and comes back again.
I get to catch sight of the odd football scarf inside restaurants or estabelecimentos de comidas, as they are called here. It almost takes the trail of a treasure hunt to find the cave where, myth has it, Camões dwelled for a while and wrote part of his Lusíadas odyssey. It’s on top of a mound tucked in a park visited mostly by elderly people on their exercise walks, practicing yoga or just playing — and gambling their patacas on — cards. Apart from a couple of tourists amused by the “winking statue” (Camões was one-eyed), I might be the only one there relating to it and recognizing the verses I was once taught at school. Then again, I don’t usually stop to look at the Camões statue in Chiado.
On a bus, stops are announced in Cantonese, English, and Portuguese, in a distinctive sweet-sounding Macanese accent. I’m almost embarrassed because it feels like the Portuguese language is only there to accommodate me and a few more people. But on this ride, I’m definitely the only one. Just not used to that, I usually assume I’m the one who needs to make the effort. Effort, too, goes both ways and comes back again.
I still seem to blend in, even when two young Portuguese women — clearly residents — get on and keep talking about something I would classify as rather personal while they stand near me. No one speaks or understands, except there’s always someone who does.
Most of the Macanese people I had met before were connected to Portugal. They were either mixed race or ethnically Chinese, with a very Chinese name or a name of someone who could as well have been born in Minho, but they all spoke better Portuguese than I do. They are part of a minority, though. Only 7% of the population speaks Portuguese, while 3% are native speakers (although about 20% hold a Portuguese passport). They are like a fusion nugget. That’s the beauty of Macau: the mélange it represents.
However, like many other cities around the world, Macau tends to become a uniform urban sprawl bending under the weight of the richest and/or most populated. It is gradually becoming the quirky backyard to Hong Kong, helped by the new bridge linking both via Zhuhai, expected to open to traffic this year. Mandarin and English have been gaining ground after the handover. Macau’s cultural specificity was probably more conspicuous, say, half a century ago.
The vocal expression of this fusion is Macanese patois, a creole dialect spoken alongside Cantonese and Portuguese, from which it would take its vocabulary, as well as Sinhalese and other creole languages from Malaysia (Kristang) and India. The number of its speakers has been dwindling dramatically over the past decades. Recently, it was listed by UNESCO as one of the world’s endangered languages. Patuá speakers might number as few as 50 nowadays.
The vast majority of Macanese are ethnically Chinese, but some of the people are living proof of that melting pot, from the days when Macau was the meeting point in the region, creating a population that was neither European nor Asian, but more of a hybrid. There has been a lack of consensus on how broadly Macanese people can be defined based on ethnicity, culture, language, or religion. Essentially, this is what tells them apart from the rest of China.
More than anything, that fusion can be tasted.
In the early days, many of Macau’s inhabitants were the fruit of mixed-raced marriages between Portuguese men and Asian women from India and Malacca. The mixing between Portuguese and Chinese people would only occur later, as Chinese society remained closed to foreigners for longer and any marriage with non-Chinese was frowned upon, to say the least. Add Indians, Eastern Africans, Vietnamese, and Japanese to the blend, and voilà!
One sign of this characteristic could be witnessed, for example, in the census of Hong Kong by the Brits in the 1870s, where there once was a large Portuguese community coming mostly from Macau: in the categorization by ethnicity, a distinction was made between Chinese, Indians, Europeans… and Portuguese, the latter apart from the former.
More than anything, that fusion can be tasted. Macau’s cuisine is layered with various influences. The Portuguese settlers brought not only dishes and cooking techniques from their homeland, but also trawled in a wide array of ingredients on their voyages through Africa, India, and the Malayan peninsula. All mixed with Southern Chinese cuisine as an essential base to become the first truly global fusion cuisine, long before “fusion cuisine” became a bragging point for chefs in fancy Western restaurants.
Any given dish has usually an origin that can’t be traced back to one single source. Traditional Cantonese cuisine was complemented by techniques such as stewing, grilling, and roasting, as well as ingredients such as sausage, codfish, sardines, coconut milk, and a multitude of spices, including cinnamon, turmeric, and curry powder. Now, piri-piri chicken, Macanese samosas (the wrap and the filling being slightly different from Indian ones), the so-called “Portuguese chicken” (actually curry chicken with coconut milk or ginger, olives, and tomatoes), pork chop buns, arroz gordo, Macanese feijoada, tamarind pork, minchi, diabo, almond biscuits, serradura, or the now ubiquitous pastel de nata are some of the staples one finds in Macanese diet, in many variations, transmitted from one generation to another within families. This is, in fact, the way such a unique cuisine has been preserved, but the lack of trademark recipes and the proliferation of international food chains and casinos that don’t serve Macanese food are a cause for concern about its survival.
As a Portuguese, I take pride in the fact that we rubbed shoulders for centuries with one of the greatest civilizations in the history of mankind. The first to arrive and the last to leave.
Macau’s fusion culture should be preserved and celebrated for the example it sets in history. For how during the course of four centuries, East and West met and made the whole greater than the sum of its parts, where different races, languages, and religions mingled and co-existed peacefully in mutual respect and tolerance. There wasn’t a single gunshot for the domination of one side over the other and mutual interest had been catered to. Macau has taught a lesson in peace management.
Eighteen years ago, Portugal gave up its role in the territory, leaving practically no political or economic influence and very little saudade and even less rancour among most of the Chinese population, who took its departure with some indifference. But it wasn’t linked to “the end of national humiliation” either, in the way that Hong Kong’s handover was, especially by Chinese leaders. As a Portuguese, I take pride in the fact that we rubbed shoulders for centuries with one of the greatest civilizations in the history of mankind. The first to arrive and the last to leave.
Our departure – and even our presence, most of the time – was rather subdued, in a characteristic way. We left through the back door. That’s also how it feels after dark as I wistfully rush to the outbound ferry. The customs officer looks past me as he hands me back my passport, held between his index and middle fingers, folded like a flag that has just been lowered. N’goy, Macau. Joigin and até breve.
If you’re interested in Macau, there are two spaces worth going to in Lisbon (both in Alcântara). The first is Museu do Oriente: if you just missed the exhibition of photographs and daguerreotypes dating as far back as the 1840s, depicting the daily life of its people and sights from days gone, there is now a film festival with many contemporary works from and/or about Macau until February 18.
The other one is the permanent exhibition at the Museum of Macau’s cultural center. The bottom floor addresses the first contacts between Portugal and China and the trade routes traced in that region of the world. The top floor displays a collection of strikingly beautiful artifacts that bear witness to those exchanges.