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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 July, 2003, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
Macau's colonial blood drains away

By Tony Cheng
BBC, Macau

The fašade of the church of St Paul has been described as a sermon in stone.

The intricate carvings were intended to introduce the heathen Chinese to the story of Christ and the saints.

Today, 400 years after it was built, only the facade survives, but sitting atop one of Macau's seven hills, it serves as a very visible reminder of the influence the Portuguese had on this small city state in southern China.

The Portuguese national flag is lowered for the last time at the Macau Government Palace
Macau's return to China has undermined its Portuguese heritage
"A French philosopher once wrote the French conquered the world with a feather, the British with a sword, and the Portuguese through sex," said Professor Carlos Marrieros, an architect and student of Macanese history.

He thinks that the enduring presence of the Portuguese in Macau will be protected by more than just history.

He pointed to the 400-year-old genetic footprint that the former colonials left as a safeguard to their continued presence, the people of mixed race known as the Macanese.

"As a matter of fact in Macau, the first experience of inter racial marriages were experienced here.

"From the 16th century up till now, European Portuguese mixed with local Chinese, but also Malay, Japanese and Filipino girls," he said.

One of the areas where the Chinese and the Portuguese have always met in harmony is in the kitchen, so I visited the kitchen of Fernando's, one of Macau's most popular restaurants.

I asked the owner, Fernando Gomes, if he thought Macau had changed very much since it converted to Chinese rule in 1999.

"Macau still has the same rules. You can't say it's Chinese rules or Portuguese rules, it's not an invasion!

The unique linguistic blend of Chinese, Portuguese, Malay and Japanese that acted as a lingua franca, or common language, between the Portuguese trading ports has almost disappeared

But that easy-going attitude is not shared by all.

Ng Kwok Cheung is a member of Macau's legislative assembly, and he thinks that the Portuguese colonists were too quick to hand back Macau to mainland China without securing greater rights for its citizens.

"I think there are some differences between the British in Hong Kong and the Portuguese in Macau.

"The British in HK, I think they want HK to be a real city of liberty in order for their economic interests and the economic interests of the Western world," he said.

"But in Macau, the Portuguese didn't care so much about this, therefore they want to co-operate with the present government, they only want to protect their interests," he added.

And by and large those interests have been well protected.

The Portuguese that remained after 1999's handover have prospered, as have the institutions that house them.

The bar at the military club in Macau is the very epitome of colonial living.

There are ceiling fans whirring, palms in the corner, and the smell of cigar smoke hangs heavy in the air.

Carlos Couto, the vice president of Casa de Portugal, an organisation which represents the interests of the Portuguese community here, said those who will probably find it more difficult to adjust to Chinese rule will be the Macanese.

"In a certain sense I believe that the Macanese are the ones who are going to suffer more. They need to adjust their mentalities to survive in this particular place.

"Before, for many centuries, they had played a role between the Portuguese Government and the Chinese Government. They had been the middle people. This role is now over," he said.

In the heart of Macau's colonial past
Colonial architecture remains, but young Macanese are leaving

In the Luis de Camoes Park - despite its name - there is little evidence of any Portuguese colonial legacy.

As the locals practise their Cantonese opera skills, all traces of the distinctive Macanese dialect that was unique to the city are gone.

A linguistic blend of Chinese, Portuguese, Malay and Japanese, it acted as a lingua franca, or common language, between the Portuguese trading ports.

Some disconcerted Macanese have started to make efforts to revive their dying culture.

Fred Palmer and his wife Sonia have founded a theatre troupe which performs traditional Macanese plays in the Macanese dialect.

Although their performances have been well received, the audience is generally a mature one.

No new blood

Mr Palmer said that a lot of Macanese left for Portugal, and they are missed by the local community.

"The fact is that they used to have the usual traditional things going on. Today we see less of those things going on. As a matter of fact for the cultural part of it, it's less than before," he said.

And what has even more impact on the future of the Macanese is the lack of any new Portuguese immigrants.

A community which for centuries has regenerated with marriages between the Chinese and the Europeans has seen its source of new blood dry up.

Most of the young Macanese have long since left for Europe, America or Australia.

Those that remain, like the octogenarian Lionel Barros, are determined to cling to their identity.

"In Macau, if there is one Macanese, they will still continue. So I'm going to stay here. My mother died here, my wife died here, my father died here. Only my brother and I are left. He is 75 and I am still living, in good running condition," he said.

Macau makes much of its Portuguese past, and the winding alleyways and colonial architecture are constant reminders of the first Europeans to settle in the Far East.

However, the living remnants, the Macanese themselves, are quickly slipping away.

Like the CDs of Macanese Christmas carols that Fred Palmer sells in the hot summer evenings, they seem to be caught out in the wrong place, at just the wrong time.

Macau handover: Asia's last colony
20 Dec 99  |  Asia-Pacific

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