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Wednesday, 15 December, 1999, 16:35 GMT
Macau: The Portuguese legacy
St Paul's Cathedral: Relic of colonial days
The Portuguese began the colonial era in Asia - and in the last days of the 20th century they are also the ones bringing it to an end.

The handover of the tiny colony of Macau to Chinese control marks the final chapter in 442 years of direct rule from Lisbon.

Like the former British colony of nearby Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese control in 1997, Macau will be ruled as a special autonomous region under the so-called "one country two systems" formula.

In financial terms Hong Kong is much more important for China and the rest of the world than Macau

Jorge Rangel
Macau Secretary of Administration
Unlike Hong Kong however, the territory is no economic powerhouse and, from Beijing's perspective, it is not classed in the same "golden goose" bracket as its neighbour was two years ago.

In the early days it was very different - shortly after it was first settled in 1547 Macau became a vital centre for European trading in East Asia. Hong Kong, on the other hand, was little more than a collection of barren rocks.

Then as Macau's influence faded with that of its colonial master, those positions were radically reversed.

Colonial relics

Nearby Hong Kong was a more lucrative asset for the Chinese
Many who live in Macau feel that their departing colonial master is leaving behind little more than a few colonial ruins.

The most famous example of these is the fašade of Saint Paul's Church - a structure that has become a symbol of the territory and a reminder of the role played by early Portuguese Jesuits in bringing Catholicism to China.

Portuguese officials, including the last Governor of Macau, fully admit that until recently little was done to develop the territory's educational or physical infrastructure.

Investment in Macau's education system also received little priority, causing the territory's administration to be heavily weighted in favour of the Portuguese.

The Portuguese administration is corrupt and a major failure, it doesn't really care about the local people

Chan Wai-kuan
Macau shopkeeper
Another more striking result these policies is that Macau has come to rely heavily for its income on the proceeds of gambling, more than 60% of which is controlled by the Chinese casino magnate Stanley Ho.

For much of its recent history Macau, with its glittering neon-lit casinos, bars and massage parlours, has been seen as the playground of Hong Kong.

It has also attracted the attentions of Chinese triad gangsters whose deadly battles over the fortunes to be made from racketeering and extortion in the territory are a continuing problem.

Last colony

From the point of view of the Portuguese the handover of Macau closes one of the most extraordinary episodes in the country's history.

Triad gangsters have become heavily involved in Macau's gambling culture
In the 15th and 16th centuries the Portuguese were the first Europeans to travel around the world, "discovering" other lands and cultures, from Japan to Brazil and Ethiopia.

Today "the Discoveries", as they are known, are central to Portugal's perception of itself and its history.

Many Portuguese find it hard to believe that their small country once had such an important role in the world.

As a result there is a high degree of sentimentality about Portugal's last colony, although much of it takes the form of protectiveness towards Macau's unique Sino-Portuguese hybrid culture.

Chinese riches

This East-West encounter that has lasted more than 400 years will continue

Jorge Sampaio
Portuguese President
Indeed, until very recently few efforts were made to encourage genuine interest amongst Portuguese in Chinese affairs.

Even given Portugal's pioneering colonial history in Asia, Portuguese universities have never offered courses in Oriental Studies or other aspects of East Asian society.

Now the government is hoping that its former colony will transform itself into a Portuguese gateway to the riches so many expect will emerge from the emerging Chinese market.

Officially Portugal is confident that China will stick to its guarantees that Macau's culture and relatively liberal political climate will be protected.

Although all 430,000 Macanese have been given the right to Portuguese passports, there has been no sign of a rush to leave the territory in the run-up to the handover.

Most Macanese seem content to wait and see what happens, although if they do decide to leave most are likely to head for Canada or Australia rather than to Lisbon or the Algarve.

Links to more Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.

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