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Saturday, February 13, 1999 Published at 23:53 GMT

Macao: Mediterranean life in the East

Last Chinese New Year under Portuguese rule

By Jill McGivering

Piles of curried crab, baked in their shells, a pot of sausage and beef stew overflowing with shiny Chinese vegetables, coconut sponge cake glistening with icing, sliced and ready to serve - they all looked delicious, despite the fact they were hard as rocks.

In fact they looked just as appetising as last time I saw them, several months ago, if possibly a little dustier.

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This display of typical Macanese food, a melting pot of Chinese and Portuguese cuisine, is one of my favourite items in Macao's newest museum, opened just last year.

It starts by charting the broad sweep of the histories of Europe and China, then shows the two converging almost five-hundred years ago as Portuguese merchants started to use this tiny southern tip of China, Macao, as a base and safe haven as they sailed to and fro, trading with China and Japan.

The two worlds finally fuse in a recreated living room from a typical Macanese house, carefully roped off to make sure tourists don't make themselves too much at home.

The Macanese community

It's a cultural 'spot the difference' - Chinese lacquered boxes and family portraits alongside pictures of the Virgin Mary, white lace chair covers and a half-open bottle of Portuguese wine.

The term Macanese doesn't just mean someone from Macao, it refers to a unique mixed-race community with Portuguese and Chinese ancestry, proud families whose history here stretches back generations.

They're a minority in Macao's total population of less than half-a-million. But in somewhere where the ruling Portuguese rarely learned Chinese and the local Chinese weren't taught Portuguese at school, this middle group of Macanese have become influential bureaucrats who bridge the cultural gap and often actually run the place. They even developed their own language, now almost extinct.

Will Macanese tradition survive?

The question gnawing at these old families now is whether their culture is under threat, being slowly turned into glazed plaster of paris exhibits in museums like this - or whether it will survive Macau's handover to China at the end of this year, two years after Hong Kong was returned by the British.

Some Macanese are robustly confident. I spoke to one government official whose family history here stretches back ten generations.

He grew up speaking Portuguese, in an education system which teaches lists of Portuguese railways stations and rivers without mentioning China's great Yangtze across the border.

As he spoke to me, he sipped his espresso and gesticulated with a passion and accent of the Mediterranean.

Macao's distinct character must be maintained, he said. If we lose it, we'll be nothing, just another small province of China.

Mediterranean lifestyle

The mix of Portugal and the Orient is also an essential weapon in the battle to boost the flagging tourism industry.

[ image: Gambling is popular with visitors to Macao]
Gambling is popular with visitors to Macao
Some come only to gamble in the casinos but others do visit to savour the Macao experience - the squares with their bold mosaic pavements, fountains and cafes; the small churches with plaster facades freshly painted pink or amber and decorative details picked out in gleaming white; the wrought iron balconies and Mediterranean terraces blooming with potted plants; the meandering way of life, characterised by spontaneous chaos and personal connections.

But the pessimists say defending this culture is like trying to stop the incoming tide.

In the last ten years, Macao's population has almost doubled as new immigrants from China have flooded in. Many of them have little concept of things Portuguese and little desire to learn.

For the new post-handover government, just maintaining the brightly painted facades of public buildings - which in Macao's humid climate need replenishing every year - is a huge cash commitment.

The Portuguese administration has spent its final years building a fortress of cultural institutes, museums and academies. But such bodies need the enthusiasm of local people if they want to stay alive. No-one can afford to turn the whole of the enclave into a giant museum of Macanese cultural history.

I spoke to one new arrival, a Chinese youngster who settled in Macao last year after spending his childhood in a village in southern China.

Macao was great, he said - reeling off the plus points - basketball and air conditioning top of the list. So what did he think of the Portuguese? He seemed vague. He'd never heard of anyone Portuguese in Macao, he said, everyone here was Chinese.

His mother hissed in his ear: of course he had, the foreigners they glimpsed in the street - they were the Portuguese. He hung his head, confused.

I didn't ask the boy if he'd yet been to the new Museum of Macao. Perhaps there he'd be intrigued by the hard glassy plates of food and the still silent living-room - some parts looking familiar, others strangely foreign.

I doubt he'd suddenly be moved to take up Portuguese - but he might at least be inspired to taste real Macanese cuisine in one of the enclave's many dedicated restaurants.

He ought to make the effort. Then at least he can describe it to his own children in years to come.

Who knows - by then museum rooms and glass cases may be the only places left that old Macao can still be found.

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