Macau: The Last Outpost

Today best known for its gambling industry, the rich cultural history of Europe’s last colonial toehold in China might be the key to its future. 

Macau, the Portuguese-administered enclave on the Chinese coast, returned to Beijing’s rule at midnight on December 19th 1999. The tiny outpost of European rule, little more than nine square miles in size, and containing half a million people, joined Hong Kong as the second Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic. For the first time since the mid-sixteenth century, no part of China will be run by a Western government.

Beguiled in 1499 by the profits and dietary benefits of the spice trade initiated in India as a result of the voyages of the explorer, Vasco da Gama, his Portuguese countrymen were inspired to sail still further east towards new discoveries. With land and trading contacts made with China by 1513, and with Japan by 1542, they sought a permanent base in East Asia to facilitate Portugal’s international trade, and with official Chinese approval they achieved this in 1557 on a peninsula with an excellent anchorage at the entrance to the Pearl River delta. (Two adjacent islands were added in the nineteenth century). Thus, in what came to be called Macau developed the first - and for long the only - permanent Western ‘eye’ into China’s empire.

From 1560 to 1640 the main Portuguese trading routes in the east were Guangzhou (Canton)-Macau-Nagasaki; Macau-Malacca-Goa-Lisbon and Guangzhou-Macau-Manila-Mexico. But, as a result of an isolationist policy in early Ming-dynasty China, it was as the middle-man in lucrative trading in silk and silver between China and Japan that Macau won its original wealth and fame.

Trading conditions for the Portuguese in East Asia were never again so favourable once competitors - particularly the Dutch and the British - began to take a serious interest in the area from the 17th century. As eras passed, cargoes became more complex, featuring tea, porcelain and latterly opium, and a winter trading season developed at Guangzhou, but the Portuguese traders and those of other nationalities tolerated each other in Macau during the humid summer season. Furthermore, Portuguese officials in Macau evolved a largely non-confrontational relationship with the local Chinese mandarins.

Despite the enormous psychological and economic blow caused by the establishment of Hong Kong in 1841, Macau survived, adapted, continued trading and went on to weather numerous subsequent political crises, including 20th-century revolutions in both China and Portugal.

Inevitably, trading ambitions from the beginning were coupled with the interests of the Catholic Church. The Jesuit order became the dominant influence in Macau, even among the rival Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians; churches and charitable institutions quickly became a feature of a fast-growing city. As early as 1576 Macau was elevated to a diocese by Papal decree: significantly one with an original responsibility which encompassed China, Japan, Korea, Formosa (Taiwan) and Indo-China.

Much Jesuit energy in Macau was centred on building churches and colleges. By 1594 the College of St Paul – intended to be comparable in stature to St Paul’s College in Portuguese Goa – was a centre for Japanese Jesuit students, and by the end of the century was offering higher studies in theology and the arts. As a result the college is acknowledged as the first ‘Western-style’ university in East Asia.

Doubtless this missionary training centre was monitored by Alessandro Valignano, the Italian aristocrat and Jesuit intellectual, who was appointed Visitor to the East in 1573. By 1597 his responsibilities were narrowed to the sophisticated societies of China and Japan – he shaped the Jesuit mission in both countries – and his initial ‘diocese’ extended from Mozambique to Japan. He was in Macau in 1578, in 1582, made it his headquarters in 1597, and died there in 1606. His drive encouraged Matteo Ricci to make Macau the starting point of his mission into China in the early 1580s.

Although officially controlled by a viceroy in distant Goa appointed by the Portuguese Crown, early Macau had a large degree of self-government modelled on the Portuguese medieval senatorial tradition of elected representatives choosing senators. A municipal senate, established in 1583, and latterly known as the Leal Senado (Loyal Senate), had by 1586 ensured that Goa had declared Macau to be ‘the City of the Name of God in China’.

News spread far about this flourishing, civilised, European-run port, and through the centuries it has been recorded as a place of risk and danger, spirituality, mystery and romance. Perhaps the presence of the great Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes in early Macau emphasises the spirit of the city, for here, some suggest, he composed the closing stanzas of his epic Os Lusiades.

Once Hong Kong was established by the British, Macau urgently needed patronage from there to buoy its economy. In consequence, the enclave settled into making itself attractive as a relaxing escape from the brasher atmosphere of the nearby British colony. In Macau, in addition to a familiar but different East/West atmosphere, there were more reflective attitudes, fresher breezes, as well as an impressive bay fringed with exuberantly substantial colour-washed houses protected by churches on rising land behind.

This desperate need for local revenue, possibly exacerbated by the draining effect of Macau’s responsibility for Timor, caused an eternally popular Chinese diversion to be officially acknowledged. A licensing system for gambling houses where games like fantan were played had been brought into effect by the 1860s. Thus gambling introduced somewhat different memories of the enclave in both China and the West. A 1934 franchise to a syndicate led to the colony’s first casino being opened. Today, more than 50 per cent of government revenue comes from gambling taxes. As gambling revenues have grown, an obligation to support major Macau government projects has been built into the franchises.

Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China from July 1997, agreed between China and Britain in 1984, was a model for Macau. In 1987 a similar ‘one country, two systems’ handover deal was agreed. In the colony, a spirit of focused energy began to replace a seeming lethargy. The 24-hour ferry service to Hong Kong steadily improved, and a helicopter service was introduced in 1991. Port facilities were deepened to accommodate vessels up to 10,000 tons. By 1995 Macau had an international airport and a new ferry terminal, both opened by the then Portuguese President, Mario Soares, amid Catholic and Buddhist blessing ceremonies.

A substantial new protector of Macau’s cultural heritage appeared in 1988, with the launch of the Orient Foundation. Funded by a 1.6 per cent cultural tax on gambling profits, it made an immediate impact through the acquisition of the late 18th-century Casa Garden as its Macau office – the oldest extant residential house in Macau, and long the home of the Camoes Museum.

Modern property development in Macau has been of variable quality, but, unlike in Hong Kong, many older buildings escaped demolition, and some are cherished in the context of historic preservation. A recent example is the restoration and adaptation of a long-derelict turretted convent into a new headquarters for the Macau Monetary Authority. Two palaces, both 19th-century commissions by the noble Cercal family, survive. By 1937, one had become the governor’s official residence. The larger palace is used as the Macau government’s headquarters.

The heart of the city is the square before the Neo-classical Leal Senado building. Pedestrianised and pattern-paved in a traditional Portuguese style, it is the hub of community events, both Chinese and Western. Nearby is the beautifully restored 16th-century St Dominic’s church. Here too are the ruins of the Church of the Mother of God and its associated colleges, which were almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1835.

In today’s world Macau continues to be dependent on tourism, much of it gambling-related. But the Leal Senado was confirmed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, and the government tourist office endeavours to ensure that at least some of the visitors who come to Macau for the gambling leave with a consciousness of the enclave’s history through its range of older buildings. Even more important is the generation of a sense of cultural identity among the youthful Macanese population, and among those who live and work in Macau, but were born and educated in the nearby rural areas of mainland China.

A popular and thoughtful folk-orientated Museum of Macau was established in 1997 within the historically important but under-used Monte Fort, explaining how and why Macau came to be as it is. In the same spirit, an international standard Cultural Centre of Macau was opened in March.

Macau does not possess the financial clout of Hong Kong, but the two former colonies have much in common. The surest defence for Macau against the dangers of domination by the gambling culture or absorption into China is a confident sense within the enclave of an international cultural identity with a range of different values. An emphasis over the past two decades on a wider range of higher education facilities has lent support to this attitude.

That Macau came to exist is itself a monument to pioneering human endeavour. Its present boom may be a result of the allure of its neon-lit gaming industry, but amid current reports that the industry has 'bottomed out', the key to its long-term future may rely on tourists embracing its past. 

Cherry Barnett is a journalist based in Hong Kong.


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