Macau: Chinese, Portuguese or something else?

On arrival in Macau by plane you are immediately struck by the odd combination of Chinese and Portuguese signage with the odd English translation here and there. Having travelled round China for so long it was comforting to see a roman letter based language, even if we were having to guess at the meaning – with no previous experience of Portuguese. So is Macau still very much a part of Portuguese colonial history or has China reclaimed the area for itself?

Chinese origins

Strange language mix in Macau
Strange language mix in Macau
Macau is one of the Southern most parts of China linking to the old Canton region by a land border. There is much in the way of Chinese culture evident in Macau including ancient temples, old Chinese crafts and the traditional Chinese language still used today even though mainland China has moved to a simplified form. You only have to get away from the glitz and glamour of the casinos and walk down the narrow streets of the old town to see the traditional Chinese crafts still in use such as textiles.

The large proportion of Chinese population means that Cantonese is widely spoken (with Mandarin largely understood), Chinese festivals are celebrated and several of the museums (including the Macau museum & Maritime museum) have dedicated sections outlining Chinese history and culture.

You would therefore not be mistaken for thinking that Macau was in fact what you’re told: just a region of China. Yet it still doesn’t seem to be the whole story – it doesn’t quite feel like you’re seeing the complete picture. If you look closely (& in some areas not even that close an inspection is needed), you’ll see that there is a lot more to Macau than just it’s Chinese origins.

Portuguese colonialism

Ruins of St. Paul, Macau
Ruins of St. Paul, Macau
In 1535 the Portuguese sought refuge on Macau after they had allegedly been shipwrecked off the coast. By 1557 they were given permission to come ashore and hence began the start of Portuguese colonisation. Evidence of the Portuguese is most clearly seen in an area of Macau now designated an UNESCO heritage site. On viewing the ruins of St Paul, sitting on a pew in St Anthony’s church or wandering through Senado square you couldn’t feel any further from China. However, the proximity of the Portuguese buildings to the more traditional Chinese ones, shows the harmonious relationship that appeared to exist between the two cultures.

Macau was a crucial win for the Portuguese who were one of the great seafaring nations as it opened up Asia for trade. The Dutch were a constant threat and therefore more Portuguese influence is evident by the construction of strategic defence such as Mount Fortress (adjoining the ruins of St Paul’s) and Guia Fort (containing both a Chapel & the first Western lighthouse on the Chinese coastline). You can even stoop through the old military tunnels that lie beneath Guia fort to get a real feel for what it would have been like.

It’s not just architecturally that the Portuguese left their mark on Macau but also through language and food. The street names as well as much of the signage is displayed in Portuguese although it does appear that it is no longer spoken by the local population (confirmed when we met some Portuguese tourists in Hong Kong). With regard to food the Portuguese egg tart is still regarded as the signature snack to try and a range of restaurants serve Portuguese cuisine or even fusion dishes incorporating the best of both cultures. It’s almost a microcosm for the whole of Macau – a unique blend of the best of both Portuguese and Chinese culture living harmoniously side by side and somehow it just works.

The American Dream

Ceiling in the Venetian, Macau
Ceiling in the Venetian, Macau
At first there appeared to be a hint of something else. Wrongly I felt it was British – the English translations to signs, traffic driving on the left and my obvious bias to my home country. However as we moved further from the history of the region and looked towards it’s future we saw the classic signs of Americanism rising up from any and every spare bit of land. Even where there was no land it was being reclaimed from the sea. The opulence of the casinos with their chic designer shops seemed at first glance to be the complete opposite of communist China. However, having spent several months in the more affluent Eastern provinces of China we knew this to be typical of the worlds now fastest growing economy. The desire to live the American dream of many Chinese could not be seen more clearly than here in Macau where money could but you anything.

So what therefore, if anything, can be concluded? Well it’s certainly a part of China and that can’t really be disputed. However, the Portuguese colonisation has definitely left it’s mark on more than just the architecture. Alongside the high speed development, Macau should take care not to lose much of the traditional charm that makes it so special.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: