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November 30, 2000

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DECEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 51

A Proud People


More than 400 years of history are written on their faces. They are the Macanese - descendants of the soldiers and administrators who came out from Portugal and stayed on to marry local women and make their lives here. These days, there are probably less than 10,000 Macanese left in Macau, though many times that have settled elsewhere. Over the centuries they have developed a distinctive culture that combines elements from virtually all the peoples living along the south China coast, including Malays, Indians, Vietnamese and, of course, Chinese. The Macanese have their own special cuisine, even a separate language. For these proud people, another page in their long and colorful story turns on Dec. 20. Here are a few of the personalities involved:

The Writer
Henrique de Senna Fernandes plods slowly up the narrow stairs that lead to his law office in a bustling neighborhood along Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, his slow pace betraying his 76 years. Fernandes's office is lined with books, some of which are novels he wrote about the Macanese people. Regrettably, none has been translated from Portuguese into English, though the Chinese made a popular movie, The Bewitching Braid, from one of them. Many of the stories are set in the 1920s and 1930s, which Fernandes considers the golden period for the Macanese people. "All the traditional families were intact then," he remembers. Many left after World War II, and it is estimated that about five out of six Macanese now live abroad - in Portugal, Brazil, the U.S. or Canada. Fernandes says:"My purpose [in writing the stories] was to explain the two cultures, Portuguese and Chinese. They are so different from each other, but we can live together and create one mixed culture. Look at me - I'm a product of many cultures."

Special Report: Macau
This handover is nothing like that other one in 1997

Macau is a lot more tha crime central. Honest

Next Up?
The transfer of power is big news in Taiwan

The Macanese
A proud but threatened community

Fernandes's family has lived in Macau for at least 250 years. Various ethnic strains - Indian (Goan), Chinese, French and Portuguese - flow in his veins. But, above all, he says, he is Portuguese. "We consider ourselves different from European Portuguese, but we love the [national] flag." The ways of the Portuguese in Macau were different from those of the British in Hong Kong, he says. "The Portuguese never put us aside; they married our girls." In Hong Kong, the offspring of the British and locals were termed half-castes and later Eurasians. "We Macanese never considered ourselves Eurasian," he says.

Fernandes was invited to Beijing in 1987 to witness the signing of the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration, which set out Macau's return to China. For him, it was a sad occasion. "I consoled myself with the excellent food they served." Now comes an even more poignant moment, when the flag he loves so much is hauled down for good. But he will be staying on. "I have homes in Portugal that I could go to any time," he says. "But I want to see the passing of the millennium in my birthplace."

The Returnee
When Isabel Eusebio was 16, her family sent her to live with an uncle in Brazil. That was in 1975, a year after the "Carnation Revolution" in Portugal overthrew the right-wing Salazar dictatorship. Democracy followed, but there were fears that Portugal - and its overseas territories - might descend into Marxism. "We lost a lot of our community back then," says Eusebio. "I was one of them." But she returned, and in 1990 she and her mother opened the Balichão restaurant in the middle of a public park on Coloane Island.

Macanese cuisine is basically Portuguese, but with local ingredients and embellishments. The concept springs from the days when Chinese wives tried to reproduce Portuguese dishes for their husbands, but often lacked the right ingredients. So they began to improvise: cloves from the Spice Islands, saffron from India, Chinese sausage instead of Portuguese, crabs and prawns from the local market, and, of course, rice. All with a smidgen of Thai, Vietnamese or Philippine food. "Time did the job," Eusebio says.

Hundreds of Macanese recipes have probably been lost to history, either because they were never written down or because some families kept them a secret. The difficulty for restaurants serving this food is that dishes were usually prepared in large portions for family sittings, and so many do not lend themselves well to smaller servings. Still, some are relatively economical to prepare and will undoubtedly survive even as the Macanese community fades away.

Eusebio, 40, has little doubt that fading away is the ultimate fate for her people. "We'll become totally diluted," she says. "We're only a few thousand, the leftovers." The military garrison, which used to provide many eligible bachelors, was withdrawn in 1976. "I can count on my fingers the number of marriages involving Portuguese," Eusebio says.

A grand Portuguese heritage party is planned for the evening of the handover, but nothing special will be happening at the Balichão. It is not that Eusebio fears the loss of the freedoms enjoyed under Portuguese administration - "We've had two years of the Hong Kong experience to digest and to choose [whether to emigrate to Portugal]," she says - it is just that something precious is disappearing. There is nothing to celebrate.

The Mayor
From his elegant office on the second floor of the gleaming white Leal Senado (Loyal Senate) building, Jose Luis de Sales Marques looks out over the picturesque town plaza, lovingly restored with tiles imported from Portugal. As chairman of the Macau Municipal Council, Marques is, in effect, Macau's mayor (the islands of Taipa and Coloane are administered separately). Like many others in the Macanese community, Marques, 43, comes from a long line of civil servants. His father worked for the post office; his mother was a city administrator. Playing the role of middlemen has come easy to the Macanese. On the one side were the senior Portuguese officials, who spoke no Cantonese. On the other were the Chinese, who until the late 1970s found government work unattractive and preferred to start businesses. Between the two are the Macanese, who can speak both languages.

However, many have left in recent years to take up civil-service jobs in Portugal. What used to be their trump card - language ability - has, in their view, now become a liability. While fluent in spoken Chinese, most Macanese cannot read or write the language. Government reports will increasingly be written in Chinese after the handover, leading Marques and others to worry that Macanese civil servants will be sidelined. Marques believes that in the long run the differences between Macanese and local Chinese will probably disappear, unless the Macanese find a way to preserve their culture. "We have our religion - we're all Catholic - our food and our language," he says. And there are the intangibles. "We feel and believe that we are not Chinese. Not superior - just that we are different." Marques hopes, however, that the Macanese may find a new role in helping build a multicultural Macau. "In a way, being Macanese is like being a citizen of the world," he says.

Lament for a Language
Below is a verse written by Jose dos Santos Ferreira, the most famous (and maybe only) poet of Macau's special language, patúa, with translations:

Língu di gente antigo di Macau
Lô disparecê tamên. Qui saiám!
Nga dia, mas quanto áno,
Quiança lô priguntá co pai-mai
Qui cuza sä afinal
Dóci papiaçam di Macau?

A língua da gente antiga de Macau
Vai disaparecer também. Qui pena!
Um dia daqui a alguns anos
A criança perguntará aos pais
O que é afinal
A doci lingua de Macau?

The language of the old people of Macau
Will disappear also. What a pity!
One day, in a few years
A child will ask his parents
What is it, after all,
The sweet language of Macau?

The Aunt & Niece

In 1993, Julie de Senna Fernandes had an idea. She decided to try to revive the Macanese patúa (dialect), which had long fallen into disuse. The last theater play in the dialect had been written at least 16 years previously. So she and some like-minded friends formed a group called the Dóci Papiaçam di Macau (The Sweet Language of Macau) to try to keep their patúa from going the way of many other dead languages. "Very few people speak it today," she says.

With the help of a local theater group, they started to put on plays in patúa, a pastiche of different languages, including Chinese, Malay and English. The dialect's base is Portuguese, though it contains many words and constructions that fell out of use in Portugal more than a hundred years ago (for instance, the plural of casa, meaning house, is casa casa in patúa and casas in modern Portuguese). But Fernandes, 60, realizes that keeping patúa alive will be a struggle. Increasingly, the language of the Macanese these days is Cantonese. As for the handover, Fernandes, public relations manager at the STDM casino monopoly - its Lisboa hotel is behind her in this picture - says she will feel a deep loss. "We're living a transition that is hurting,"she says.

Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes, Julie's 33-year-old niece, is perhaps more typical of the younger generation. Her father was Macanese and her mother Chinese. "I grew up more in contact with the Chinese than the Portuguese community," she says. Indeed, a major family decision was whether to send Fernandes, above, to a Portuguese-speaking school or an English one; her parents decided that the latter would give her more advantages. Fernandes didn't even learn to speak Portuguese until she was an adult and went to work for the government, where she is currently deputy director of the Macau Tourist Office. She then took private lessons to bring her Portuguese up to speed, though she probably finds her fluency in Mandarin and Cantonese more useful. The Macanese dialect? "I don't feel the urge to learn patúa," she says. Maria's husband is Chinese, which means that her children will be even further removed from their Portuguese ancestry. That doesn't bother her. "A lot of people look on me as Chinese; I blend in." For her, she says, the handover means business as usual.

Photographs by David G. McIntyre - Black Star for Asiaweek

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