How well I remember the delight of my first sea journey from Hong Kong to
Macau! After sailing past the southern side of Lantau, with its high mountains
and scarcely a sign of human habitation – so well were the villages set within
their tree-clad environs we eventually glided along Macau s Praya Grande
and saw a European city, with its houses, churches and forts!
That was in
1956, a world away in time, before reclamations, road bridges to the islands,
causeways and high-rises had altered the appearance of the place.
Macau, a small peninsula at the southern tip of the present Zhongshan County,
is connected to it by a narrow strip of land, and by the famous Barrier (or
China ) Gate, erected in 1573 with Chinese consent.
Modern Macau took its origin in the earliest voyages of Portuguese mariners,
traders and adventurers to the Far East. Banned from the Chinese mainland
due to the misdeeds of some of the early arrivals in Chinese waters, Portuguese
merchants began trading clandestinely on islands off the Guangdong coast.
One, called by them St John s , was the island on which Saint Francis Xavier
(1506-52) had died, whilst waiting for some Chinese, brave enough or sufficiently
foolhardy to take him over to the mainland.
Ultimately, possibly for services rendered to the Chinese provincial authorities,
they were allowed, from 1557, to settle at Macau. This Portuguese occupancy
was made subject to the payment of an annual ground rent, and Chinese dwelling
in the town were to be administered by a Chinese official located in Macau,
but later removed to the nearby Chinese town of Qianshan (Casa Branca). Whilst
the Portuguese were left to administer their city, Chinese control and supervision
were a constant over the next three centuries.
Shortly after the Opium War (1840-42), the Portuguese discontinued the annual
rent payment and asserted their own supremacy, throwing off all Chinese control
after their governor was murdered in 1849, whilst out riding near the Barrier
Gate. However, the Chinese government refused to recognize this unilateral
action, and it was not until 1887 that a treaty was signed between the two
nations. Whilst conceding Portuguese sovereignty over the territory, its boundaries
were not specified, and agreement on them was never reached thereafter.
Macau owed its rise to trade. Despite its minute size, it was an important
part of the Portuguese seaborne empire, including the period when Spain and
Portugal came under joint rule (1580-1640). It thrived on the Japan trade,
lost after the Japanese rulers turned against Christianity and the overseas
trade which brought its priests into the country; beat off Dutch attempts
to capture the place; and survived due to its pivotal role in Eastern trade
with Southeast Asia and the West.
With the growth of world trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, Macau became the place to which, by Chinese decree, all foreign
merchant ships trading with China through Canton had to report. for port clearance
by Chinese customs officials and to make payment of the various fees and levies.
After the issue of the permit (known picturesquely as the Grand Chop ) to
enter the Canton River, ships were allowed to proceed up-stream to the Whampoa
anchorage where they had to wait to take on their cargoes. Meantime, the merchants
traveling with the ships (in the parlance of the day, styled supercargos)
would conduct business in Canton itself through the Co-hong or officially
established merchant guild through whom all purchases had to be made. During
the trading months of the year, the merchants stayed at the Foreign Factories ,
returning thereafter to join their wives and families in Macau, where they
stayed all year round.
Canton, it will be remembered, had been the only port authorized for foreign
trade, until five more were opened by the Treaty of Nanking ending the Opium
War, thus ending the old (or Canton ) system of Western trade with China.
The new arrangements opened a new era in Western trade with China. Macau
was the great loser thereby. Firstly, it was bypassed by British Hong Kong,
to which by degrees most of the old traders removed. Secondly, with the the
growth of the international settlement at Shanghai and the opening of yet
more treaty ports after the Second and Third China Wars (1856-60), the focus
of trade with China moved to the North, sending Macau into a deep decline.
The territory then achieved fame of a different kind. Southern Chinese had
always gone overseas to work, in hopes of making a fortune. This was a trend
boosted by the discovery of gold in California and in Australia, and by the
great demand for coolie labour across the globe. Macau became infamous for
the recruitment barracoons into which unscrupulous agents packed unsuspecting
young Chinese, and arranged with equally uncaring ships captains to transport
them overseas under appalling conditions. Macau also became noted for its
casinos and gambling dens.
Portugal was a neutral nation during the two World Wars of 1914-18 and
1939-45. In the Second World War, Macau became a haven for many persons fleeing
the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong, 1941-45.
After 1949, like British Hong Kong, Macau was tacitly ignored by the new
Communist leaders of China, but over the period of the United Nations embargo
on trade during the Korean War, it became useful to China as a place from
which strategic goods could be smuggled into the mainland. Some persons in
Macau made fortunes thereby, as did others in Hong Kong s New Territories.
During the following decades, a steady flow of refugees from the mainland
entered the Portuguese enclave. However, most moved on to Hong Kong which
offered more opportunities for employment.
In 1966, fired by China s Cultural Revolution , Communist elements in Macau
were successful in imposing their demands on the local authorities. The Portugese
government felt the indignity so acutely, that it informed Beijing of its
willingness to hand back Macau there and then, and again in 1974, but this
was not required. A few years later, after joining the United Nations Organization
in 1972, China advised that territories taken from China were bound to be
returned, but that it was not Chinese policy to embark on such matters with
undue haste . The right opportunity and the avoidance of forcible means were
important considerations for the Chinese authorities. Hong Kong and Macau
were seen as outstanding questions left over from history, to be settled in
due course, as indeed they have been.
Meantime, I had continued to make periodic visits to Macau. These were always
enjoyable affairs, when its peacefulness and quiet charm were a welcome antidote
to the rackety, never stopping rebuilding and redevelopment taking place all
over Hong Kong.
In his preface to John Clemens useful little guide to the territory, published
in 1972, Macau s Director of Information and Tourism wrote feelingly of the
fascination of the past, still preserved in the centuries-old banyan trees,
the fortresses overlooking the city, the rococco churches, the gracious mansions,
cobblestone streets and ancient Chinese temples , constituting a priceless
historical and cultural heritage , turning next to the other attractions of
the time: You will also experience the excitement of the present in the casinos,
nightclubs, modern hotels, shopping arcades, excellent Portuguese and Chinese
cuisine, dog racing, Jai-Alai, and the famous grand Prix, an international
event that has been held annually for over twenty years . He went on to mention
the bridge and causeway to Macau s two islands of Taipa and Coloane, where
all our future development plans are centred .
China s modernization programmes in the late 1970s ushered in momentous change.
The establishment of the two Special Economic Zones at nearby Zhuhai and Shenzhen
brought economic and social progress to Macau. Light industry and textiles
took the place of the territory s traditional industries (the manufacture
of matches, firecrackers and low-quality clothing). Following the Hong Kong
dollar peg to the US dollar in 1983, the local currency also benefited, boosting
international banking and investment in the territory. There was a building
boom, and much redevelopment of older buildings. Macau s own university was
built on Taipa, originally as a private enterprise. Teaching began in 1981,
and the institution has since been restructured and extended. An international
airport was constructed in the 1990s.
However, all was not gain. The famed Praya Grande was mostly filled for development,
and with it Macau s most visible link with a romantic and historic past was
And soon, Macau s four hundred and fifty year link to Portugal would be severed.
Following the Sino-British negotiations of the 1980s, when it was agreed that
Hong Kong would revert to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, discussions with Portugal
followed. It was announced that Macau would follow two years after. As with
Hong Kong, a Basic Law governs the newly established Special Administrative
Region that has replaced the former Portuguese overseas province.
The events of the 1990s, and preparations for the reversion to Chinese sovereignty,
are discussed in some of the books and publications included in the reading
Guide that follows. Among them, the “Macau Special” published in China
Perspectives (Number 26, November-December 1999) provides the most convenient
and succinct account of the territory on the eve of the biggest challenge
yet in its long and colourful history.
One of the chapters ends on a distinctly upbeat note: There is reasonable
justification for believing that in economic terms Macau s transition experience
may be the opposite of Hong Kong s, in other words stagnation in the years
immediately running up to the transition, and progress in the years following
it . Amen!
Select Reading Guide
This list is intended to provide a very short introduction to Macau. More
extensive listings will be found in the books by Cremer (1991) and Porter
(1996) included below.
Please note that Macau, the current spelling, was earlier rendered as Macao,
accounting for the discrepancies in titling.
Boxer, C.R., Fidalgos in the Far East 1550-1770: Fact and Fancy in
the History of Macao (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1948). Also his
Seventeenth Century Macao in Contemporary Documents and Illustrations, published
by Heinemann, Hong Kong, in 1984.
Coates, Austin, A Macao Narrative (Hong Kong, Oxford University
Press, 1987). Coates novel of 18th century Macau, City of Broken
Promises (Heinemann, 1977) is an entertaing look at contemporary life.
Cremer R.D. (editor), Macau, City of Commerce and Culture,
2nd Edition: Continuity and Change (Hong Kong, API Press, 1991).
Davies, Shann and Leong Ka Tai, Macau (Singapore, Times
Dicks, A.R., “”Macao: Legal Fiction and Gunboat Diplomacy“,
in Aijmer, Goran, ed., Leadership on the China Coast (London, Curzon, 1984),
pp.90-128. Covers the politically important 1966 incident.
Doling, Annabel, Macau on a Plate (Roundhouse Publications
(Asia) Ltd.), no date, but current. A guide to Macau s culinary delights.
Fei Chengkang, translated by Wang Yintong,Macao 400 Years.
(The Publishing House of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, 1996).
Guillen-Nunez, Cesar, Macau, (Hong Kong, Oxford University Press, 1984);
together with his more recent Macao Streets, also OUP, 1999..
Ljungstedt, Anders, An Historical Sketch of the Portuguese Settlements
in China; and of the Roman Catholic Church and Mission in China. First published in 1836. Reprinted by Viking Hong Kong Publications, 1992.
Macao: Mysterious Decay and Romance, an Anthology selected
and edited by Donald Pittis and Susan J. Henders, OUP, 1997
“Macau Special”, published as China Perspectives (Number
26, November-December 1999, by The French Centre for Research on Contemporary
China, Hong Kong).
Montalto de Jesus, C.A., Historic Macao, (Second edition,
Hong Kong, Oxford University Press, 1982).
Porter, Jonathan, Macau, the Imaginary City, Culture and Society,
1557 to the Present (Boulder, Col., Westview Press, 1996)
Sydney, November 2002