Wandering Macau’s Historic Center

Macau’s historic center presents us a fundamental conundrum. On the one hand, it’s Qing / Republican China meets Portugal spaces charm and entice; I find these older spaces beautiful in ways that the city’s casinos and glass towers are not. On the other hand, these spaces manifest colonial legacies; the East India Company’s cemetery and crucified Jesuses that adorn the Portuguese churches give visceral form to the foundational violence of the contemporary world system. Impressions of world heritage, below:

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4 thoughts on “Wandering Macau’s Historic Center

    • Thanks. I love graveyards. It was only exhaustion that kept us out of the Chinese cemetery! I will be back soon, let’s meet for a walk, talk, and the odd munch!

  1. You wrote:

    “On the other hand, these spaces manifest colonial legacies; the East India Company’s cemetery and crucified Jesuses that adorn the Portuguese churches give visceral form to the foundational violence of the contemporary world system.”

    How beautifully said. And yet Macau’s colonial legacy is probably one of the least violent in terms of its founding; the means by which Portugal obtained Macau was not through military conquest or duress, but through “equality and mutual benefit” with approval from Chinese officialdom:

    “In 1557 the Mandarin of Guangzhou (the highest imperial representative in the city) allowed the Portuguese to settle in Macau. However it was not military power that enabled the acquisition of Macau, but a wide measure of consent from the Chinese authorities. Court approval came in 1573, when the Portuguese were demanded to pay the annual imperial rent – the land lease or, in Portuguese, foro do chão – for the use of the peninsula. The regional authorities ordered the construction of the gate separating Macau from the Mainland – Portas do Cerco – and they introduced a system of taxes and duties, to be overseen by the nearest high-rank official, the Mandarin of the Xiangshan district (corresponding to present-day Zhuhai). Suspicion remained, but the profits were large enough to satisfy the local mandarins, the imperial censors coming down to Guangdong and, of course, the Portuguese traders. In an excerpt taken from the biography of a Guangdong official (quoted in Fok 1996: 35), the economic and practical reasons on why dealing with the foreigners was ultimately regarded as positive, are unequivocally resumed:

    ‘Whenever the Portuguese visited us, they would bring indigenous products like pepper, rare woods, marble, sandalwood, and incense that they would sell at the border to the Chinese for a very low price. In turn they paid double or triple of the normal price to obtain from us the daily necessary products like rice, pigs and chickens. That’s why everybody wants to trade with them. They don’t steal or kill anybody (…), which just proves that instead of harming our people they are benefiting them.’

    For the Portuguese, Macau was a good place to settle because it was sufficiently close to the trading city of Guangzhou; and its geography (a peninsula linked by an isthmus to the mainland) and the navigability of its waters made it a strategic place to defend from possible attacks. Much based on their experience of invasions from the North, Chinese Court officials believed that any attempt to seize land in China would be followed by others, so they consented to Portuguese military presence but only to the extent it served the purpose of repelling Japanese attacks along the Chinese coast. As long as the security of the Middle Kingdom would not be jeopardized, Portuguese presence could actually serve as an insurance against Japanese invasions. Although despised in their ways and manners by the Chinese, the Portuguese still managed to impress them with their weapons and military techniques (Fok 1996: 56). But despite the strategic importance of Macau in the expansion and defence of the far-eastern trading routes, the Portuguese military presence in Macau had to conform to Chinese imperial interests otherwise they would force the Portuguese out of the territory.

    For the Chinese imperial court, the annual payment of the land lease to the emperor harmonized the Portuguese presence in Macau with the tributary system. Macau’s political formula came to celebrate a political and economic exchange, which suited both local and central Chinese authorities. Everybody seemed to be satisfied: to lease Macau to the Portuguese was a way of keeping them under control and to guarantee access to the foreign goods sought-after in China. But most importantly, Chinese imperial officials expected this arrangement would provide the means to get rid of the Chinese merchant groups that engaged in ‘illicit’ trade – outside imperial control – with foreigners….The city of Macau soon began to thrive on lucrative trade routes in East and Southeast Asia, growing autonomously from the Middle Kingdom into a cosmopolitan and religious centre on the shores of China.
    (Inês Trigo de Sousa, Regional Integration and Differentiation in a Globalizing China, pages 69-70)


    “Throughout the centuries, the occupation and colonization of Macau by the Portuguese rested upon the maintenance of good, non-hostile relations with the Chinese, inside and outside Macau’s borders. Between the 1560’s and 1840’s the Portuguese carried out official relations with the Chinese imperial authorities, including the appointment of a permanent imperial representative in Macau. In the following period (1840’s-1976), Portuguese colonialism gradually became dependent on Chinese business elites to maintain vital and non-hostile relations with the Mainland.” (p. 250)

    Macau’s peaceful colonization is in stark contrast with the violent and criminal seizure at gunpoint by Britain of Hong Kong and other territories following the First Opium War of 1842.

  2. Your pictures of “crucified Jesuses that adorn the Portuguese churches” makes me think of Matteo Ricci, Jesuit scholar and missionary in China:

    “In August 1582, Ricci arrived at Macau, a Portuguese trading post on the South China Sea. At the time, Christian missionary activity in China was almost completely limited to Macau, where some of the local Chinese people had converted to Christianity and lived in the Portuguese manner. No Christian missionary had attempted seriously to learn the Chinese language until 1579 (three years before Ricci’s arrival), when Michele Ruggieri was invited from Portuguese India expressly to study Chinese, by Alessandro Valignano, founder of St. Paul Jesuit College (Macau), and to prepare for the Jesuits’ mission from Macau into Mainland China.

    Once in Macau,, Ricci started learning Chinese language and customs. This was the beginning of a long project that made him one of the first Western scholars to master Chinese script and Classical Chinese. With Ruggieri, he traveled to Guangdong’s major cities, Canton and Zhaoqing (then the residence of the Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi), seeking to establish a permanent Jesuit mission outside Macau.”

    As you are interested in Theatre, I should mention this wonderful production in HK about Matteo Ricci’s encounter with China, performed by HK avant garde theatre company Zuni Icosohedron (zuni.org.hk). I had the good fortune to see it in 2010. If it is ever staged again – go see it!

    Based on the book The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan D. Spence




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