Macanese Sunset

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NISID HAJARIThese days, most people in the Portuguese colony of Macau are concerned with what's coming. Chinese vice premier Qian Qichen caused a few nervous twitters recently when he reaffirmed that Beijing plans to station troops in the city before it reverts to mainland sovereignty on Dec. 20. This week candidates for the territory's post-handover chief executive will be announced. And on April 27, the man whose arrest sparked a wave of gang violence in the past year--alleged triad boss Wan Kuok-Koi (alias Broken Tooth)--will be brought to trial under new legislation that targets organized crime. Certainly few residents mind that the December handover will also close the book on European colonial authority in Asia.

One tiny community, however, has good reason to fear that passing. The Macanese--largely the descendants of intermarriage between Portuguese settlers and local Cantonese--account for fewer than 5% of the enclave's half-million residents. But in spirit they embody precisely what sets Macau apart from China's other freewheeling coastal cities: its bicultural heritage. Already their numbers have been decimated by marriage and migration. (Some 40,000 Macanese now live abroad.) They and their once-graceful port at the mouth of the Pearl River will have a hard time maintaining a distinct identity under mainland rule. Our culture will disappear, says Mandy Boursicot, a Macanese artist living in Vancouver, and Macau will become just another Chinese city.

As the handover approaches, more and more Macanese are trying to defy that prediction. Boursicot, whose family traces its roots in Macau to 1710, has produced a series of paintings detailing the city's history. Last month a worldwide reunion attracted 1,300 members of the Macanese diaspora, many wanting to have one last look at the city before Beijing assumes control. Miguel Senna Fernandes, a lawyer and member of the local legislative assembly, has written plays for a theater troupe that performs in the original Macanese patois, an archaic blend of Portuguese and Cantonese. When our theater company started [in 1994], most of us had to learn the language first, he admits. But the need seems to him increasingly urgent: I don't expect that the Chinese will take a particular interest in helping us preserve our language. We have to depend on ourselves.

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Ironically, even Macanese have a hard time defining what sets them apart. Fernandes says he has no plans to teach his three young daughters the patois: I just don't know how much of a cultural link it would be, since nobody speaks it now anyway. All that most outsiders know of Macanese culture is its rich cuisine--dishes like tacho (a Portuguese stew with Chinese sausage) and minchi (ground beef, diced potatoes and egg, served on rice) that lend Portuguese recipes a distinctly Chinese flavor. But when pressed for broader examples, members of the community resort to vague yet impassioned statements about a way of life and their fluency with two cultures. You can always tell when a group of Macanese get together, says Cristina Santos, a Macau civil servant. They tend to speak in Cantonese, but here and there, they use a few Portuguese words when they can't express themselves fully.

The implication--that Macanese think best in Portuguese--is telling. The community lives in relative harmony with both its Portuguese and Cantonese neighbors. Yet like many hybrid populations, Macanese tend to emphasize their European rather than their Asian roots. There was always this tendency in our family to be as white as you could, admits Boursicot. Within Macau, the Macanese minority has long held a disproportionate

influence with the ruling--i.e., Portuguese--elite: they currently comprise one-sixth of the colony's civil service. After the handover, those bureaucrats aspiring to top-level positions will have to relinquish the Portuguese passports most hold and take on Chinese citizenship. Many scoff at the idea. I think it would be immoral for me to claim I'm a Chinese national, insists Santos. I'm a Portuguese with Chinese blood.

Given such attitudes, it's not surprising that most efforts to firm up this indistinct heritage have em-phasized Portuguese characteristics.

Around the world a dozen Macanese associations hold regular events to promote their cultural legacy. But often the forms they choose--like lessons in Portuguese folk dancing--have little connection to Macau itself. It's just something they're inventing to give people a sense of identity, says Boursicot. Soon that's all the community may have left--the strident echo of a half-remembered Portuguese culture.

That dependence does not bode well for the Macanese. To Jorge Forjaz, author of a three-volume history entitled Macanese Families, the people are inseparable from their city's status as a colony--a meeting ground for East and West. With one half of the equation removed, their position, too, can only become obsolete. With no more Portuguese, there will be no more intermarrying, Forjaz says. It is purely mathematical: the Macanese will disappear. If they have anything to say about it though, one of the world's most exotic minorities will not pass unnoticed.

Reported by Maria Cheng/Macau

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