Macau: city of commerce and culture

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Street signs in Macau (picture taken by Joanne Koehler).

Fifteen years have now passed since Macau became a Special Administrative Region of China. This small, densely populated city was the first European colony established in East Asia, and reverted to Chinese sovereignty on December 31, 1999, after 400 years of Portuguese rule. In 1513, the explorer Jorge Álvares became the first European to reach China by sea – as documented in Jorge Álvares, o primeiro Português que foi à China (1997.10.460) – and traders from his home country of Portugal began to settle in Macau during the 1550s.

Although the city is never quite what it first appears, the European influence is everywhere – from architecture to cuisine – because of the centuries of Portuguese rule. In fact, Portuguese remains one of Macau’s two official languages, along with Chinese (Cantonese). Gonçalo Mesquitela’s História de Macau (625:3.c.95.250-) and the exhibition catalogue Portugal-China : 500 anos (2014.9.2290) give us a sense of Portugal’s influence within China, and the UL also holds two donated books, Ou-mun : coisas e tipos de Macau (1999.9.3932) and Cenas da vida de Macau (2000.11.3954), which provide excellent descriptions of Macau’s social life and customs throughout its history.

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Image from Macau by José Pedro Castanheira (625:3.c.200.2)

Furthermore, our Portuguese collections, in particular, contain several other titles dealing with Macau – from its early history (Macau: poder e saber : séculos XVI e XVII625:3.c.200.121), through its relationship with China around the time of the Opium War (Uma relação especial : Macau e as relações luso-chinesas, 1780-1844625:3.c.95.229) and on to its tumultuous 20th Century (Macau nos anos da revolução portuguesa, 1974-1979C206.c.7571; Macau na política externa chinesa, 1949-1979625:3.c.200.113).

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Image of the Ruins of St. Paul’s (S624.c.99.2)

Under Portuguese rule (1557–1999), Catholicism became one of the main faiths in Macau, but has now declined dramatically. However, many church buildings there still retain this aspect of the colonial influence – such as those documented in Igrejas de Macau (S401:75.a.9.73). One of the best-known symbols of Macau is the Ruins of St. Paul’s. Built from 1602 to 1640 by the Jesuits, the Cathedral of St. Paul was one of the largest and most important Catholic churches in Asia at the time. With the decline in importance of Macau, which was overtaken as the main port in the region by its neighbour Hong Kong, the cathedral’s status similarly declined, and it was destroyed by fire during a typhoon in 1835. Another historical building, the Fortaleza do Monte, now overlooks the ruin – which in 2005 was officially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can read about this famous landmark in As ruínas de S. Paulo : um monumento para o futuro (S624.c.99.2). Furthermore, Património arquitectónico Macau (2015.13.103) will take you through the history of Macau from different types of architectural buildings.

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Book cover of Macau: os últimos cem dias do império (625:3.c.200.2)

Macau is one of the world’s richest territories, with the fourth-highest GDP per person. Gambling has been a major part of the city’s revenue since the Portuguese government legalised it in the colony during the 1850s. Since then, Macau has become known worldwide as the “Monte Carlo of the Orient”, with gambling tourism from China and elsewhere particularly profitable. Macau : os últimos cem dias do império by José Pedro Castanheira (625:3.c.200.2), published around the time of the handover to China, has a chapter on “jogo” (gambling).

Despite its wealth and history, Macau is a relatively overlooked corner of the globe, yet one only need take a 45-minute ferry journey from Hong Kong to see what was one of Portugal’s most important colonies. There is one major difference between the city and its former colonial rulers however: Macau has left hand traffic, while the Portuguese drive on the right!

Joanne Koehler and Christopher Greenberg

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