THERE is a pleasant saying in Macau, that goes a long way to explain its relaxed pace of living. 'Macau sa assi', a resident might say with a shrug of the shoulders whenever they come across some annoying or frustrating situation. Translated from Portuguese it means: 'That's Macau.' It is to be hoped that residents of the former enclave do not respond in the same way to news that the use of Portuguese is already slipping, barely four months after its return to Chinese rule.
As our Macau correspondent reports today, the second official language - the Cantonese form of Chinese is the other - is in danger of losing out as English and Putonghua gain in popularity for conducting business and tourism.
With just 1,000 Portuguese 'metropolitans', that is people from the former colonial power, estimated to be living in Macau, it is not surprising to hear that the European language is in decline. There are only 20,000 Macanese - offspring with mixed Chinese and Portuguese backgrounds - remaining and their proficiency in Portuguese varies widely.
One of the appealing features of Macau is that it has managed to retain some of the continental charm from its bygone days; this gives it a different flavour from neighbouring Hong Kong and the bustling cities across the mainland border. The Portuguese language, and its inseparable culture, are an integral part of that different feel.
The Macau administration should be encouraged to continue conducting official functions in Portuguese and Chinese as well as retaining enough officials so that any resident demanding to communicate in Portuguese can be served. The television and radio stations should also keep broadcasting one channel each in Portuguese, although it may be helpful for English and Putonghua students to have some programming in those languages.
It might not be prudent for the Macau Government to dip into its own finances to subsidise Portuguese language courses, considering the extensive funds available through Portuguese institutes. But maintaining an atmosphere where speakers can see the language on street signposts and not feel deterred from speaking the language will be vital for its survival.
Then, perhaps, despite the relentless spread of English, 'Macau sa assi' might be heard on Macau's streets for many more years.