Portuguese loses ground in Macau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 April, 2000, 12:00am

JUST four months after the handover, Portuguese is playing second fiddle to Cantonese in Macau and is facing heavy competition from English and Putonghua.

Portuguese was the enclave's only official language until 1992 and dominated the civil service, judiciary and security forces for four centuries.

But Chinese now shares its official status, and when Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah made his first policy address he called for 'greater attention to the promotion of Chinese culture'.

English is also gaining ground. Secretary for Security Cheong Kuoc-va has said police who have regular contact with tourists should attend English classes.

But officials are adamant the official use of Portuguese will remain.

'Portuguese is one of our two official languages and the Government fully respects that,' said the Chief Executive's media co-ordinator, Isabel Ho.

The courtroom continues to be a bastion of Portuguese; all senior members of the judiciary are conversant in it and three of Mr Ho's five policy secretaries speak the language.

The language remains strong in official circles because of the pre-handover government's drive to promote Chinese and Portuguese bilingualism among 17,300 civil servants.

But many regard it as a colonial anachronism.

'Portuguese is a language for dead people, it's no use at all to learn it,' sales assistant Carl Leong, 24, said.

Most schools in Macau have traditionally used Cantonese and English as their medium of instruction. Portuguese was never compulsory but is still an option in some private schools. But the younger generation speaks better Cantonese and many have started studying Chinese and English.

The readership of Portuguese-language newspapers is dwindling, with the number of Portuguese expatriates shrinking to about 1,000 from 4,000 in the mid-1990s.

'The problem is that Portugal abandoned Macau. Nobody in Portugal talks about Macau any more and no one there cares about the Portuguese media's problems here,' said Joao Severino, publisher of the Macau Hoje tabloid.

Macau Government TV and radio chiefs have insisted it will keep its Portuguese radio and TV channels and continue to carry Portugal's satellite TV channel, RTPi.

Macau Cable TV, which is due to start operations in July, has also pledged to carry Portuguese-language channels.