Book review: The Chinese of Macau by Jean Berlie

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 4:32pm

The Chinese of Macau, A Decade After the Handover 
by Jean A. Berlie


This is a book about the Chinese residents of Macau in the 13 years since the handover. During that time, the SAR has been transformed by extraordinary growth in the gaming industry and the population, and by a flood of mainland visitors.

The author is Jean Berlie, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong. Born in Togo in a French family, he speaks Cantonese and Putonghua.

He found that the population increased from 490,000 in 1999 to 552,000 at the end of 2011. Of these, 100,000 have Portuguese passports. At the end of June there were 100,000 foreign workers from the mainland, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and other countries.

Berlie concentrates on the Chinese residents. The largest group are Han Chinese born in Macau who speak Cantonese: 20 per cent are Fujianese, then the Chaozhou people, the Hakkas and the Tanka fishermen. Berlie sent questionnaires to 225 people who have lived in the city for more than 20 years. Asked for their identity, 48 per cent said "Macau", 32 per cent said "Chinese of Macau" and 20 per cent said "Chinese". There are also overseas Chinese from more than 20 countries who have made their home there.

A total of 43 per cent said they belonged to one of the associations which remian key components of Macau society. They are based on a profession, a clan or a place of origin. One of the largest is the association of Zhongshan, ancestral home of many Macau people.

One result of the great changes since 1999 is a rise in the use of Putonghua and English. Putonghua is essential for those who work with the mainlanders. English is the language of non-Chinese business and used by most migrant workers.

Berlie found that Macau people remained proudly attached to their Cantonese heritage. The loser has been Portuguese. "Except during non-Chinese official ceremonies and to get a job or university degree, Portuguese is not really promoted."

The rampart of Portuguese is the legal system. "The Chinese translation of the law is not so reliable and the Basic Law is the key law in Chinese and Portuguese."

Despite all the changes, Macau is holding onto the elements of its remarkable past.