Cutting into a steaming deep-fried shrimp cake called rissoes at the Sol Nascente restaurant on Taipa, Isabel da Silva lamented the state of Macanese culture. At Christmas, families used to get together in large groups for traditional Macanese delicacies like this, she recalled, but these days no one has time for that kind of cooking and family celebrations are likely to be held in international hotels. 'There is less community [feeling] than there used to be,' she said. 'Before, the Macanese kids didn't really mix with the Chinese kids.' Indeed, to such an extent that when her Macanese father chose to marry a Hong Kong Chinese, her paternal grandmother 'had to get used to the idea'. Ms da Silva, 28, head of communications at the Mandarin Oriental Macau, was born in the enclave and returned four years ago after spending more than a decade in the UK and Australia. She believes living outside Macau has sharpened her awareness of a community in cultural crisis. It has also inspired her to ask her father questions about Macanese tradition. No Macau or Macanese history is taught in the enclave's schools, so information has to be passed on through the generations. 'It is not easy to define Macanese culture but if we don't do it, in the end it will just be a matter of blood and history,' she said. If there is one thing the Macanese agree on - for they are a people who have historically failed to find unity - it is the difficulties inherent in defining what it is to be Macanese. Living in Macau does not render someone Macanese. Nor does being born in the enclave. 'The Macanese are basically people who were born in Macau but who have some Portuguese blood or culture,' asserted lawyer and novelist Henrique de Senna Fernandes, who is now in his 70s. That definition, however, would not include Portuguese born in Macau or the Chinese who converted to Catholicism, adopted Portuguese names, learned the language and ceased to be considered Chinese by their compatriots. The first settlers in Macau, apart from the small fishing communities already established, were Portuguese merchants who arrived with Asian wives and servants some 450 years ago from other Asian Portuguese colonies. Chinese blood was only added to the mix later, and today's children of one Portuguese and one Chinese parent would probably be considered first-generation Macanese. 'The concept has been widened,' said Frederico Marques Nolasco da Silva, director of a family company that has been trading in Macau for more than 80 years. '[But] the definition varies according to who you are talking to.' Anabela Guerreiro Estorninho, deputy director of marketing at the Macau World Trade Centre and a member of The Macanese Association, poetically defines the race as 'a combination of all the journeys the Portuguese made to the East'. 'We can study the Macanese through the food,' ventured historian Jorge Carreras, who is based at the Portuguese Institute of The University of Macau. Consultant to the Macau Museum, which opens in April, he has been working on the presentation of the Cha Gordo, a traditional Macanese early-evening meal that clearly shows the Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian as well as Portuguese and later Chinese influences on the cuisine. For the Macanese, the fact of living in Macau - indeed, the fact there is a Macau at all - helps to develop self-identity, deepen traditional lifestyles and thus strengthen Macanese culture. Limited educational and professional opportunities in the enclave have traditionally forced Macanese overseas, to such an extent that they even talk about their own diaspora, though in their case such movement has not reinforced cultural identity. A large number moved to Hong Kong, but big communities also exist in North America, Australia, Brazil and, of course, in Portugal. But many of those emigrants would prefer to live in Macau if the right opportunities existed. Overseas Macanese have been returning to the enclave for holidays and for vast conferences in the past few years, spurred by the enclave's return to China in 1999 and the possibility that they may never again be able to experience Macau as they remember it. They visit a Macau where Macanese culture has been on the decline for at least three decades. Demographics, according to Mr Carreras, mean that local Macanese have less choice of Macanese or Portuguese as partners and are increasingly marrying local Chinese. He believes this further weakens Macanese culture, because Chinese culture is so strong that the Macanese element becomes absorbed. Ms da Silva feels that younger Macanese have no interest in their culture and that their parents fail to understand the importance of communicating it. And Ms Guerreiro Estorninho sees less and less loyalty to Macau against the pull of Hong Kong. Whether or not they have a strong cultural connection to Macau, every Macanese can at least call the enclave their home. Many worry that will change after 1999. There are also fears they will lose the little status they have left. According to official statistics, there are no Macanese in Macau. Nationality is broken down into Chinese, Portuguese and 'Other'. Less than 40 per cent of Macau's 450,000 residents were born there, and of the total population, 97 per cent are ethnic Chinese. But while 26.7 per cent have Portuguese passports, only 2.8 per cent speak Portuguese, indicating that nationality is based purely on passport status. In 1979 more than 120,000 Portuguese passports were distributed among the Chinese community. With such complexities as a backdrop, and with the nationality of their children or future children as much an issue as their own, Macanese rights and questions about nationality - including residency and passport status - are finally being addressed in Joint Liaison Group meetings. 'I am optimistic, moderately optimistic about this issue and I guess it will be solved in the next two years,' said the politically active Macanese architect and professor, Carlos Marreiros. 'According to the Basic Law, Macanese who are of Portuguese descent can stay in Macau as Portuguese. There are others with Chinese blood but a Portuguese passport, but the Chinese don't accept two nationalities. 'A way should be found so that even these people with mixed blood can stay here as Portuguese. The Macanese want to stay here as Portuguese.' A Chinese memorandum attached to the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration on Macau provides that Macau inhabitants who come under the Chinese nationality law will be allowed to use their Portuguese passports to travel after 1999, but will not be allowed to claim consular protection from Lisbon in Macau. But the agreement does not specifically address the nationality status of Macanese. The Sino-Portuguese Joint Liaison Group is having talks on whether they should be considered Portuguese or Chinese nationals after 1999. It seems surprising that this and other issues - such as the plight of the mass of Macanese civil servants who face the choice of losing their jobs or being relocated to Portugal - should be emerging so late. After all, six of the 24 members of the Assembleia Legislative are Macanese, including the president. While this mix appears more than representative of the Macanese community, it should be noted that only eight of the 24 are directly elected, and none of the Macanese contingent falls within this group. 'The Macanese have never had real power in Macau. We were always in between and treated as second-class citizens as in any colony where the natives are treated like second-class citizens,' said Mr Marques Nolasco da Silva. As some Macanese point out, there is no guarantee that a Macanese politician can represent the interests of the Macanese community better than a Chinese or Portuguese. The community speaks highly of Carlos Assumpcao, who seemed to pull the Macanese together like no other. He died a few years ago. 'There have been no important figureheads since then,' Mr Marques Nolasco da Silva said. Perhaps there is one waiting in the wings. Under the leadership of the influential Carlos Marreiros, the Macanese political party Macau Sempre ('Macau Forever') was officially launched in 1996 prior to the autumn elections. Mr Marreiros was not elected, but the party garnered more than 2,000 votes which, according to Mr Marreiros, was a gratifying result, with the Macanese community thought to number between 10,000 and 16,000 people. 'We could have won places in the election in 1996, but the Macanese divided themselves into three different groups,' said Ms Guerreiro Estorninho. She also pointed out that Macau Sempre was viewed by many to be supported by too many 'lawyer and arty types' and too fixated by cultural issues. These factors alienated many Macanese. Although the Macanese remain divided, does the formation of Macau Sempre and the establishment of The Macanese Association in 1996 indicate they are finally becoming more organised? 'Only in participation,' said Mr Marreiros. 'Normally, [Macanese] people are not used to participating in political activities.' But in most cases, participation amounts to no more than casting a vote. 'I would take to the streets to demonstrate for our rights,' said the frustrated and free-speaking Isabel Estorninho, who recently returned to Macau. 'But I wouldn't even find half a dozen who would support me.' Assuming the incoming SAR Government recognises the importance of maintaining Macanese culture as a way of distinguishing Macau from neighbouring Zhuhai, such maintenance will require the efforts of far more than a handful of Macanese if they are not to be taken as just another of China's minorities.