NEAR THE BANKS OF THE River Tagus, where explorers weighed anchor five centuries ago to begin journeys to Asia, stands a spectacular monument to the enduring links between Portugal and Macau. The Macau Museum and Scientific and Cultural Centre is a splendid testament to the cultural and trade connections between Portugal and what was its most enduring colonial possession. Significantly, the building was opened in 1999, to mark the return of the tiny enclave to Chinese rule. It is an impressive collection of Portuguese history, Chinese art and the combination of two cultures which created the unique entity that is today's SAR. Laid out in fascinating detail are aspects of the maritime legacy which sent Portuguese explorers and priests, soldiers and entrepreneurs, on their voyages of discovery. One of these journeys was led by Jorge Alvares (whose statue remains today in Macau) who landed on the muddy banks of the Pearl tributary in 1513. Displays of both cultures go back longer than that. Those with a fascination for adventure will study with awe the collection of maps and charts showing early European notions of the China Coast. People who appreciate Chinese art can admire a selection of ceramics, coins, art, sculpture and paintings that make up an impressive collection. Both legacies meld into the story of Macau from the 15th century until modern times. The museum is in a magnificently restored mansion in the down-river waterfront suburb of Belem. Nearby is the Maritime Museum and the Discoveries Monument, that marks the departure point of many explorers. The layout and displays have been developed in conjunction with the Centre of East Asian Studies of the University of Aviero. The pale ochre building provides three expansive floors, two of them holding displays and the third an auditorium where lectures and discussions are held on Macau, Chinese and Asian themes. Science blends with history to bring the past alive. A 10-metre long model of a sturdy 16th-century trading vessel named the Nau do Trato, one of the famous Black Ships which carried Portuguese trade from Nagasaki to Macau and on to Lisbon via Goa and Africa shows the often harsh reality of life at sea. The cut-away model shows decks, cramped living quarters, holds and bilges. Holograms flicker amid the models of casks of cod fish, barrels of wine, bales of tea and trade goods, the animated figures talking of storms and voyages. It is living history, with a background whisper of tropical seas rushing past the hull, the slap of straining sails and the cry of a rising wind. The captain's log comes alive as a hologram speaks words written 395 years ago. 'Today, the 14th of August of the year of our Lord 1606, we came within viewing distance of Nagasaki. We left Macau on the nineteenth of July and headed to this land where fine silver is abundant. On our way, strong winds and gigantic waves assailed us and I, Diogo de Vasconcelos, captain of this ship, swear by God that I had never seen such storm before. The sailors are too excited about the arrival. Look at them. They are Malaysians, Malabari, Bengali, Javanese, Chinese and Japanese, men coming from so many different nations who serve us during our journey . . .' Gripping stuff. A film tells the story of Macau's most famous landmark, the facade of the church of St Paul, with chilling graphics of the crucified Japanese converts whose fate spurred Christians from Nagasaki to go to Macau. Grim times, grimly told. There are crosses and cannons, muskets and maps, old photos showing the city on the verge of the modern era. Interactive computer display screens let visitors choose their own timing to roam through the floors; the IT age meets 3,000-year-old bronze drinking urns from the Shang Dynasty. The Chinese collection is the largest and most important in Portugal, largely built-up by prominent art collector Antonio Sapage, an avid and knowledgeable collector who began in the 1960s to systematically put together a stunning portfolio of art and artefacts. He bought items in China, Macau and Hong Kong and attended auctions in Europe and North America. A Macanese, Sapage, 52, now lives in Lisbon. He remains vice-chairperson of Associacao dos Colecionadores de Macau, and is a member the Chinese Antiquities Society of Guangdong. He is also a member of the Hong Kong Museum Society and London's Oriental Ceramic Society. The majority of the museum collection, from neolithic pieces to contemporary art, comes from the Sapage era. The displays guide visitors, many of whom are young Portuguese with no personal knowledge of Asia or grasp of Macau's history, through the wonders of China's artistic legacy. In this way, the Macau Museum shows its dual strength, not only as a compelling tale of the city's history, but also as a centre for culture and science. 'The museum is designed to be both educational and open-minded,' explains the curator, Manuela Olivera Martins. 'It uses Chinese art to illustrate the role of Macau and the Macanese as messengers in the encounter between Europe and China.' Financing came from the Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau, the immensely lucrative gaming concession controlled by Stanley Ho Hun-sun. A sculpture of Ho stands in the museum lobby. The original suggestion came from the Portuguese Government, Ho says. He happily donated money both for the building and to pay for some of the priceless contents 'given Macau's long association with Portugal in terms of cultural exchange', according to Ho's office. The building was opened by Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio and, the following month, Macau returned to Chinese rule. The cost of buying the stately old building and its renovation was HK$122 million. Portugal's Department of Buildings and Monuments directed the rebuilding and restoration of the mansion. A prominent Lisbon designer, Paulo Guilherme d'Eca Leal, worked with a team of Portuguese and Canadian specialists which was in charge of the museum project. The gracious four-storey building in landscaped grounds has quite a history. It was used by the Red Cross during World War I, then became head of the nation's ex-servicemen's organisation, the Portuguese Legion. When the former dictatorial regime dissolved in 1974, hundreds of thousands of settlers fled to the ancestral homeland, particularly from Angola and Mozambique. The museum building was one of the many premises used to house these refugees. Lack of dedication There is no museum in London dedicated to remembering Britain's long colonial links with Hong Kong. Nor is there any permanent exhibition devoted to the subject, according to Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesmen. A museum on the British Empire is being built in Bristol, and aspects of Hong Kong may be displayed there. Many institutions, including the British Museum, Victoria and Albert and the National Maritime Museum have collections reflecting Britain's centuries of overseas exploration and settlement and the British Library holds the world's most comprehensive collection of written materials produced in Hong Kong. Stanley Ho Hung-sun has no intention of building a museum in London to commemorate British rule in Hong Kong and other large charitable foundations, such as the Li Ka-shing Foundation, spend their money on other causes, such as education.