Macau's buildings safe, but culture collapsing

The European-style mansions scattered throughout Macau reflect its 400 years of Portuguese heritage, but in a sad reminder of the city's changing face the families who lived in them are mostly long gone.

Macanese - those born through mixed marriages between Portuguese and local Chinese - numbered more than 100,000 in the 1960s. Now only about 20,000 call Macau home as Hong Kong and places further afield attract a growing diaspora of the city's colourful minority.

Unlike Hong Kong, Macau has successfully preserved many of the buildings of its past. Keeping the people - and the cultural heritage that goes with it - is proving tougher.

Mainland tourists now flock to Macau to admire the green and pinks of the Portuguese architecture, the big windows of the public buildings and European-style gardens. Off the main streets the smell of Portuguese and Chinese fusion food emanates from countless restaurants. But like that other famous tourist trap Venice, the original inhabitants are in danger of becoming an endangered species.

The UN's cultural organisation Unesco has classified the Macanese language - Patua - as a critically 'endangered language'.

Grant Thornton partner Patrick Rozario's family is a typical example of the city's loss of identity over the past few decades. Rozario's earliest Portuguese ancestor, Janaurio de Almeida, arrived in Macau in 1776 and founded a maritime insurance company for traders. Another ancestor, Domingos Pio Marques, was born in Macau in 1783 and went on to become a successful merchant.

The family earned a fortune from trading with Europe in the 1700s. 'Macau was an important port well before the British turned Hong Kong into a trading centre in the late 1800s,' he said. 'That was the best time for our family as they earned a lot of money from exporting spices and silk from Asia to Europe.'

The family's former wealth and standing is still evident today. Casa Garden was built in 1770 and for more than a century was the residence of the Marques family. It is now the headquarters of the Oriental Foundation and is among the city's sites on the World Heritage List. The house's famous visitors have included US president Ulysses S. Grant and George Macartney, British ambassador to China in the early 1800s.

Camoes Grotto, the most famous part of the garden, houses the bust of the renowned Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes. Camoes was exiled in the 1500s and lived in Macau for two years when he composed the epic Os Lusiadas (Soul of Portugal).

'June 10, the day Camoes died, was declared Portugal Day by the government,' Rozario said. 'On that day every year, Portuguese in Macau assemble in the park to celebrate the holiday and remember the poet.'

For Rozario, Macau is now a city his family only visits as tourists. His parents left for Hong Kong in the 1960s because of the better job and education opportunities offered. Both he and his brother were born in Hong Kong. The big house was sold to the Macau government in 1885 for 35,000 patacas.

'The family was not able to maintain the big house at that time as the trading business had declined as a result of competition from Hong Kong after it became a British colony in the 1840s,' he said. The big dining room and dancing hall that saw countless family dinners and get-togethers is now a museum exhibiting the works of Macanese and Asian artists.

Hong Kong's rise as an important trading port resulted in the 'brain drain' from Macau from the 19th century. Increasing trade in Hong Kong meant more job opportunities in the private and public sectors. Rozario's father Pedro was a locksmith for the Hong Kong government.

'There were not enough opportunities in Macau and that is why many Macanese looked for opportunities in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1900s. The stocks exchanges and big banks like HSBC and Standard Chartered hired many Macanese as they could speak fluent English, Portuguese and Chinese.'

Rozario now has no immediate family living in Macau and Hong Kong. His father emigrated to Toronto after retiring from his job.

'What I feel is that Macau is very good at preserving the old buildings, which we appreciate, but they could not preserve the Macanese and Portuguese lifestyle,' he said. 'In Hong Kong, in contrast, they did not preserve the old buildings but they kept the Hong Kong people's can-do spirit and business sense.'

The fused social and religious culture of the Macanese is still evident in the city. For example, Chinese visit their ancestors' graveyards during the Ching Ming Festival in April, while the Macanese visits are on November 2, All Souls' Day. And instead of the Chinese practice of eating roast pork at the graveyard, Macanese usually have tea or coffee with some cakes after their visit.

The Macanese like to use European furniture and cutlery, and their dining rooms, in keeping with their Catholic roots, usually have a painting of The Last Supper on the wall.

Despite this, Catarina Ramos, a 62-year-old Macanese who works at the Macau Monetary Authority, says she 'feels like a foreigner in my country'. The rise of new casinos and the flood of mainland gamblers and tourists have changed the formerly easygoing nature of the city. 'Macau is so different nowadays,' she said. 'In the old days, everybody knew everybody in the street. Now there are mainland tourists everywhere.'

Ramos' father is Portuguese and her mother Macanese with Japanese roots.

She learnt Portuguese from her parents and taught herself Chinese.

She said the Macau government had done a lot to preserve the Macanese culture and some younger people were interested. But even these efforts could not prevent the Portuguese and Macanese culture from fading out.

Few Portuguese expatriates were coming out to marry local women and the influx of mainland tourists was reducing the Macanese influence. 'The tourism may be good for some industries in Macau, but it has led to a change in the culture of the city,' Ramos said

Cabral Jose, 66, a retired post office worker, said he was likely to be among the last generation of Macanese. 'We have become the minority in Macau,' said Jose, who can speak fluent Cantonese. 'Many Macanese have migrated to other countries and the next generation [has been lost].

'My children have migrated to other countries - it is hard for Macanese to get a job in the private sector. Some go to work in Hong Kong or another country.'

The handover of Macau in 1999 and the expansion of the new casino and hotel scheme led to the influx of mainland tourists and punters.

But for a few days the Macanese spirit is likely to be revived, with a reunion of several thousand of the Macanese diaspora from November 22 to 24. The event is held once every three years, with air tickets and expenses sponsored by the Macanese Communities Council from both public and private donations.

The reunion will include parties where the Macanese can remember old times as well programmes for young Macanese to understand their culture.

Rozario's parents, who have emigrated to Canada, will be among those coming back for the reunion. 'This will be a great time to see the Macanese reunited together. It is like turning back to the old days when we have many Macanese in town,' he said.

But when the reunion ends and the Macanese return to their new homes, the old problem will remain, the increasing rarity of Macanese.