Wordie ambles down byways of Macau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 11:52am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 9:37pm

Macao - People and Places, Past and Present
by Jason Wordie
4 stars

Mathew Scott

Saudade is a Portuguese word that's generally given to mean an inescapable sense of longing or of loss that is most commonly found in poems or other works of literature or that you might find following you around, like some ghost, at the end of an affair of the heart.

The word pops up in local historian/writer Jason Wordie's fascinating exploration of the history of Macau and of its people, as might the sense itself if ever you find yourself whiling away time by wandering down the city's backstreets and contemplating its rich heritage.

Wordie, a longtime contributor to the South China Morning Post, has seemingly spent an age charting the history of Macau and of the many and varied characters who have added colour to it. There's a touch of that longing for the past here, but more in a sense that it be preserved rather than repeated; it was often brutal and tragically unfair, as the author points out.

We are taken on a tour of Macau, Taipa and Coloane from end to end and nothing, it seems, is missed, other than the recent developments of the Cotai Strip - justifiably so, too, given there is no real history there.

In his book, Wordie reveals a Macau that has been maligned as many times as it has been immortalised. He shadows the city's many glories with the realities of life as it was for people through a Portuguese colonisation that began in the mid-1500s and continued through to 1999, and then on to its (re)incarnation as one of China's Special Administrative Regions.

And so when he recounts Macau's quite spectacular defeat of invading Dutch forces in 1622 - celebrated in the city's Jardim da Vitoria ("Victory Garden") - the fact that it was achieved by a force comprising local people and slaves reminds us that colonial life for the majority was harsh indeed. This brutal side of life returns when Wordie walks us through the streets that surround Igreja de S. Lourenco (Church of Saint Lawrence or Fung Shun Tong) and his attention turns to the remains of "barracoons", or holding pens, still visible there along Rua dos Cules or, simply, the "Street of the Coolies". Many became wealthy on the sweat of others - around 500,000 Chinese labourers are said to have made their way into the world from Macau through means legal or (mostly) illegal.

Such insights bring Macau's unique heritage to life. But use this tome simply as a guidebook (albeit a heavy one) and you'll be treated to a constant supply of gems probably unknown even to those who consider themselves seasoned veterans of the famed local culinary scene, with cuisines that cover the city's broad ethnic mix and the distinctly "local" quirks that draw so many people across the Pearl River Delta every weekend.

That Wordie is not shy in adding his own touches of spice simply adds to the experience, whether that be when he chastises a famed restaurant for the decline in service (or attitude) of its staff, when he recoils in horror at the loss of a building, or when he gives full voice to his dismay at finding instances where history has been allowed to fall into decay.

The author has been a regular visitor to the city since 1988 and there is a sense of intimacy that comes only with a refined familiarity, something shared with photographers Anthony J. Hedley and Colin Day, who helped Wordie chart his course and who must have spent countless hours taking in everything Macau has to offer.

Architecture takes pride of place, and we are presented not only with the stories of how some of Macau's more spectacular buildings came into being, but Wordie also brings to life the varied characters who lived in, worked in or just visited them.

So while we can delight in the glory (and rather shady) days of the likes of the Hotel Estoril and the Hotel Central, or in the decadence that was the dearly departed Bela Vista, there is a sense of joy to be found in learning about how Martha Mierop survived her beginnings as a mui tsai ("slave girl") who was passed from merchant to merchant before finding love and eventually prosperity as a businesswoman.

And Wordie helps set the record straight when it comes to one of the most influential men in the city's history, Dr Pedro Jose Lobo, who helped establish Macau's gold trade and was rather poorly treated by British author Ian Fleming as the "inspiration" for the villain in his Bond novel Goldfinger.

What becomes increasingly apparent as we follow Wordie is just how much effort - in recent years at least - is being put in by officials to ensure a great percentage of what's left of Macau's heritage is preserved. It makes a mockery of Hong Kong's preservation efforts of the past few decades.

Wordie is quick to point out where Macau hasn't got things right, but equally fast to acknowledge the city's many successes.

For anyone grown tired of hearing that "old Macau" has disappeared under the glaze of casino lighting and the tourist masses, here's proof that the city's heritage still lives and breathes.