PRELUDE TO A CITY
An encounter of seafarers
In 1433 the Great Admiral Zheng He completed his seventh sea expedition,
the first of which begun with Ming Emperor Yong Le (1360 – 1424) and the
last one under Emperor Xuande who reigned for ten years, from 1425 to
The enormous junks of the Chinese expeditions were soon put to rest for
good. It was the world’s largest armada comprising treasure ships as large
as 126 meters long, equine ships 103 meters long, supply ships about 78
meters long, troop ships 67 meters long, and warships 50 meters long.
Then, until from the West came Bartolomeu Dias who crossed the Cape of
Good Hope in 1488, the sea waters must have witnessed an absence of
courageous men from both the East and the West.
The ship with which Bartolomeu Dias dared to cross the myths of the Cape
of Good Hope was just 14 meters long.
Within the period of just 10 years, the great Portuguese Admiral Vasco da
Gama arrived in Calicut, capital of Northern Kerala, India, in April 1498,
initiating an era of the so called Maritime Spices’ Route that the
Portuguese begun to control.
One is often drawn to think what would it have been for the Portuguese had
they been the first Europeans to meet the gigantic ships of Zheng He, how
would have these seafarers reacted to each other? Unfortunately, a gap of
less then 50 years prevented this fabled encounter to take place.
Moving Eastwards through coups of steel and
While the Chinese seafarers, headed by Zheng He, used diplomacy and their
powerful and mighty ships to impress and to gain allegiances, wisely
avoiding the need to confront, the Portuguese had a different approach
dictated by the smallness of their presence that was only compensated by
the sophistication of their naval artillery and a characteristic that made
them be remembered: the Portuguese were willing to marry Indian women,
then Sri Lankan, Malaysian, Siamese. These merchant-warriors were actually
the initiators of a unique genetic pool that spread in the Eastern Seas.
From 1506 to 1515 the Portuguese were led by a military genius, the
Vice-Roy of India, Afonso de Albuquerque.
En route to India he led his men to conquer various ports in Oman, win the
battle of the Strait of Ormuz, in the Persian Gulf – his six ships against
more than 250 Ottoman Turk ships - managing to obtain a yearly payment of
4.000 ducats from the City of Ormuz to the King of Portugal.
Goa, in India, was conquered in 1510 and it would become what would be
known as the Rome of the East.
Just one year later, Albuquerque would head to Malaysia and conquer
Malacca where he would build a fort rightly known as A Famosa, opening up
the Spice Trade wider into the Moluccas and preparing to go further into
the Far East, while the first commercial treaty was signed between the
Portuguese and the Kingdom of Siam.
Still today, Goa is inhabited by people proud of their surnames being
Castro, Albuquerque, Cunha, etc., who live in Indo-Portuguese houses while
many still speak Portuguese.
In Malacca, the Dutch took over from the Portuguese, however the most
famous attraction is the Portuguese fortress, rightfully called the
Famous. At the
Portuguese Settlement, the descendants of Portuguese seafarers who settled
down still talk something known as Papiá Cristám (Christian Language)
which is a remnant of the Portuguese spoken at the time.
I was there and noticed that the School Bus in Malacca had the word Sekola
for Escola (just switch the first two letters) and you obtain the word in
In the 1960’s, during a flight between Malaysia and Hong Kong, someone
looked at me and asked what was my nationality. At the sound of the word
Portuguese, my flight companion smiled and uttered four words: djanela,
bandera, cadera, pistola. I fully understood as it is so very similar to
janela (window), bandeira (flag), cadeira (chair) and pistola (pistol). At
my question he answered he was Indonesian.
Then, just two years ago, I was asked to host a group of Thai researchers
from Ayutthaya, which I happily did. I took them for a most strict
Portuguese lunch and when the sweets came, two of the ladies smiled and
told me that all sweets in Thailand that carry eggs were of Portuguese
origin, and that one of the ladies knew how to do egg sweets.
All these memories that I encountered and of which I was also told would
have never been possible if the Portuguese only used the steel of their
swords or canon balls. Though they were brave, fierce, so much feared that
the nickname of Portuguese-Man-of-War was given to Physalia physalis, not
a jellyfish, but rather an assembly of four types of jelly-like
invertebrates who are physiologically integrated and whose venomous
tentacles can deliver terrible stings causing in humans severe pain, lymph
nodes, fever, shock, and interference with the heart and lungs.
Such a nickname defines the reputation of the Portuguese as warriors who
would have pirates change the course of their routes so as not to confront
such kind of men. Nonetheless they were also scarce in numbers, but were
the only ones who would also use coups of love without any race or
religious prejudice, thus generating an almost unexplainable longing, a
nostalgic fondness, four centuries after all this has happened.
In the waters of the South China Sea, it was more than natural that the
Portuguese had for some time engaged in contacts with Chinese junks and
knew about China much earlier. Tomé Pires first arrived in India in 1511
as an herbalist who wrote about all the plants in the East and was the
author of the first European description of Malaysia. In 1516 he navigates
to Guangzhou as Portuguese Ambassador seeking to meet the Emperor of
The attempt did not go as expected and it is said that the deposed king of
Malacca must have played a role into it. It was advisable to wait some
time, and only in 1557 the arrival of Jorge Álvares can be identified.
The thought of a junk leading the way up the muddy waters of what is known
as the inner harbour, and the sight of the Grand Temple of A-Ma coming to
full view with the beach in front may be too romantic but, nonetheless,
Apart from some fishermen junks, the place was very poorly populated at
the time. China had always been such an enormous country that this small
peninsula was apparently nothing more than a grain of dust in the map of
the Chinese Ming Empire, whose capital was too distant as Tomé Pires
himself understood as well as the power of the Viceroy of Guangzhou.
Many stories have been told either about the origin of the name Macao,
which has no real phonetic equivalent other than a misunderstanding, or
how the Portuguese established themselves in the small peninsula.
A recent work by two important Chinese historians with total control of
Portuguese language and culture, Professors Wu Zhiliang and Jing Guo Ping
brushed aside the notion that Macao was given to the Portuguese because of
their assistance in fighting pirates. According to their recent book whose
launching I had the pleasure to attend, there was a convergence of at
least three factors all of them under strict strategy by the Chinese, the
first of which was the need of grey amber by the Imperial Court, which was
used for concocting imperial aphrodisiacs. The Portuguese controlled the
Indic Ocean until the China Sea and grey amber existed only in the
entrails of whales of these seas. The second factor was that the Ming were
fighting the Manchu tribes and the use of Portuguese well advanced
artillery was of interest to the Ming forces to count with the Portuguese
canons. The third factor, last but not least, was the fact that Guangzhou
relied heavily on foreign trade. However the Ming Empire was closed to the
outside world, which prevented direct trade. Hence, the presence of the
Portuguese in the small peninsula suited the powerful Viceroy of
And so did the city begun establish itself and grow. More people came from
Malaysia, India, and by that time there was at least one generation that
was a result of the genetic pool that the Portuguese created mixing
everywhere they went. Then, of course, European Portuguese were also
present, providing one of the constant sources of the miscegenation; the
Therefore the city grew with African slaves, Indian servants, different
versions of Portuguese, from Europe, Asia, what not.
A MULTICULTURAL CITY
It can be said that that the early settlers were already carriers of a
genetic adventure that was increased as time passed, with arrivals and
departures of people of various origins.
Uniqueness resided in the fact that the city was run by elected citizens,
thus becoming the first Democratic Republic of the entire Far East, a
concept that never existed in this region of the world.
While the city slowly descends into a soft and opulent decadence caused by
the end of its richest source of wealth, the silk trade, its growth led to
the emergence of an adaptation of the Portuguese architecture to the
climate, with many windows and shades to protect from the blazing sun.
Women from Malaysia brought with them the Saraça, a mantle that was
originally made of cotton and was then made of different materials. In the
1800s, George Chinnery captures in his sketches different Macanese women
wearing the Do, a black mantle which was worn over a white blouse and
black skirt, pretty much like nuns in the 1950’s and 1960’s. My father
once told me that his grand mother wore the Do, which derived from the
Hence, the Macanese as an ethnic group were a nation of individual
carriers of different genetic stories united by their sense of being
Portuguese, though Asians by birth. All spoke Portuguese, Cantonese, and
English, at least.
Macanese food was the first fusion cuisine encompassing Indian, Malaysian,
Portuguese and Chinese influences, its tradition being continued from
generation to generation.
Two lifestyles, the Chinese and the Macanese, lived side by side for
centuries, each frequenting the other’s part of the city, exchanging and
trading while the centuries passed and the city is still a very simple
place, in the post war period, mending its own scars from the war and the
refugees it took and the suffering it witnessed.
The cicadas sang in the heat, hidden in the red acacia trees’ foliage. The
sun brazes and the entire city, apart from very few itinerant hawkers,
seem asleep, a good way to avoid the heat hours.
Nevertheless I knew that under the arcades of the building in front of St.
Dominic’s church there would be the little man, not taller than three
feet, but very proportionate, waiting with his trained yellow periquits
for a customer to come and ask for his peculiar fortune telling. Then he
would release one periquit from the cage and open a drawer full of cards.
The bird would pick one with its beak and obediently go back into the
cage. Then the little man, almost a gnome, would start reading what the
periquit, an envoy of the gods, had picked up.
Next to the little man there was another fortune teller, a blind man with
a small tortoise shell, emulating the way, thousands of years ago, the
reading of the I Qing (the Book of Changes) and far from being disgraced
for being blind; their vision was regarded as one of another kind and
level, a gaze into something much deeper.
Just a tad to the left of the arcade was a letter writer, a man who would
read letters to his usually feminine illiterate customers and would
translate the intricate Chinese way of writing into a more colloquial
style that could be understood. Then, the woman hearing whatever news, a
love letter, news from her family back in mainland China, would think and
would dictated in her own way the reply which was to be entirely relied
upon the letter writer, who possessed the secrets of many souls of Macau,
for a meager coin that would make his day meal. And I used to think that
all women had their own secrets, and that this letter writer was some kind
of priest that heard confessions. How much could he bear?
A little further, a blind couple played a Chinese type of guitar that had
a metallic piece in it, while she played the Erhu. They sang sad songs of
Chinese Opera and I guess it is from this period that my curiosity about
the blind begun to emerge.
The streets were quiet enough as Chinese amahs carrying a long pigtail
signifying their dedication to their sisterhood for remaining unmarried,
walked the streets in their impeccably white or powder blue short cotton
chipao and wide black pants, a jade bracelet in their wrist, they were
incredibly beautiful and full of dignity in their attires. I recall Ah-Ng
(the fifth, as they renounced their names in favor to the number which
they held in their family's children count) who raised me from the age of 6 to the age of ten. And every
time I went to visit her later on, she embraced me and my family as part
of her own. How fond I am of these memories and of the Chinese amahs of
those days. Their major entertainment was listening to the radio.
When I went back to my father’s house, near Kun Iam temple, I began to
discover the interminable flow of itinerant hawkers.
During the hot months we stayed indoors when the sun was scorching. But at
a certain hour after lunch, when all bodies and souls were aching for a
siesta in front of an electric fan, there was the sound of a hammer
hitting a small anvil, in a very definite way. It was the shoe repair man.
Everyone who had something for him had it ready at lunchtime and he would
spend hours under a tree repairing soles, heels, anything connected to
While this occurred, the tin-tin lo passed with his iron plate and a large
rusted screw with which he hit the plate producing a very recognizable
sound. It was the man who would buy things that households didn’t want
anymore for a couple of cents, and would then repair them and sell to
antique shops for a better price. Hence the antique shops took the
nickname of tin-tins.
One after another a procession of other sellers would come, knowing
exactly when the time was good. The seller of fried cuttlefish would
appear when the heath was not scorching and the kids were in the street
playing soccer. Then another hawker would call for gee cheong fan (rice
flour steamed and rolled, cut with scissors and soaked in soya and sesame
At dinner time, a man with a thick beard, shaven, would walk pass with two
square tins hanging from his shoulders. He was the bread man. Amahs bought
hot crispy bread for the evening meal and for breakfast.
We all, of course, spoke both Portuguese and Chinese and the protests
begun when they started to call us to stop playing and come have a bath
And the days passed calm and innocently for a generation that had not been
aware of the war and the suffering of the Chinese people, the uncountable
dramas of so many who were able to continue enduring, so very often with a
Macau had always been a generous place, harbouring all refugees,
independently of their provenance. And in this multi-cultural city they
found affection, sympathy and the strength to rebuild their lives and look
at the orange sunset sky while being thankful to fate for having brought
I, too, am grateful that the city in which I was born has always been so
António Conceição Júnior