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 1435.
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 love
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 Portuguese.
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.

The arrival
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 China.
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, quite attractive.
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 Guangdong.
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 masculine side.
Therefore the city grew with African slaves, Indian servants, different versions of Portuguese, from Europe, Asia, what not.

 

The black ship
Simultaneously to the inception of the city, the opportunity of becoming the intermediaries between the inexistent trades of the much sought after Chinese silk with Japan arose. Therefore the Portuguese begun to buy Chinese silk in Guangzhou and trade it at Nagasaki for silver bullion.
The black ship from Goa, the seat of the Portuguese Viceroy of India was a fully armed galleon that would do the trading for the King of Portugal. However its presence generated a massive participation of local traders that went along into Japan. The trade propitiated the origin of an original vessel called Lorcha, which was a mixture of a Portuguese ship with a Chinese junk.
In the next sixty years, before the Jesuits conversion fever of the Counter-Reform and the plots of the Dutch originated the expulsion of the Portuguese, known by the Japanese as Nam Ban (south barbarians).
However, once more, the Portuguese did not only left the teppo (matchlock gun) in Tanegashima, but around four hundred Portuguese words were incorporated in the Japanese language. Tempura, from tempero (seasoning) may be one of the most widely known.
The silk trade with Japan turned Macau into the richest outpost in the world of the time. When the trade years were through, the city received many kirishitan (Christian) converts from Japan.

 

A MULTICULTURAL CITY

Continuity
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 Malaysian Saraça.
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.

 

Different times, different areas of Macau. The same architecture that was learnt for the tropics.

 

Memories
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 shoes.
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 sauces.
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 before dinner.
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 smile.
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 them here.
I, too, am grateful that the city in which I was born has always been so embracing.


António Conceição Júnior