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Chinese Culture with a Portuguese Touch

The Changeover

The Portuguese established administrative structures in Macau following their treaty of 1888 that recognized Portuguese sovereignty over the territory. China never ratified this treaty. When diplomatic relations between Portugal and China were resumed in 1979, Macau was recognized as Chinese territory under Portuguese administration. In April 1987, the signing of the SinoPortuguese Joint Declaration on Macau provided for China to resume sovereignty over Macau on December 20, 1999 and the establishment of the Special Administrative Region of Macau (RAEM).

This autonomous region will have its own government and laws and for the next fifty years will maintain its present political, judicial, social, cultural and economic systems. The past twelve years have been a transition period during which both governments have worked together to ensure a smooth turn-over.

Last May, a committee of prominent business and community leaders elected Edmund Ho, a local Chinese banker and businessman, to become Macau’s first Chief Executive in December. His appointment has been approved by Beijing.


 In the mid 1500s, Portuguese seafarers used Macau as a shelter to weather storms. The small settlement that formed grew as trade between China and Japan expanded. In addition, it attracted refugees fleeing difficulties in other parts of Asia. At the beginning of the 19th century, the English, using an ancient alliance with Portugal, began to use Macau as a gateway into China. However, after they founded Hong Kong, which grew rapidly, Macau entered a period of decline as businesses and inhabitants emigrated to Hong Kong in large numbers.

Over the past two centuries, an ever-increasing flow of people, largely from China, has shaped Macau’s appearance, customs, day-to-day life, and economy.

The Church in Macau

With the Portuguese traders came the Roman Catholic Church and historically Macau was almost totally Catholic. Today, however, Catholicism accounts for only 9.2% of the population, Protestantism for 1.8% while the great majority hold to a synthesis of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist thought mixed with ancient beliefs that include ancestor worship and divination. Nevertheless, the Christian religions played a major role in both the expansion of Catholicism throughout Asia and the taking of Protestantism to China. In Macau, the first Protestant Chinese convert was baptized, the first Chinese Bible was translated and Robert Morrison, the first missionary, was buried.

Today, the Catholic Church continues to exert unequaled influence in the schools of Macau and is involved with welfare activities. The local Protestant community numbers around 2,500. Church growth has been slow and the church is divided and weakened by emigration and leadership turnover. There are three theological institutions for leadership training. The World Bible Translation Center plans to print 60,000 copies of its contemporary Mandarin New Testament for distribution prior to the December turnover. It is estimated that this will provide one New Testament copy for every ten residents.

Culture and Attractions

Almost half of Macau’s visitors come to enjoy its slower, more relaxed pace of life combined with a southern European flavor. Balconies, pastel-colored buildings, open pracas or squares, outdoor cafés and Portuguese restaurants lend an aura of tranquility. Old Portuguese fortresses, baroque churches, Chinese temples and faded mansions with charming Portuguese place names take one back in history. Macau’s colonial past predates that of Hong Kong by nearly three hundred years as attested by the imposing facade of St. Paul’s Church.

Recently completed projects including the Macau Museum and the Cultural Centre—a theme park on the island of Taipa—Macau’s airport, and over 100 hotels or lodging places attract tourists. Festivals and events such as the Dragon Boat Races, the International Fireworks Festival, and Chinese New Year festivities provide entertainment.

Macau’s Labor Force

Macau’s economy depends largely on tourism that includes a significant gambling element. This industry employs close to a third of the territory’s work force and serves an annual number of visitors that averages 20 times that of the resident population. Textile and fireworks manufacturing, along with real estate development are other major industries. Smaller industries include toys, artificial flowers and electronics.

The situation for laborers, both foreign and local, is difficult. There are 22,943 foreign laborers from China. To obtain a contract that normally lasts from one to three years, a laborer must pay a company fee prior to arrival. For most, this requires some type of loan with repayment installments beginning immediately upon their arrival in Macau. Once there, they find a low wage forcing them to work overtime. The work environment is adverse with frequent industrial accidents. Dormitory space is minimal and relatives and friends are prohibited from visiting. Freedom to participate in local activities is not allowed and expressions of dissatisfaction can mean loss of employment. As a result, laborers bear their exploitation in silence. Local laborers are also affected as imported laborers are cheaper and take the positions that locals would otherwise fill.

Since wages and factory building costs in China are more attractive than those of Macau, many owners move their industries to inland China resulting in underemployment in Macau. This is reflected in unemployment numbers that have recently been on the upswing. Nevertheless, although not working, laborers must pay for living expenses which drives them to borrow from local friends. When work becomes available, many work much overtime or in various factories and live frugally as they struggle to pay off their debts.

Petty street crime, frequently near casinos, and gang-related violence related to shrinking gambling profits have been on the increase affecting the public safety. In the wake of the Asian “Financial Windstorm,” business is slack with investors staying away. Laborers must take “forced breaks” without pay while being charged fees.

Map of Macau

The Portuguese controlled territory of Macau will return to Chinese rule as the Special Administrative Region of Macau on December 20, 1999. Located in Southeast China, Macau borders Guangdong province, and is 38 miles from Hong Kong. Macau’s total land area of 21 sq. kilometers includes the Macau peninsula and the islands of Taipa and Coloane. One causeway and two bridges connect the islands to the peninsula.

Map credit: Wikipedia 
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ChinaSource Team

ChinaSource Team

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