MACAO: Awaiting the unpredictable.

MACAO: Awaiting the unpredictable. - Overshadowed by what is happening in Hong Kong, the older colony of Macau awaits 1999 and the Chinese with apprehension, writes Helen Kay.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Overshadowed by what is happening in Hong Kong, the older colony of Macau awaits 1999 and the Chinese with apprehension, writes Helen Kay.

In the square by the marketplace an old Chinese man sits at a rickety little table with a palmist's sign by his side; he is busy reading the hand of a client. The Chinese have long been interested in the art of prediction, but no one would be rash enough to predict what will happen when China takes over Macau, the gamblers' haven to which the Chinese come from Hong Kong when they want more than a flutter on the horses.

Hong Kong's transition from British colony to Chinese territory in 1997, has received large coverage but few recall that only two years later the Portuguese outpost of Macau will undergo a similar change.

This small peninsula, only six miles square, takes its name from the Chinese legend of A-Ma, the sea-faring goddess who rescued a junk from a sudden storm in the South China Sea. Having miraculously steered the ship into port, she ascended to the heavens in a halo of light. The grateful natives, so the story goes, promptly named the place A-Ma Gao, or the Bay of A-Ma, from which the modem Macau derives.

The history of the peninsula is no less colourful; it was settled by the Portuguese between 1554 and 1557, when Prince Henry the Navigator was exploring the Orient. Since then the Portuguese flag has flown over Macau uninterrupted even by the successful invasion, at the end of the 16th century, of Portugal itself.

In subsequent years Macau became a favourite summer residence for many of the taipans, the great, Chinese traders who retreated from their factories in Canton to await the opening of the new season. But, with the arrival of British settlers in Hong Kong in the mid-19th century, Macau's prosperity declined.

Once the peninsula had a virtual monopoly on trade between China, Japan and Europe. Now, it is primarily a fishing port and textiles manufacturer, best known for the ubiquitous gambling.

Its present economic insignificance largely explains the silence over its future.

Nevertheless, nearly 500,000 people live in Macau and the adjoining islands of Taipa and Coloane. For them the transfer of power to China is a vital issue. The vast majority (95%) are Chinese in origin, though nearly 30,000 enjoy Portuguese citizenship. When China resumes jurisdiction of Macau, they will return to the governance of the country which they left, often illegally. Even the 3% of the population who have Portuguese nationality will have problems. Many want to stay on: their families have lived on the peninsula for generations, they have inter-married and think of themselves as Macanese, part of the large middle class of an intensely hierarchical society. Should they wish to leave, they will find it difficult to return to the motherland.

A few contract-signed civil servants (expatriots in the main) have guaranteed jobs in Portugal. Most have no real prospect of a job in a country where unemployment is currently running at 5.5%.

In all probability they will have to migrate to another EC country - a prospect which makes them uneasy. When the Chinese government cracked down on dissidents in Tiananmen Square, some 120,000 Macanese took to the streets in protest. It is significant, too, that one of the more prominent landmarks in Macau is the statue of Ferdinand Algarve, the governor who fought the Chinese.

According to Selina Siqueira, a representative of the Government Tourist Office, there has already been a preparatory shift in the balance of power, which has exacerbated relations between the Macanese and the immigrant Chinese workforce.

Originally employed for a pittance as domestic servants and labourers, many have now acquired work permits and command higher, though not large, salaries. The middle-class Macanese resent this new economic strength.

Not all the Chinese were poor anyway. One of the most powerful financial figures in Macau is casino mogul Stanley Ho, secretive head of the syndicate which controls gambling. Some 30% of the Macanese government's revenue comes from gambling.

It's not hard to believe. Go to the garishly designed Hotel Lisboa or to any of the other five casinos, and, even in the middle of the day at least 1,000 people, many of them Chinese day- trippers from Hong Kong, will be jostling for space at the tables. Leaving one casino, I notice the typhoon sign unobtrusively stuck on the wall. The squalls accompanying the takeover by Communist China may be less easy to ignore.

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