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China

Handover ends debate over 'wicked, beautiful' Macau
By Antoaneta Bezlova

MACAU - When the future Chinese rulers of this tiny Portuguese enclave erected the Bank of China building on the edge of Macau's waterfront in 1992, the tower changed forever the celebrated image of the Praia Grande.

This was due not only to the note of towering authority that the luminous skyscraper asserts over the low, faded pastel facades of Mediterranean-style villas lining the famous promenade. The Chinese mandarins also demanded that the equestrian statue of Portuguese hero Ferreira do Amaral was removed from its historic place, which happened to be in front of the Bank of China building.

Depicted with his sword in intimidating gesture, the 19th century Portuguese governor seemed to evoke for Chinese the humiliating memory of the Middle Kingdom's defeat at the hands of Western powers. It was Amaral who in the mid-19th century tried to change the fragile status quo of Macau, which with no treaty signed between China and Portugal had existed for some 300 years as a trade settlement under Portuguese administration on China's coast.

Amaral demanded that little Macau become a Portuguese colony, thus sealing foreign sovereignty forever. Portuguese administrators were to stop paying the peppercorn rent of 500 silver taels and become the real masters of the place, in much the same way the British colonizers came to rule Hong Kong.

Yet Amaral underestimated the reaction of the Chinese. The Qing dynasty government, although weakened by the onslaught of Western powers during the Opium War, never fully agreed to cede the enclave.

''From the very beginning, Macau was different from Hong Kong,'' insists Professor Zhang Haipeng, director of the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. ''There was a war between China and Britain and three treaties before Hong Kong became British. But when after 300 years of administration over Macau, the Portuguese demanded to legalize its status as a colony, China didn't agree because Portugal was a small and weak country then. The Portuguese never insisted on Macau as the British did on Hong Kong.''

Amaral had to pay a high price for his attempts to cut Macau off China. In 1849, he was murdered in a night ambush and his head and hand were severed in what Chinese history books describe as an attack by rebellious Guangdong peasants.

''On the surface, it appears the peasants took revenge on Amaral because he tried to make them pay tax and because he wanted to expand the borders of mainland Macau,'' says Kou Wei, a Macau history researcher at the Institute of Modern History. ''The true reason though, is that he tried to establish a colonial rule in Macau.''

To this day, Portuguese and Chinese historians still debate what was actually established about Macau's status when the two countries finally signed the Beijing treaty in 1878. The Chinese say Portugal was allowed to ''administer'' Macau in perpetuity, but the Portuguese counter that Lisbon was given the right to ''occupy'' it in perpetuity, which implied they were handed the sovereignty of the place.

''The Qing government was deliberately ambiguous in that treaty,'' contends Professor Zhang. ''They said Portugal couldn't cede this place to a third country, and they avoided defining the borders of Macau. It was a tactic aimed at preserving Chinese sovereignty over the enclave.''

These disputes will become all but history when Macau returns to Chinese rule at midnight on December 19 after 442 years of Portuguese administration.

The Portuguese traders who sailed to China were the first Europeans to come in conquest of Asia - and the last ones to go. They transformed the old fishing village of Macau into a bustling city of stone warehouses, villas and Catholic churches.

In the 16th century, Macau was the major hub of trade in the Far East. Portuguese carracks clogged the harbor, their holds laden with nutmeg, tea, porcelain, silk and silver. In its wealth of trade, Macau was said to rival only Venice.

Three centuries of remunerative existence ended with the settlement of Hong Kong. The British port came to dominate the Far East trade but Macau remained a unique ''Mediterranean'' part of China, as diverse as the underworld associated with its casinos. ''It was wicked but it was beautiful,'' Paul Linebarger, an American writer and biographer of Sun Yat-sen, father of the Chinese republic, wrote in 1925.

''Ah! Those blue and pink and yellow walls! A color for each of the master vices, opium, lewd women, and gambling; those master vices that mean to the Chinese, in the unrestraint of his ancient life, a natural pleasure,'' he wrote.

Despite its unique blend of Oriental and Portuguese flavors, Macau feels intrinsically Chinese - and not just because 97 percent of the population is Chinese. Says Harald Bruning, a veteran German correspondent in Macau: ''Macau has preserved traditional Chinese values better than the mainland and Hong Kong. This place didn't experience the madness of the Cultural Revolution with its destruction of culture, and it also escaped the rush for modernization that is gripping Hong Kong.''

For Luiz Teves, a Portuguese who has spent 14 years in this tiny enclave, Macau still feels like it is ''in passage''. He says, ''There is no feeling of belonging here. More than 60 percent of the people came from elsewhere. It is a harbor. It came to being as a harbor, and it remained a harbor.''

It is apt then, that with one of Macau's most enduring emblems, the statue of Ferreira do Amaral, gone from its waterfront, it is the golden statue of Kun Yam, the Goddess of Mercy, that will greet strangers on the coast.

(Inter Press Service)



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