China's Next Takeover: Macao, the West's Last Foothold in Asia

By Todd Crowell, | The Christian Science Monitor, May 21, 1997 | Go to article overview
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China's Next Takeover: Macao, the West's Last Foothold in Asia


Todd Crowell,, The Christian Science Monitor


The first thing residents tell you about Macao is that it is not a colony. Since 1974, it has been described officially as Chinese territory under Portuguese administration.

On Dec. 20, 1999, administration by the Portuguese ends, 442 years after they first set foot on China's coast. Portugal would have preferred to transfer sovereignty in 2007, rounding off 450 years of rule, but China insisted it had to be accomplished before the end of the century.

The origins of the enclave are obscure. No treaty gave Macao to Portugal. One historian claims that it was granted to Portugal by China for the help Portugal supposedly rendered in fighting pirates. But it is generally accepted that Portuguese traders began to settle here around 1557. At that time, only three tiny Chinese fishing villages dotted the small peninsula, along with several Taoist temples, including the A Ma Temple, which gives Macao its name (from A Ma Gao, or the Bay of A Ma.) The enclave grew quickly as a trading center connecting China, Japan, and India. Canton (now Guangzhou, China) was closed to foreign trading in 1522, so illegal imports moved through Macao. Then the Dutch captured Malacca (modern-day Malaysia), Japan closed its ports to the outside world, and the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies broke their union, ending the colony's trade with Manila. Macao went slowly but graciously to seed. Yet it has endured, its very seediness - expressed in the crumbling old buildings or in the modern gaudiness of its gambling emporiums - creating an ambiance that sets it apart from almost any other city on Asia's coast. These days, Macao has put on a bright new look. Since 1992, the government has been working to restore older buildings, including churches and temples, to their former brilliance. The evidence is everywhere in explosions of bright pinks, yellows, oranges, and reds. A few years ago, the heart of old Macao, the Plaza of the Leal Senado (loyal Senate), looked rundown. No longer. Portuguese craftsmen were brought in to lay the wavy blue-and-white limestone-and-basalt pavement that gives the square a distinctly Mediterranean look. The buildings have been freshly painted, too. Macao is famous for its churches and its churchmen. Italian Jesuit scholar Matteo Ricci studied Chinese here before serving in the late Ming dynasty court of the Chinese emperor. Much care has been taken to refurbish the many churches, cathedrals, and seminaries that dot the city. The most famous religious site in Macao is a ruin.

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