Cultural mix holds on in a corner of China

MACAU – Long before words like “multiculturalism” and “fusion cuisine” entered the modern lexicon, Aida de Jesus and her forebears were mashing up food, language and DNA from far-flung corners of the globe.

A 95-year-old chef whose ancestry is drawn from Goa, Malacca and other former outposts of the Portuguese empire, Senhora de Jesus, as she prefers to be called, grew up celebrating Christmas and Chinese New Year with meals that relied on Portuguese sausage, bok choy and galinha cafreal, a chicken dish with an African pedigree. She spoke Portuguese at school, Cantonese on the street and a lively creole known as Patua with “the girls.”

“We Macanese are always mixing it up,” de Jesus said with a giggle, speaking in English, as she sat in the restaurant her family has run for decades. “We are very adaptable.”

But these days the Macanese – as this former Portuguese colony’s mixed-race residents are called – are swimming against a demographic tide that threatens to subsume their rich cultural cocktail. Always outnumbered by the Chinese migrants and Portuguese traders who crammed into this densely settled speck in the Pearl River Delta, the Macanese who stayed after Beijing took back the territory in 1999 are decidedly in the minority.

Fewer than 10,000 Macanese reside here; by contrast, Macau’s population of 500,000 is about 95 percent Chinese and rising.

“There are probably more Macanese living in California and Canada than Macao,” said Miguel de Senna Fernandes, a lawyer and playwright whose father, something of a local cultural institution, chronicled the lives of ordinary Macanese in a series of novels.

“Now that we are part of China, we are facing a very absorbing, overpowering force.”

Not that Fernandes is giving up.

In addition to organizing social events through his group, the Macaenses Association, he has also emerged as the Don Quixote of Patua, which is listed by UNESCO as an endangered language.

He helped publish a dictionary of Patua expressions, and for the past 18 years he has staged an annual play that revives what local people call “doci papiacam,” or sweet speech, a stew of archaic Portuguese, Malay and Singhalese spiced with English, Dutch and Japanese, and more recently, a large helping of Cantonese.

The language is among the last of the creoles that once flourished in the constellation of ports that made up Portugal’s Asian and African holdings.

Unlike British colonists who maintained some distance from their subjects in Hong Kong, just an hour’s ferry trip from Macau, the Portuguese frequently married local women who then converted to Catholicism.

Although most visitors these days are quickly sucked into Macau’s casinos – among them The Venetian, one of the world’s largest – those who wander the city’s narrow cobblestone streets are struck by the effortless coexistence of Orient and Occident.

Incense-suffused Buddhist temples, pastel Baroque churches, Portuguese bakeries and dried shark fin dispensaries are crammed together without complaint.

That same intermingling plays out in the lives of the Macanese, many of whom are devoted Catholics but give their children small red envelopes of cash on the Lunar New Year. Come Mid-Autumn Festival, another Chinese holiday, they take to the streets with rabbit-shaped lanterns.

“Many of us have been educated in Europe, but no Macanese would dare move to a new house without consulting a feng shui expert,” said Carlos Marreiros, an architect who designed the Macau pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. “I’m a Christian, but I also believe God is a big ocean and all the rivers of religion are running to meet him.”

In the years leading up to the transfer to China, thousands of apprehensive Macanese left, with many settling in Portugal. But over the past decade, as Beijing stayed true to its promise to give Macau 50 years of relative autonomy, the emigration has slowed and a small but steady number have returned.

One irresistible draw has been breakneck economic growth, mostly spurred by gambling and construction, which last year helped drive 20 percent growth in the economy.

Fuelled by players from the mainland, Macau’s gambling revenue is now quadruple that of the Las Vegas Strip.

The impact on local people has been mixed. A law that bars nonresidents from working as croupiers and dealers has helped deliver well-paid jobs but it has unexpectedly drained schools of teachers.

The lure has also been irresistible to young people, a growing number of whom are dropping out of high school or skipping college to head straight to the casino floor.

All that prosperity has brought other downsides as well: frenzied real estate speculation is pricing local people out of the housing market.

The sleepy Macau that many once held dear is increasingly subsumed by the horn-honking and manic rhythms commonly associated with Hong Kong.

“Everything is happening very fast: construction is fast, business is fast and everyone is more stressed,” said Jose Sales Marques, 55, the enclave’s last Portuguese mayor, who now works to promote better ties between Macau and Europe. “Prosperity is wonderful, but at the end of the day all that money can’t buy you a culture and an identity.”

Filomeno Jorge is determined to keep alive one strand of that identity. Every Wednesday he rustles up the seven other members of his band, Tuna Macaense, to run through a startlingly diverse repertory that includes Portuguese fados, Cantonese ballads and Filipino pop songs.

The mainstays, however, are vintage Patua, some dating from 1935, when the band was first established by Jose dos Santos Ferreira, a poet and lyricist widely credited with bringing cultural legitimacy to the Macanese dialect.

At one time, Tuna Macaense had three dozen members and the band was known for making unannounced visits at weddings and birthday parties.

“They would travel on foot through the streets because Macau so small,” said Jorge, 54, a security manager at the MGM Macau who joined the band 25 years ago. “We can’t do that now because there is too much traffic.”

Although Tuna Macaense is blessed with frequent gigs, Jorge is increasingly preoccupied with finding new blood for the band, a quest that has so far been unsuccessful.

“All of us in the band are over 50,” he said. “After we die, our music will die, and I can’t let that happen.”