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In Macao, a Culture on the Cusp

As Portugal prepares to hand over the enclave to China, many of the territory's residents of Chinese-Portuguese descent--the 'Macanese'-- fear their distinctive way of life may be near an end.


MACAO — Henrique Pedruco was born in this tiny enclave and has lived here for all of his 56 years.

But on Monday, Pedruco will wake up a stranger in his native land as Macao reverts to Chinese rule after 442 years under Portuguese control.

"All of a sudden, I'm a foreigner in my own homeland," laments Pedruco, who will maintain Portuguese citizenship after the hand-over. "That's the worst part."

Pedruco is certain he'll stay on in Macao. He is less certain, however, that the distinctive culture he grew up with will do the same.

Lost in all the political buzz over Macao's imminent return to the Chinese fold lies the fate of a dwindling community of residents like Pedruco that has helped stamp this sleepy territory with its unique brand as a meeting place of East and West.

They are the "Macanese," people of mixed Portuguese and Chinese descent who have played a key role in the history of Macao as its translators, civil servants and mediators, a living bridge across the cultural divide between Lisbon and Beijing.

Over the centuries, the Macanese have created their own special "in-between" niche here, blending Portuguese and Chinese customs and traditions into a rich cultural melange unlike anything else found in East Asia, despite the region's long history of European colonization.

But with only 10,000 Macanese left out of Macao's population of 430,000, some fear that special way of life may be under threat after flowering in so many forms and directions for hundreds of years.

There's Macanese patois, a hybrid of Portuguese and Chinese words still spoken by older members of the community. Macanese artists and writers explore issues of Eurasian identity and belonging in paintings, plays and poetry. Roman Catholicism and Buddhism mix and match.

And, as with the people of so many other cultures, the Macanese would simply be lost without their food, which combines not just Portuguese and Chinese elements but also throws in influences from India and Malacca, places where intrepid Portuguese sailors stopped to buy the pungent and exotic spices they never encountered at home.

"In the last two decades, all the hoo-ha in the First World has been about 'fusion' cuisines," says Jorge Smith, a food and beverage director at one of Macao's top hotels. "Well, look, Macanese cuisine was the original fusion cuisine. We're talking 400 years ago, not just the last two decades or the latest fusion restaurant that opens in Sydney."

"This place is the result of a long encounter between two different cultures," adds Jorge Rangel, Macao's secretary for public administration, education and youth. "It's not Portugal, it's not China. It's a little bit of each."

As the highest-ranking Macanese in the executive government, Rangel is required by Macao's post-hand-over constitution to step down after the transfer of power, which was negotiated in the late '80s according to the same formula of "one country, two systems" that was pioneered for Hong Kong's return to China. A Chinese official will replace Rangel, which many fear will become a metaphor for the eventual lot of the Macanese community: to be displaced over time as more migrants settle here and turn Macao into another Chinese city.

Already, Chinese nationals make up 68% of Macao's residents, though the actual number of ethnic Chinese--taking into account those who have been issued Portuguese passports--is far higher. About one-third of Macao's population is Chinese immigrants who crossed the border from south China within the past 20 years.

By contrast, the number of Macanese has declined in recent years as many families, apprehensive about the hand-over's political or economic fallout, moved away.

In fact, some think that the Macanese diaspora, including tight-knit communities in California, Australia, Brazil and Canada that have developed over the past several decades, may be larger than the Macanese community in Macao itself.

"The Macanese refer to themselves as 'sons and daughters of the land.' They think of this as their land," says Jane Camens, an Australian writer based here. But after the hand-over, "they'll be like a dispossessed people. On Dec. 20, China will suddenly inherit a new ethnic minority."

In ways similar to the struggles of minorities to preserve their heritages in the U.S., members of the Macanese community are now scrambling to find ways to perpetuate their patrimony. The post-hand-over constitution guarantees general protection for Macao residents of Portuguese ancestry, but active promotion is necessary, many Macanese say, for their culture to survive amid the graceful colonial buildings of Macao, with their unmistakable Old World elegance and cheerfully pastel Mediterranean colors.

Miguel de Senna Fernandes works as a lawyer by day and a playwright by night. His father, Henrique, is a well-known Macanese novelist whose tales of interracial romance have been turned into feature films.

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