In Unfamiliar Surroundings

What I knew about Macau before I arrived there for the first time was that it was the most populous territory of the world, that it was Chinese territory under Portuguese administration from 1976, and that it was composed of Macau Peninsula and the two outlying islands Taipa and Coloane. My appartment was in the Edificio Lung Tou Kok on the Avenida da Praia Grande in Macau Peninsula. On Sunday 7 January, my first Sunday in Macau, I visited the islands Taipa and Coloane for the first time, together with Dines Bjørner, his wife Kari, Peter Gorm Larsen, and his family. Peter Gorm is an old acquaintance who just arrived in Macau to give a course of two weeks at UNU/IIST.

On Taipa, we went to the recently finished airport of Macau and to Taipa Village, where we walked through the Rua do Cunha, a nice narrow shopping street, and visited the Taoist Pak Tai Temple, the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Carmel and the Taipa House Museum. On Coloane, we went to Coloane Village, where we visited the Taoist Tam Kung Temple, walked along an old wharf where wooded ships were built, and had lunch in the Portuguese restaurant Caçarola. Thus I experienced a lot of unfamiliar things in a short time period.

At that time, the airport of Macau handled only flights within Asia. Therefore, it was most convenient to travel from Voorschoten to Macau via Hong Kong one week before. The Rua do Cunha itself made a very rustic impression. However, from one end of the street, there was a view of brand-new high-rise buildings and a view of something that looked like the poorest townships of Soweto. These considerable contrasts in a small area created a bit ominous atmosphere.

Like many other Taoist temples that I would visit later in Macau, the Pak Tai Temple, where much incense and joss paper was burning, gave a untidy and quite dreary impression. Like many other Catholic churches that I would visit later in Macau, the Church of Our Lady of Carmel gave a tidy and cheerful impression, and it was a little mouldy on the outside. Although I have visited many other Taoist temples and Catholic churches in Macau, I am still not certain whether this difference of impression has a cultural background.

The Taipa House Museum, now part of the Taipa Houses Museum, offered a primitive snapshot of life in Macau in the early twentieth century for Portugueses. I could imagine that life elsewhere in the world in the early twentieth century had not been dramatically different for Portugueses, with the exception of the presence of Chinese furniture and Chinese cloisonné in Macau.

Coloane Village gave a much more authentic impression then Taipa Village, and life seemed much more relaxed. One of my first thoughts was that I would like to live in Coloane Village instead of Macau Peninsula, but the bad accessibility of the UNU/IIST building kept me from exploring this possibility further. The food in the restaurant Caçarola was excellent, although pig’s ear is not one of my favourites side dishes. Because it was a Portuguese restaurant, it was moreover quite surprising to find this dish from the Chinese cuisine on the menu.

Coloane Village would be within walking distance from China if there was no shallow water in between. At its deepest point, the depth of the water is about 1.75 meter. Once, refugees from China have crossed the water here. They still lived here. Their houses, which were mainly made of sheets of corrugated iron, stood on wooden poles.

Riding in a taxi over Taipa, I also saw a big Chinese cemetery, where I missed the dreariness of cemeteries that I was used to, and a racetrack, where horseraces were going on. I would soon find that many residents of Hong Kong came regularly to Macau to gamble at this racetrack or one of the many casinos in Macau. Riding in a taxi over Coloane, I also saw another village, Ka-Ho Village, two beaches, Cheoc Van Beach and Hac Sa Beach, and a reservoir for the water supply in Macau. What struck me most on Coloane was that a considerable part of it was nature area. Less than a week in the extremely populous Macau Peninsula, this was much relief.

A few days later, I visited my colleague Xu QiWen in his appartment, where he lived together with his two children and his parents. His first wife has left him and their children, and his parents cared for the children when he worked at UNU/IIST to earn an income. There, for the first time since my arrival in Macau, I ate dim sum in the Chinese way, namely with chop sticks and a lot of tea drinking during the meal. I was also introduced to a new way of making tea: first put tea in your tea glass and then pour very fast boiling hot water in the glass. If you do it perfectly, I was not able to do so, the tea leaves remain on the bottom of the glass. For the next few glasses of tea, the same tea is used. No fumbling with tea bags.

On Saturday 13 January, in the first weekend after I moved into my appartment, I went to a market a few blocks away. The market was mainly a street that was full of market stalls each day of the week. Many different articles were displayed in these stalls, but there were remarkably many fruit stalls. At the end of the street, there was a market hall where only vegetables, meat and fish was sold. All was very fresh, in my opinion sometimes to fresh. Poultry and fish were slaughtered on the spot for the customer.

Bargaining about the price was customary in Macau, not only on the market. However, it is difficult to bargain if there is no common language to speak. I did not speak Cantonese and the market vendors did not speak English or Dutch. Most of the few Macaneses with Chinese roots that have mastered English, do not dare to speak it because they wrongly think that they cannot make themselves understood. They might lose face! I soon found that it would be very difficult for me to learn even a few sentences in Cantonese from my new Macanese and Chinese friends during my two years in Macau. I simply miss the necessary musical aptitude. However, Cantonese and Mandarin speaking people have a sign language for numbers. I quickly learned to use this sign language, together with facial expressions, to bargain about prices.

Not yet two weeks in Macau, I could not escape the impression that Macau was a strange place to be. The Macaneses lived with about 400,000 people in a small town which they could hardly leave because Macau was bounded by the sea and the border with China, which did not allow them to enter in the extreme case that they would wish so. Really all Macaneses seemed to be always on the way without a known destination. It gave the impression that Macau was an overpopulated anthill, and the official figures supported this impression. Moreover, the Macaneses were exceptionally noisy, did nothing right straightaway the first time, and, possibly related to that, worked day and night, seven days a week. At that time, my tentative conclusion was that Macau was an incredible territory with apart from that actually quite nice inhabitants. However, I was not yet two weeks in these unfamiliar surroundings.

© Kees Middelburg, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kees Middelburg with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About Kees Middelburg

Retired computer scientist
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