Museu do Oriente, Lisbon

While in Lisbon recently I wanted to visit the Museu do Oriente, a museum dedicated to the Portuguese presence in Asia. Portugal’s principal possessions in Asia comprised Goa, Malacca, East Timor and Macau together with a trading post in Nagasaki, all places which are relevant to the theme of this blog.

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The museum, together with its parent organisation the Fundação Oriente, is housed in a former dock-side warehouse which used to belong to the Comissão Reguladora do Comércio de Bacalhau (commission for regulating the trade of cod).

The museum’s permanent exhibitions cover two floors, the lower floor containing the items relating to the Portuguese colonial period in Asia and the upper floor housing the Kwok On Collection of over 13,000 pieces connected with performing arts in Asia.

The Macau section covers the most floorspace which is not surprising since Portugal controlled the territory for nearly 450 years.

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This handsome lacquer screen portrays some of the major landmarks of Macau including St. Paul’s Church (of which only the facade still remains), Mount Fortress and A-Ma Temple.

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Some works by the English painter George Chinnery (1774 – 1852), who lived in Macau from 1825 until his death, are featured in the museum.

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Another lacquer screen from the 17th Century shows a Portuguese trading carrack in the process of disembarking its cargo in China to trade with the Chinese.

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One of the world’s thinnest books must be this atlas of Portuguese possessions in southern China by Albino Ribas da Silva (1868-1934). It consists of just 8 pages, all of Macau.

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This European style bureau or writing desk has been decorated with a black and gold lacquer illustration of the Praia Grande, Macau’s seafront promenade.

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Over in the Japanese section is a fine collection of inro, beautifully crafted wooden boxes used for carrying small items (since Japanese men did not have pockets in their traditional robes).

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Portuguese traders and missionaries were tolerated in Nagasaki for 50 years or so until Tokugawa Ieyasu took power and expelled the foreigners in 1614. Portugal is credited with introducing tempura, firearms and Christianity to Japan among other things.

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This Japanese screen shows a Portuguese delegation with its leader sheltered by the yellow umbrella.

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East Timor was a Portuguese colony until 1975 when it became part of Indonesia. It broke away from Indonesia and gained independence in 2002. Timur is Malay for east so the country’s name means east-east which is a bit odd, like Gili Islands in Lombok which means island-islands. According to the museum, Timur was so-named because it was the most easterly island in the Sunda archipelago searched by Malays, Indians, Arabs and Chinese in their search for white sandalwood which grew in abundance in the area.

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The Indian section contains some attractive pieces such as this inlaid cabinet and desk.

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This is a scale model of the Church of Santana in Talaulim, Goa. The church, which still stands, was built between 1681 and 1695 and marks a turning point in Luso-Indian architecture.

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The town of Malacca hardly gets a mention in the museum which is disappointing. However Malaysia does feature in the performing arts section with Wayang Siam shadow theatre puppets on display. Wayang Siam exists in Kelantan and is heavily influenced by Thai and Javanese shadow theatre traditions.

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This lovely MG car is not part of the museum but was parked outside. If you want to find out more about the museum you can visit their official website. 

Macau, Rhubarb and Custard Apples

Macau Harbour 1890

Macau is a tiny place; a mere pimple on the bum of China, but its impact on the world has been significant. By the year 1600, Macau had already had an influence on China, most notably on diet.

According to historian and author, Austin Coates, a number or fruits and vegetables were introduced into China from Macau including sweet potatoes, peanuts, watercress, pineapples, custard apples and chillies. Shrimp paste was another foodstuff transplanted from Portugal’s widely spread empire. Where would Chinese cuisine be today without peanut oil? Or Szechuan dishes without chillies?

Fruit and vegetables introduced from Macau to China

Most of these crops originated in the Americas.  Early Spanish explorers are believed to have taken the sweet potato from the New World to the Philippines, from where Portuguese traders introduced the crop to China via Macau around 1590.

Watercress is known by the Cantonese as xiyang cai or Western Ocean vegetable, Western Ocean being a colloquial name for Portugal.

Custard apples (another native of the Americas) are called ‘foreign devil’s lychee’ in Macau, recognising that they were introduced by Europeans. Interestingly custard apples are called Sakya in Taiwan because the skin of the fruit resembles the tightly curled hair on some Sakyamuni Buddha statues.

Mandarins and Rhubarb were introduced to the West from China via Macau

But the dietary interchange was not all in one direction. From China to the West came rhubarb, tea and mandarin oranges. The Portuguese transplanted the mandarin to Tangier in Morocco, then under Portuguese control, from where we obtained the word tangerine. (In Gulf countries, the Arabic word used for orange is the same as their word for Portugal.)

Rhubarb had long been cultivated in China for its medicinal, laxative qualities. Marco Polo wrote about it in his travel journals but it was not until the Portuguese settled in Macau that shipments began in bulk. Demand from Europe was such that the Chinese assumed Europeans to be a very constipated race.

Chinese tea had long been known about in the West but again traders based in Macau, many of them British, were the first to open up the market and begin shipping tea in bulk to Europe.

Chinese boars were another important export though Macau for cross breeding with European pigs to improve the standards of European pork.

It is not only China’s diet that was influenced by Portugal. Tempura, which we think of as a quintessential Japanese dish, was introduced by the Portuguese via their trading settlement and missionary base in Nagasaki. The name probably came from quattuor tempora, Latin for those periods when Catholics refrain from eating meat. Tempura may have originated from the Portuguese battered vegetable dish called peixinhos da horta, or ‘fish from the garden’ which resembles tempura (though not as tasty due to lack of dipping sauce).

Vintage Postcard Macau Panorama
Macau, pimple on the bottom of China

Macau’s Historic Centre

Macau's Historic Centre

When the Portuguese packed their bags and departed Macau for good in 1999 they left behind a rich cultural heritage stretching back nearly 450 years. Rather than try to expunge all traces of Portuguese influence from Macau’s history, the new Macau Special Administrative Region government has instead accentuated its past and has preserved and restored nearly all of the historic buildings and spaces that make Macau unique. These efforts were recognised by UNESCO in 2005 when The Historic Centre of Macau was added to the list of World Heritage Sites.

Map Showing The Historic Centre of Macau

The Historic Centre of Macau comprises twelve core buildings (shown on the map) and a number of other buildings and spaces of historical and architectural importance. These can be covered on foot as part of a Macau Heritage Trail for an enjoyable day’s outing (excluding Guia Fortress which is a taxi ride away).

A-Ma Temple

1. A-Ma Temple (1488).

This temple, after which Macau is named, is the only building on the list which pre-dates the arrival of the Portuguese in 1556 when Macau was just a small fishing village. The temple’s numerous pavilions follow Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and traditional Chinese folk beliefs.

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2. Moorish Barracks (1874).

This building housed two hundred soldiers recruited from Goa (a Portuguese possession at the time) to help support Macau’s police force. The Quartel dos Mouros is now the head office of the Macao Port Authority.

Mandarin's House

3. Mandarin’s House (1869-1881)

This sprawling compound made up of several courtyard houses was the residence of prominent Chinese literary figure Zheng Guanying. It is located adjacent to Lilau Square, a Portuguese style piazza. They say that one who drinks from the natural spring in Lilau Square never forgets Macau (dysentery perhaps)?

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4. St. Joseph’s Seminary Building and Church (1728)

From this seminary, Jesuit missionaries fanned out across China, Japan and around the region to spread Christianity, with varying results. The Church (1758) is a fine example of baroque architecture. Inside the Church lies one of Macau’s most valuable religious relics, a piece of bone from the arm of St. Francis Xavier who died on the southern Chinese island of Shanchuan in 1552.

There are a number of other historic churches in Macau which, though not appearing on this list, are well worth visiting.

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5. Dom Pedro V Theatre (1860)

Built as the first Western-style theatre in China. It is still used for cultural events.

Leal Senado

6. Leal Senado Building (1784)

This was, and still is, Macau’s municipal chamber and it was from here that most of the important decisions concerning the city were made and they resented interference from their political masters in Portugal and Goa. Dubbed Leal Senado (Loyal Senate) in reference to Portuguese King João IV’s praise of Macau in 1654 that “there is None More Loyal”. The building retains original features including a courtyard garden where there are busts of Camilo Pessanha and Luís Vaz de Camões, Portugal’s national poet. There is also an ornate library on the first floor and a small chapel.

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7. Holy House of Mercy (1569 – 18th century)

Santa Casa da Misericordia was established by the first Bishop of Macau, modelled after one of the oldest charitable institutions in Portugal and provided the first medical clinic and other social welfare structures that still function to this day.

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8. Ruins of St. Paul’s (1637-40)

This granite facade is all that remains of the Church of Mater Dei which was destroyed by fire in 1835. This is now Macau’s most famous landmark and symbolically appears on the logo of the Macau Tourist Office. It is continually besieged by hordes of selfie-taking tourists.

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9. Na Tcha Temple (1888) 

This tiny temple to the irreverent god Na Tcha was built adjacent to St. Paul’s Ruins after the Church of Mater Dei was destroyed by the fire of 1835. The fact that a traditional Chinese temple stands close to the remains of the main Jesuit institution of the region is held up as an example of Macao’s multicultural identity and religious tolerance.

The Historic Centre of Macau

 10. Section of the Old City Walls (1632)

The temple adjoins one of the last surviving sections of the Old City Walls. Fortification of Macau began in the early 1600’s to defend the city against the Dutch who were threatening to invade. The wall is made of a solid compound named chunambo, an elaborate mixture of clay, soil, sand, rice straw, crushed rocks and oyster shells compacted in successive layers.

Mount Fortress

11. Mount Fortress (1617-1626)

This square of strong fortress walls was built by the Jesuits and played a key role in repelling the tentative Dutch invasion of 1622. The ramparts were lined with cannons which were made in a foundry in Macau, producing the finest weapons of their kind in Asia. The fortress now contains the Macau Museum. 

Guia Fortress

12. Guia Fortress (1622-1638) (including the Chapel, pre 1622, and Lighthouse 1864)

Guia Lighthouse is believed to be the oldest lighthouse of the South-China seas. Guia Chapel was established by nuns, who resided at the site before establishing the Convent of St. Clara. In 1998 frescoes were uncovered inside Guia Chapel during routine conservation work. These frescoes depict both Western and Chinese themes and are an example of Macau’s unique multiculturalism.

Matchbox Cover in Macau Museum

Macau’s Gambling Habit

At the Macau Museum there is a section dedicated to cricket fighting, a sport where pairs of carefully nurtured bugs battle it out in little insect arenas watched by their owners, trainers and a crowd of eager gamblers. This pastime goes back a thousand years to Tang Dynasty China and was therefore probably one of the first forms of gambling to take place in Macau, albeit illegally.

Cricket Fighting Champions at Macau Museum
A cricket coffin fit for a prize fighter and some pickled former contestants on display at Macau Museum.

Licensed gambling was first introduced in this former Portuguese colony in the 1850’s to raise funds for Timor, another Portuguese far-eastern possession, which had become a drain on Macau’s coffers once its sandalwood trees had all been logged and not replanted.

Fantan Gambling in Macau
Fantan is still played in Macau casinos today.

Licensed fantan saloons sprang up (fantan is a Chinese game with some similarities to roulette) which proved popular with locals and weekenders from nearby Hong Kong, giving rise to Macau’s reputation as the Monte Carlo of the Orient (now Las Vegas of the Orient seems more apt). So successful was licensed gambling as a means of raising government revenue that the practice continued even after Macau ceased to have financial responsibility for Timor.

When I used to visit Macau in the 1980s and 90s,  Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau (STDM) had held a monopoly on the gambling concessions since 1962 and they had introduced western forms of gambling to the territory such as roulette, blackjack, baccarat and slots. High speed hydrofoils and jetfoils were also introduced to whisk Hong Kong gamblers, in under an hour, to the Lisboa, which was the main casino at that time.

Grand Lisboa and Macau skyline
The Lisboa is still going strong and the gold building dominating this photo is their latest extension, the Grand Lisboa.

Following the handover of Macau from Portugal to China in 1999, the new government decided in 2001 to end the monopoly system and allow new players to compete for concessions. Since then STDM has been joined by Wynn, Las Vegas Sands, MGM Mirage and others and Macau’s total gambling receipts have soared, surpassing Las Vegas by 2007.

The Venetian, Macau
The biggest of Macau’s 33 casinos is The Venetian with 3400 slot machines, 800 gaming tables and 550,000 sq. ft. of casino space.

To accommodate all these new casinos and hotels, a major land reclamation project was undertaken by filling in the sea between Taipa Island and Coloane Island. This new area is called Cotai and is home to a Las Vegas-style strip of grand casinos and 5 star hotels.

Galaxy Casino, Macau
One of the towers of the newly opened Galaxy casino and hotel complex which includes the Okura, Banyan Tree, Ritz Carlton, JW Marriott and Galaxy hotels.
Lobby of Galaxy Hotel
One of the modest lobbies to the Galaxy Casino.
Galaxy Casino Macau
Typical Macau casino.

Mainland Chinese visitors have long since overtaken visitors from Hong Kong and now may make up 80% of the total. Mainlanders flood across the land border through the Border Gate on Macau Peninsula or via the Lotus Bridge on Cotai.

Dependence on Mainland Chinese visitors does have its disadvantages. The recent clampdown on corruption in PRC has led to a decline in Macau’s gambling revenue. On the other hand, perhaps the current collapse in Chinese share prices might help Macau as investors sell their shares and look for other places to speculate with their wealth.

Casa de Penhores in Macau
Sign of a Casa de Penhores (pawn broker) in Macau.

The streets of Macau, especially near the casinos, have always contained a number of pawn shops, now more than ever as the number has risen to 170.  In Portuguese, still an official language in Macau, they are called Casa de Penhores which fittingly sounds like House of Penury (though maybe it means House of Pledges). Here desperate gamblers on a losing streak can pawn their Rolex watches for cash in the hope that their luck changes. Not for nothing did Charles Dickens call pawn brokers ‘receptacles of misery and distress’.

But in modern Macau they serve a another purpose. Mainlanders are only permitted to carry 20,000 Yuan with them to Macau (about US$3,200) and the most they can withdraw from the ATM while in Macau is 10,000 Yuan per day. While that is more than ample for most people it is insufficient for serious gamblers. So they visit the pawn brokers and buy an expensive item, say jewellery costing US$10,000 using their debit or credit cards. Then they immediately sell the item back to the pawn broker for cash, less a commission of 5 to 10%.  In this way, the pawn brokers provide cash advances against credit cards, thus circumventing the exchange controls, to say nothing of money laundering regulations. The pawn broking business in Macau must be even more profitable than casinos!

Macau Fisherman's Wharf
Part of Macau Fisherman’s Wharf, a Portuguese, Dutch, New Orleans, Spanish, Czech themed shopping and entertainment complex.

The Macau government aims to diversify away from its dependence on gambling and is trying hard to create more family oriented attractions. The nearly completed Macau Fisherman’s Wharf is one such example with shopping and entertainment, but even that will have its own casino. Despite government efforts it is still estimated that 99% of visitors to Macau come for gambling. My family and I were part of the 1% and more about that in the next post.

Rednaxela Terrace – Hong Kong

My favourite street name in Hong Kong has to be Rednaxela Terrace, just off the the Central-Mid Levels Escalator above Caine Road.

Rednaxela Terrace

The most plausible explanation for this peculiar name   is that the street was supposed to have been Alexander Terrace but the Chinese sign-painter placed the letters from right to left, which was how Chinese read at that time.  The mistake could easily have been corrected but somehow the name stuck.

Jose RizalJosé Rizal, the Philippine’s revered national hero, lived at number 2, Rednaxela Terrace together with some family members for about six months from 1891-1892, while he worked as an opthalmologist at 5, D’Aguilar Street. Austin Coates, in his excellent biography on Rizal describes the area as follows:

A small house, which they furnished and decorated themselves, situated some 300 feet above sea level on the steepest part of the Peak in an area occupied mainly by Portuguese families, originally from Macao, who were the backbone of Hong Kong’s middle class.

This area would have looked a lot different from today and this is the type of view which Rizal might have enjoyed.

View from Caine Road during Rizal's time.

Dr. Lourenco MarquesHis next door neighbour was a prominent Portuguese, Dr. Lourenço Pereira Marques. They became good friends. Marques was at the time a prison medical officer at the nearby Victoria Gaol. Victoria Gaol around 1895 showing laundry yard.

(Amazingly (for Hong Kong), this prison remained in service until 2005 and has now been declared a protected monument.)

Marques was over-qualified for this job but there was little prospect of promotion because in those days, Hong Kong Portuguese were unfairly confined to the lower rungs of the civil service even though Marques himself was a British citizen.

From 1894 he was involved in the fight against bubonic plague which killed 8,600 people in Hong Kong over the next seven years with a 95% fatality rate for those infected.

Jardim Luis de CamoesMarques’ mother, Maria Ana Josefa Pereira owned an estate in Macau which included the Jardim Luis de Camòes, one of my favourite spots in the territory.

A street in Macau was named after Rizal’s friend, Rua Do Dr. Lourenço Pereira Marques which runs along the western harbour of the Macau peninsula. By the way the old name for Maputo in Mozambique, Lourenco Marques, is nothing to do with this individual but was named after a much earlier namesake, a Portuguese trader who first explored the area in 1544.

Rednaxela Terrace in 2011Marques was not particularly happy with his situation in Hong Kong and was interested to migrate. Indeed over the 120 or so years since his time, many of the Portuguese/Macanese population of Hong Kong moved on to new lives in places like Canada, Australia and Portugal.

Perhaps they should have retained their properties in Hong Kong. Number 1, Rednaxela Terrace is now an apartment block and a single compact 1800 sq. ft. flat with 3 small bedrooms is today on the market for a whopping HK$40,000,000 (US$5million).

Sun Yat-sen, President of the Republic of ChinaDuring Rizal’s short residence in Hong Kong another Asian national hero and revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen, the future first President of China,  was also in Hong Kong as a student at the Hong Kong College of Medicine. They do not appear to have met despite the fact that Marques was one of Sun Yat-sen’s lecturers.

When I was last in Hong Kong I visited the Sun Yat Museum which is at Kom Tong Hall, a former grand residence belonging to local businessman, Ho Kom Tong. The location is at the corner of Castle Road and Caine Road and is just a short walk from Rednaxela Terrace. It’s a small world in Hong Kong!

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Museum

Asia’s Cycle Rickshaws – A Dying Breed

During my recent visit to Malacca, I was interested to see how the town’s cycle rickshaws have transformed over the years.

This is how they look now, elaborately decorated with artificial flowers and fitted with a boom box under the seat playing noisy music. They don’t seem to stray far from the main square in front of Malacca’s old Dutch-era Stadhuis and Christ Church. The cycle rickshaw drivers prey on the coach loads of tourists and no doubt charge a good sum for a quick spin round the block or to pose for a photo.  Who can blame them? They have to make a living somehow and there is not much money to be made these days from cycle rickshaws as a means of public transport.

Malacca 2010

It was not always so. When I first visited Malacca way back in 1983, cycle rickshaws (or trishaws, or pedal rickshaws, or pedicabs or tricycles as they are also known ) were still used as a poor man’s taxi and they were a charming, unhurried way to get around the town centre which those days had far less traffic.  From a trishaw you could get a close up view of the streets and ask the driver to pull over anytime something interesting caught your eye. You were more in tune with the leisurely pace of  Malacca which was a very relaxed place at that time.

Malacca 1983

I was reading an article about trishaw drivers in Teluk Intan in Perak. This town is home to Malaysia’s equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (a pagoda-like clock tower with a distinct tilt). This architectural oddity attracts visitors but not in sufficient numbers to sustain the cycle rickshaw drivers, of whom there were (in 2009) only four left and of these, three were in their seventies.  Apparently they can only earn around RM300 per month (less than USD100). They have to pay RM18.50 for an annual permit. The local trishaw licensing office must be one of the sleepier government departments as they have not issued any new licenses for decades.

It is sad but inevitable that the trishaw, as a means of public transport, is facing extinction in Asia. The only hope is that larger parts of historic heritage sites like Malacca and Georgetown (Penang) can be pedestrianised thus making the conditions right for trishaws. Of course they would have to charge tourist rates, which reach about RM30 per hour in Penang. This might attract younger people like students to do a bit of healthy trishaw driving in their spare time.

I have encountered a number of different trishaw designs in my Asian travels. Malaysia and Singapore have the driver sitting to the side of the passengers like the one pictured above.

Thailand and Macau have the driver sitting in front of the passenger, while Vietnam and Indonesia have the passenger sitting in front of the driver.

Macau 1980s 

In Macau in the early 1980s, it was quite normal to take a triciclo from the ferry terminal to somewhere like the Lisboa Hotel or Henri’s Galley, our favourite restaurant for giant prawns or African chicken. The tricilo fare was cheaper than a taxi and we would always negotiate the fare before getting in. But by the end of the journey, after staring at the driver’s sinewy calf muscles, we would often feel sorry for him and end up paying a generous tip.

Vietnam in 1993 was an ideal place for trishaw travel as there was very little traffic in those days apart from bikes. This very basic looking cyclo (as they are known in Vietnam) was typical of those found in Hanoi, where the design was lower and wider than those in Saigon. Hanoi cyclos could hold two people (slim ones) while Saigon’s were single seaters. They may have only carried one person but they could accommodate quite a few geese.

 Hanoi 1993Having a gander, Saigon, 1993.

Nowadays in Vietnam, the slow and cumbersome cyclo is banned from more and more places as they obstruct the cars, trucks and motorbikes which have multiplied rapidly in recent years. This is more or less the pattern all over Asia, though I understand that in Dhaka, Bangladesh (which I haven’t visited yet) the trishaw is still going strong, apart from on the major roads.

Ironically in the West, the cycle rickshaw has made a bit of a comeback where it seen as an eco-friendly and healthy occupation and ultra modern designed trishaws have apparently set up shop in places like London, New York, Germany and Ireland.

Hanoi 1993