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from the August 2018 issue

Land of Contradictions: Writing in Macau Today

Guest editor Jeremy Tiang kicks off our Macau issue with a look at the contradictions of this tiny yet complex territory and its literature

Macau is tiny: an area of forty-five square miles, home to half a million residents. It was a Portuguese colony from the sixteenth century to 1999, before being handed over to China. This territory has long been a crucible of language and culture. It was here that the British missionary Robert Morrison holed up in the early nineteenth century to compile his Chinese-English dictionary, and where the Portuguese symbolist poet Camilo Pessanha was buried in 1926. It has its own Macanese creole (known locally as Patuá) that combines Portuguese, Cantonese, and Malay—though this is now listed by UNESCO as a critically endangered language, with fewer than fifty speakers in Macau.

I was in Macau earlier this year for its literature festival, an intimate affair in the town center with an impressive array of visiting authors. Every venue had an interpreters’ booth at one side of the room, in acknowledgment of the multilingual panels—most were in some combination of Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and Portuguese, as was the audience. The sessions I attended were sharply put together and thought-provoking; unfortunately, this may well be the last iteration of the festival. Less than a week beforehand, the organizers announced that three writers—Jung Chang, Suki Kim, and James Church—would not be attending, after an unofficial warning from the Chinese authorities that they would probably be barred from entering the territory (Kim and Church write about North Korea, while Chang’s Wild Swans is still banned in China). As a result, the festival director resigned in protest, and it is as yet unclear if anyone is taking over.

Between events, I wandered the streets and admired the contrasts contained within this small space—cramped tenement buildings a lot like the ones I’d seen in Hong Kong, piazzas and cathedrals straight out of Lisbon, Vegas-like casinos glittering in the distance, complete with a scale model of the Eiffel Tower. Hybridity was everywhere, from the street signs in both Portuguese and Chinese, to the food that managed to bring together the best of the sino- and lusospheres. Particularly delightful was the abundance of pastel de nata, the predecessor of the Cantonese egg tart. There is so much crammed into this territory, which has found a way for its many layers to co-exist in something like harmony, even with the shadow of authoritarianism hanging over it.

Macau has weathered many storms (some literal—many parts of the territory are still recovering from an apocalyptic typhoon last August), and one hopes it will continue to thrive, despite the uncertainty hanging over the region. It’s been a pleasure to put together an issue showcasing the range of voices contained within this land of contradictions. Koh Choon Eiow and Mok Sio Chong’s play A Gambling World plunges us into the casinos that play such a big role in Macau’s economy, while Eric Chau’s “Work Hard” takes on the depredations of capitalism itself, with a story illustrated by Chi-Wai Un that first appeared in the anthology 亂世童話 (Fairy tales for a chaotic world). 

The three poems in this issue each engage with the territory’s past in some way. Agnes Lam shows how the iconography of colonialism lingers long after its perpetrators have departed, while Un Sio San locates her fantastical landscape in the abandoned Hotel Estoril, a casino resort built in 1962 that is currently at the heart of a debate over whether it ought to be demolished or preserved as heritage. Yao Feng, an associate professor in the University of Macau’s Portuguese department, writes in both Chinese and Portuguese, the latter a manifestation of how firm a foothold the colonial language still has on the culture (although Yao himself is a transplant from Beijing, he has lived in Macau a long time).

Macau is a fascinating, complicated place. For a small former colony, it definitely punches above its weight when it comes to literary production, yet so little of its writing reaches beyond its borders. This issue is an attempt to redress this imbalance, and to give a sense of its many wonders.

© 2018 by Jeremy Tiang. All rights reserved.

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