The Macanese – A Legacy of Portugal in China

by Frederic A. "Jim" SilvaClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (7902) to be taken to his personal page

Edited talk given at the 2004 Encontro in Macau. (Click on   Loudspeaker to hear the pronunciation of a word and on ../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork to see a recipe.)

Whoever said "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet"1 had obviously never met a Macanese, for in the Macanese there has been the perfect blending of East and West.

What then is a Macanese?

A short answer is that a Macanese is someone from Macao or else a descendant of someone from Macao. Another accepted definition is that a Macanese is a Eurasian of Portuguese and Asian blood. Portuguese and, say Chinese, Goan, Malay or Japanese ancestry – perhaps more than one of these.

What do we look like? My wife tells me that my particular brand of good looks can come from anywhere East of Suez.

On the way to the last Encontro I travelled with a group of delegates to Macao via Seoul, Korea. We met up with a group of Casa de Macau members from Vancouver to make our joint way flying across the Pacific. We had a great re-union on board. On this same flight were a group of American service wives returning to their husbands in Korea. They were intrigued with our chatter and looks and finally asked: "Excuse me – but who are you?" We replied "Guess". They consulted and pondered and finally decided: "You are a group of Hawaiians".

Truly, our Macanese looks defy description. Some of us look absolutely European and some look 100% oriental, with most of us somewhere in between. Because of our tangled roots we are a cocktail mix. Even within the same family there are darker skinned children amidst lighter skinned brothers and sisters. Our European, Goan and Chinese background adds to the mix.

Over time there has been more interesting intermarrying with other non-Portuguese Europeans, especially in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong we had large Macanese clans bearing the names of Hyndman, Osmund, Brown, Gardner, Yvanovich, Demee and Danenberg.

In Shanghai there was a Macanese family with the name Lubeck. From Goa two family names – Alvarez and Figueiredo – came to Hong Kong. They are all said to be descendants of young Goan men who settled in Macao many years ago and intermarried with Macanese women.

We have Spanish blood too with Macanese families bearing names like Gutierrez, Alarcoun and Alonço. Then there is that large Castro clan; the story is that three Spanish brothers settled in Hong Kong and Shanghai and intermarried with Macanese women producing numerous offspring.

All this goes to show that the racial component for this mix was established earlier and this mixing of mixtures continued on and on.

There is a further complication which is peculiar to Macao only and not seen in Hong Kong or Shanghai. This has to do with a racially pure Chinese – say, Chan Kwok Hung – adopting the Catholic faith and then taking a Christian first name on baptism, such as Carlos Chan. He can then even adopt a Portuguese last name as well – perhaps the last name of his godfather – and become, say, Carlos Pereira. This was a common practice in other Portuguese colonial territories of Goa, Africa and Ceylon.

Changing name at baptism would indicate ready acceptance of the language, religion and culture of Portugal and may have provided some social and economic advantages – employment opportunities and quicker social integration. These converts would seamlessly integrate and intermarry with others of similar background or within the larger Macanese Eurasian community. Thus the mix continues.

When one considers that this and other mixes have continued for over 400 years one can appreciate the diversity.

Where did the Macanese live?

We lived in Macao, Hong Kong and Shanghai – but we always considered that our roots were in Macao. After 1841 when the British took over Hong Kong in the wake of the Opium War against China, the Macanese immediately followed. They sought jobs with the British Government, trading houses and banks. Employment was never plentiful in Macao and Macanese youth only aspired to clerical white collar jobs. Educated Macanese youths speaking some English and Chinese were among the pioneers of Hong Kong and readily found employment.

Later they moved further North to Shanghai as it opened up to trade and settlement. The flow from Macao never stopped. As recently as the 1960s there were vacancies for Portuguese bank clerks at the HSBC, which could not be readily filled as Hong Kong Macanese youth were then emigrating to the USA, Canada and Australia.

Bank officials had then to recruit Portuguese youth directly from Macao. More and more Macao Macanese men and women continued the pattern of leaving home for work in Hong Kong.

Where and how did we live?

In Macao life was lived around the various parishes. Macanese lived in the Christian city along the rim of the outer harbor, leaving the Chinese along the Porto Interior. The Macanese then were a somewhat insular and socially stratified group – depending on economic circumstances and family connections.

The genealogist Dr Forjaz was commissioned by the Fundação Oriente to draw up a genealogy of Macanese everywhere. He arrived in Macao and informed an establishment matron of what he was trying to do and was told "Why bother: in Macao only six families are worth tracing; others do not matter."

In Macao some 80% of the Macanese worked for the Government: the Police, fire brigade, treasury, public works, hospitals, post office, etc. There were only a few family commercial firms such as Rodrigues and H. Nolasco & Co. There were the utilities – the electric company and waterworks. There was only one foreign bank – the BNU.2 Employment opportunities were thus very limited and migrating to Hong Kong was the only other option. Macanese never considered working with their hands at trades such as cooks, bakers, carpenters and electricians: only white collar desk jobs were sought.

The steady flow of Macanese from Macao to Hong Kong never stopped. Initially all lived in a self imposed ghetto known as "Mata Moro" in the mid levels of Hong Kong island. This was an area around a Moslem Mosque on Mosque Junction, Mosque St, Caine Rd, Shelley St. It was a convenient area. Arrivals came from Macao by steamboat and moved right into this area.

Rents were reasonable. The working men could get to their central business offices easily. School children could get to St Joseph's College and the Canossian School for their education and families considered the nearby Roman Catholic Cathedral their parish. It was a comfortable cosy area. Everyone knew everyone else and also their business. My mother was born in this district. She tells of a lady with a large family, always hard up as her husband was a habitual drunk who could not hold onto a job. To augment family income she had a small business making and selling a delicious curry to other Macanese households in the area. Her husband considered this demeaning and a slur on himself. To ruin her business he would, when drunk, run around the streets of Mata Moro and shout: "Nunca bom comprar caril de Bina – usar tudo galinha morto suh. "3

The Macanese of Mata Moro considered themselves a cut above another group of Macanese living along the city's waterfront in the lower rent area of Wanchai. These were Macanese of more modest means and were referred to as Wanchairada or Cachivachi de Wanchai. Macanese women in Wanchai often intermarried with Englishmen of a lower economic order, such as low-ranking soldiers or security guards. Mata Moro Macanese referred to these unions as "Casar com Inglês sujo".

Somewhat later – say the 1910s and 1920s there was a movement away from Mata Moro to cross the harbor to Kowloon's Tsim Sha Tsui. It was a quiet peaceful area and a homeowners purchase scheme there met with some success. Macanese now lived on the little avenues to the East of Nathan Road with two storied houses and little gardens. Granville Road, Austin Avenue, Humphrey's Avenue, Cameron Road were all Macanese areas. Later Macanese moved further inland to form small communities in Ho Mun Tin and the Tung Cheong Buildings. Again there was a tendency to live around Catholic Church parishes and schools – Rosary Church and St. Theresa's Church.

Where did Macanese work?

Perhaps as many as 60% were bank clerks with the rest working for big British "Hongs" (Trading conglomerates) such as Jardines, Dodwells, Shewan Tomes, Gibb Livingstone, Gilmans, etc. Employment opportunities were limited to the mid-level range as higher executive positions were reserved for the expatriate British. Some Macanese were a little better off working for American firms – Banks and the Oil companies. There were few Macanese businesses – some were Botelho Bros. (tung oil exporters) Cruz, Basto & Co. (rice and general merchants) and Colonial Trading Co., Best off were the few Macanese who were doctors and lawyers, most of whom did quite well.

There existed at the time a somewhat secretive and small British organisation called the "Employer's Federation". This was a a union of large employing firms that agreed among themselves on how to regulate and limit employment opportunities and salaries of local employees. Females were not much in the work force until the 1930s when young Macanese ladies entered the work force too with shorthand and typing.

In Shanghai life and working conditions were much like Hong Kong . If anything it was less restricted by British colonial stuffiness. Shanghai was more international in outlook as other national businesses – French, American, Japanese and Chinese were more prominent.

Shanghai Macanese lived in the International Settlement and the French Town. They had their own Lusitano Club and had a somewhat broader general outlook.

Much has been said about our Macanese Patuá...

May I add my bit? If you were in downtown Lisbon today and said to a native "Azinha tomar Mezinha",4 he would surely not understand you. Yet these two words azinha and mezinha are genuine Portuguese words. The only trouble is that they are three hundred years old and no longer used in modern Portugal – they can only be found in Macao's patuá now. Some words of this archaic Portuguese can still be found, much as if one were to speak Elizabethan English today.

Other linguistic streams also come into our patuá. For instance there are words we use from the Malay of Malacca: choler  Loudspeaker; chipi  Loudspeaker; chubi  Loudspeaker; chuchu  Loudspeaker; gungdoong  Loudspeaker; booyão; sayão; balichão  Loudspeaker.5

English and Chinese words also have a tendency to creep in. It is a colorful language with no discernable grammar and no plurals. It is a great tongue for satire and slang – for making fun of others and ourselves.

If you spoke the patuá and came to this Encontro and met an old friend, this is what you must NOT say:

"Ay José – nunca olhar voce vinte fora anos. Cusa já sosede? Já fica assim velho. Onde já vai tudo cabelo? Onde já vai tudo dente? Cara pindurado; andar vagar vagar – cote-cote. Costa bonco-bonco. Qui ramede." 6

Another bit of patuá. A llady wanted to learn some Portuguese. She said that in English one replies "Don't mention it" or "you are welcome" then someone says "Thank you". In America the reply can sometimes "You Bet". In Portuguese how does one reply to "Obrigado"? In Macanese the proper reply would be "Ay numseeza meh."77

Fortunately there have been persons who have studied and passed on our patuá. The late Dr. Graciete Batalha took a scholarly approach and methodically recorded pronunciation and etymology for so many words. The late Ade Fereira – a great humorist –– took a lighter approach with verses and plays . He was a great asset to preserve some of the old speech. Today's Miguel Senna Fernandes also makes a study of the patuá as he fills the gaps of his predecessors. We owe them our thanks.

Is there such a thing as a Macanese accent when speaking English?

Well, Yes and No. When Macao people speak English they have their own Portuguese accent. When Shanghai Macanese speak hardly any is discernable. But when Hong Kong Macanese speak they can come up with a whining, sing-song accent which is so typical. When I first heard a recording of my own voice I could not believe it was really me: that accent was there.

Try saying this with a Hong Kong Macanese accent:    "Wear boy-scout hat want to be Cowboy – say"

In one short sentence use 3 languages: "Eat ramata the soong yuh".8

"All the American in the Bank say I speak with Breeteesh accent – say."

Even names said with the proper Macanese accent can immediately identify a person. Say "Julio Lima"; "Gussy Luz"; "Carlos Soares"; "Ange Vas".

Where and how did this accent come about? I say St. Mary's School of Kowloon. My theory is that the accent came to be when shiploads of Italian nuns fresh off the boat from Italy arrived in Hong Kong to teach English to Macanese girls. This could lead to weird results.

Let me now say something about our food. Food is an integral part of our Macanese culture. Fortunately we have inherited this Far Eastern concept of eating "Rice and soong" like the Chinese, Japanese, Indians and Malays.

We eat our white rice and accompany it with a delicious array of dishes which have evolved from all over – Portugal, China, Goa, Malacca. We adapt, blend,and modify dishes from other parts and make it our own. For instance the Portuguese cozido has been added to with some trotters, pele  Loudspeaker,9 Chinese sausage, and balichão../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork to become our own tacho../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork  Loudspeaker.

At the risk of making mouths water I list:

Diabo../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork  Loudspeaker, chouriço vinho alho../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork, chouriço sutate../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork, porco balichão tamarinho../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork  Loudspeaker, ade cabidela../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork  Loudspeaker, capela../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork, chau chau chili../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork, misó Cristão../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork, harmonica../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork, and to quote the illustrious bard "Nobody don't like minchy../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork   Loudspeaker.10

We have fabulous desserts. Many derived from Malacca Nhonya food: glutinous rice, eggs and coconut and brown palm sugar; aluar, baji../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork   Loudspeaker, moochy, ladu../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork   Loudspeaker, bebinca de leite../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork   Loudspeaker.11 All rich and hearty and guaranteed to cure any cholesterol deficiencies we may have had.

Now for some Macao history...

Having been established in 1557 there are nearly 450 years behind this settlement. Little has been written on early origins because there never was a treaty or anything in writing to record events. There are actually two versions on beginnings. The Portuguese version was that they were invited to settle and trade in Macao out of gratitude for the fact that they cleared the whole area of pirates. The Chinese version was that Chinese merchants and Portuguese traders bribed the Canton mandarins to allow for a settlement. No approval was ever given by the Emperor in Peking. A Chinese custom post was to be established on Praia Grande and an annual rental payment to the Chinese was required. This certainly did not indicate any change of sovereignty.

The truth probably lay somewhere between the two versions. In any case the loose arrangements appealed to both sides and there were enough subsequent profits arising which helped to seal things. A permanent city soon grew on this little peninsula.

Another historical incident in Macao's past was the Dutch invasion of 1620. This was during a period when the Spanish crown ruled over Portugal. The Dutch hated the Spaniards and coveted Macao as a trading post . They wanted a foothold in China to take over the lucrative China/Japan trade. A fleet of 17 warships appeared off Macao, two from the non-combatant English. The 15 Dutch ships landed 800 men on Cacilhas beach near Porto Cerco and started to march to the city around Guia. The Portuguese were at a great disadvantage as its small Portuguese garrison was away on an expedition in China. Only 300 defenders could be found. Women, slaves, Macanese and metropolitans all got together to put up a spirited defence. The defence plan was to retreat and ambush. A Jesuit priest manned a cannon on Monte Fort and luckily made a direct hit on the Dutch gunpowder carriage – blowing it up. This demoralized the invaders who now lacked gunpowder and faced a fierce charge of Portuguese defenders. The disorganized invaders were thrown back on to the beach where many were drowned as they fled. It was a great Portuguese victory. Moreover the battle impressed the onlooking Chinese as an example of Portuguese valor.

Another great event in Macao history was the defence of the city in 1849 when Chinese soldiers threatened the city with a blockade. Just outside of Macao and beyond Porto Cerco was a Chinese fort with 500 men who manned the heights of a hill called Pak Shan Lan (Passaleão). The guns of the fort threatened the Portuguese garrison at Porto Cerco and prevented the movement of goods, people and food. Macao was under threat and siege and would soon be starved out. A young Macanese Lieutenant – Nicolau Vicente MesquitaClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (18430) to be taken to his personal page – volunteered to attack the fort and lift the siege. Calling for 36 volunteers he fired his one cannon into the heart of the fort and then mounted a charge against a confused and demoralized enemy. Fortunately the Chinese cannons on the fort could not be made to fire down the hill at the attacking 36 soldiers. By evening the fort was captured. The threatening guns were spiked and a great victory was proclaimed.

In the 1930s the Portuguese communities of Macao, Hong Kong and Shanghai contributed to the erection of a great bronze statue of Mesquita in his full uniform. This was placed on the Leal Senado Square as a symbol of victory and patriotism.

A symbol of victory for one side can also be a symbol of defeat for the other. A follow-up on this statue's story was the 1966 destruction of this symbol by rampaging Red Guards who toppled it during a city riot. The city later replaced the statue with the present fountain.

In 1640 Macao entered into a period of long lasting depression. Three events occurred that caused this. Firstly, the Portuguese sister colony of Malacca fell to the Dutch. It was then lost as a trading partner and the seas around that area were henceforth threatened by Dutch ships. Secondly, Portugal regained her independence from the Spanish crown: Spanish trading connections – Manila and Acapulco could no longer be used by the Portuguese. Thirdly, and most importantly, Japan expelled all Portuguese traders and missionaries. The lucrative China (silk) to Japan (silver) trade ceased. Catholics were expelled to Macao and the profitable Japan connection was broken.

Let us come back to the present. Where are the Macanese now? There has been this diaspora to all over the world but there are still many Macanese in Macao and Hong Kong.

Portuguese-speaking Macanese have settled back in Portugal and Brazil. English-speaking Macanese have gone on to the USA, Canada and Australia. Nearly all over the world there are now are some Macanese.

Will these Macanese groups continue as distinct communities?

Well, Yes and No. They will surely survive in the short term but in the longer term it is questionable. Let us examine how some other small ethnic groups have done around the world. The Armenians of Singapore are no more: all that exists is an old Armenian church. The burgers of Ceylon – a mixture of Dutch and Ceylonese Eurasians – have dissipated as they migrated to Australia. Only the old Portuguese settlement of Malacca still exists after 500 years as an identifiable group with its customs, culture and religion mostly intact.

For most Macanese there has been this great dispersal and intermarrying outside the group. Leaders of these dispersed communities try to encourage a Macanese consciousness with Clubs and Casas.

We have a unique culture and an interesting heritage and we are now brought together by this Encontro. We are not just here to see old friends and to overeat: we are here to celebrate our historical background, thanks to the Macau Government and the people of APIM.

Swirl bar NEW


1      Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-room Ballads, 1892 (Ed.)

Banco Nacional Ultramarino, a Portuguese bank with operations especially in overseas provinces

2      Nunca bom comprar caril de Bina – usar tudo galinha morto suh:   Never buy Bina's curry: it's all made with dead chickens

3     An attempt is made here to capture Macanese pronunciation using both phonetic spelling and, more precisely, the International Pronunciation Alphabet (IPA).
Azinha tomar Mezinha:   Quick: take the medicine
      azinha = (verb) quick, (adverb) quickly;
      mezinha = medicine


Macanese  Phonetic  IPA           English
choler chohˈleh tʃoˈlɛ to shovel (as with a spoon)
chipi cheeˈpee tʃiˈpi to squeeze
chubi chooˈbee tʃuˈbi to pinch
chuchu chooˈchoo tʃuˈtʃu to poke, to prod
gungdung goongˈdoong guŋˈduŋ a sore lump (as on the head)
booyão booˈyung buˈjʌŋ a large earthenware storage jar
sayão sahˈyung saˈjʌŋ pity (as in "what a pity")
balichão bahleeˈchung baliˈtʃʌŋ Macanese condiment based on salted krill

5      Ay José – nunca olhar voce vinte fora anos. Cusa ja sosede? Ja fica assim velho. Onde ja vai tudo cabelo? Onde ja vai tudo dente? Cara pindurado; andar vagar vagar – cote-cote. Costa bonco-bonco. Qui ramede.   Hey, José – haven't seen you for more than twenty years. What happened? You've become so old. Where has all your hair gone? And your teeth as well? Sagging face, walking so slowly, limping, hunch-backed. What a disaster.
      vagar (verb) slow; (adverb): slowly; vagar vagar: very slowly

6      Ay numseeza meh:   Oh, there is no need

7      Eat ramata the soong yuh:   Eat the rest of the food

Macanese  Phonetic  IPA                          English
soongsohng soŋ(Cantonese) any food accompanying rice or noodles
ramatarah-mahˈtuh ramaˈtʌthe rest of
yuhyuh already (one of the suffixes thrown in to complete a sentence, like meh or suh)

8      pele: dried pork rind (kohn chee pey in Cantonese)


diabo../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork  Loudspeakera rich spicy stew made with left-over roast meats
chouriço vinho alho../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork pork sausage with wine and garlic
chouriço sutate../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeForkpork sausage with soy sauce
porco balichão tamarinho../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork  Loudspeaker distinctive Macanese stew made of pork, balichão, sweetened with brown sugar and rendered tart with tamarind; always served with arroz carregado (pressed rice)
ade cabideladuck cooked in its blood
capela../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeForktasty meat loaf with cheese, usually set in a ring mold
chau chau chili../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork pork with chilli, preserved Chinese radish and often with tao see (Chinese black beans)
miso Cristão../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeForkminced pork with soy beans sprouts (tai tau nga choy in Cantonese)
harmonica../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeForkbeef rissoles
minchy../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork   Loudspeaker the omnipresent dish made with mince meat (usually beef, pork or a mixture both), typically served with little crisp fried potato cubes


aluara sweet block made from grated coconut, Chinese brown sugar, almonds and pine-nuts, served at Christmas
baji../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork   Loudspeakermade with grated coconut and glutinous rice
moochysmall pastries with a filling of grated coconut and roasted bean flour
ladu../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork   Loudspeakermade with glutinous rice, pine nuts, coconut, and almond meal and dusted wtih roast bean flour
bebinca de leite../InputFiles/Images/Buttons/KnifeFork   Loudspeakera rich pudding made with egg yolks, butter and coconut with a baked toasted crust