City Life: Macau: After 450 colonial years, the locals go all Portuguese

ON THE DOT of seven minutes past nine, the nine o'clock flag-raising ceremony began. Here in Macau things are relaxed; even events to mark the last Portuguese National Day on Chinese soil were not to be rushed.

After almost four and a half centuries of Portuguese rule, the departing administration, which leaves at the end of the year, is making a determined effort to leave its mark.

Men in dark suits, women in tightly fitting shoulder-padded dresses flew thousands of miles from Portugal to be present for the last ceremony, joined by a splendid array of officers in white uniforms.

The visitors from Portugal had come a long way but spectators from round the corner were thin on the ground. As the band struck up the sombre Portuguese national anthem, I spotted a cliche in the making, wandering close to the elegant pink governor's palace where the ceremony was being held. Yes, there was to be a man and his dog in attendance. Neither glanced at the roof where the flag was sliding towards the end of the pole. However, an elderly couple on their way home with bulging plastic shopping bags paused to look. "Do you know what's happening?", I asked. The man looked at his wife, and said: "It's one of those Portuguese things, isn't it ?"

Indeed it was, although the only people working up a sweat in the intense heat were a group of Chinese policemen wearing Portuguese style- tasselled berets who marched smartly outside the palace gates.

The night before the ceremony the government organised a concert to symbolise the links between the Chinese and Portuguese people. The evening began with some haunting fado singing, much appreciated by the Portuguese at the concert. The music was lost on Chinese concert-goers, most of whom had come to hear So Wing-hong, a pop star from Hong Kong who belted out the latest pop songs in Cantonese, to the sound of Portuguese members of the audience heading for the exit.

As colonial rule draws to a close, there has been a flurry of public works, building renovations and, astonishingly, an increase in Portuguese language teaching. A record number of students have been enrolled to learn the language which, until eight years ago, was the only official language of this tiny enclave.

Some have even got to grips with Luis de Camoes, the 16th- century poet and national hero whose death is also remembered on Portugal's National Day. Legend has it that he wrote part of his epic poem Os Lusiadas during a visit to Macau. There is a shrine and a picturesque garden to commemorate the great man.

Last Thursday it was packed with school and college students who had been ordered to give up their day's holiday to join the ceremonies. Great streams of children marched past the bust of the poet and visiting dignitaries.

Some of them were not sure why they were there, although Shi Hai-long, a student at the local university, was clear in his own mind. "Macau is a very special place," he said. "Portuguese culture is very important, we have to preserve it." However Mr Shi is not from Macau but from Peking and is arguably more interested in Portuguese culture than most local people.

The people who really embody Portuguese and Chinese culture are the Macanese, who are of mixed European and Chinese race, although most identify more closely with their Portuguese roots. Roberto Noronha is one of them. He had brought his students to the Camoes shrine because he believes that even if they don't know much about the Portuguese cultural background, they should pay respect. "We shouldn't say Chinese culture is just for Chinese or Portuguese culture is just for the Portuguese. What makes Macau successful is the mix."

The party will soon be over for the Portuguese, though they do not plan to go quietly. Every event connected with the Portuguese presence is to be marked, often with a holiday. There have been no complaints from the Chinese community, because everyone likes a day off.

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