Since the return of large numbers of Macanese people to Portugal after Macau was handed back to the Chinese government in 1999, the decline of the Macanese dialect has been marked. Macanese is a unique blend of Malay, Portuguese and Japanese, with numerous other influences, once adopted as a common language between traders, colonialists and locals in the Portuguese trading ports.
When you consider the trading history of the area, it is no small wonder that Macau was the site for development of this local patois. The Chinese were sending huge exploration fleets out to explore India, Africa and the Spice Islands well before the Portuguese ships ventured around the Cape of Good Hope, which was first sighted by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488. Chinese maritime activity was at its zenith during the period between 1400-1450 and fleets much larger than the forthcoming Portuguese ones sailed as far west as Mogadishu in East Africa, to Calicut and Goa in India and to the Spice Islands of Bantam and Moluccas. By the time the Portuguese arrived in Macau in the 16th Century, the locals were well-versed in the concept of exploration and intercultural language, this perhaps partly explains the success of the colony and the development of the Macanese dialect.
When you wander the streets of Macau now, the evidence of this conglomerate of cultures is clearly evident. Streets that are paved with Portuguese-style tiles are adorned with Chinese temples and the stunning ruins of early Jesuit churches. In one day’s worth of dining, you can cross cultures with an Asian breakfast buffet, a lunch of Portuguese soup and enjoy a dinner of mixed origins such as the traditional Macanese-style feijoada, which has replaced chorizo with Chinese and blood sausage.
Macau sits low down on the wide and impressive Pearl River Delta and was an ideal trading post for the Portuguese visitors. The Chinese eventually saw the benefits of the arrival of the Portuguese, renting Macau to Portugal in 1557. The Portuguese embarked on a building program; docks and trading facilities were soon accompanied by buildings to accommodate the settlers’ needs, such as churches and schools. Macau (also known as Macao) remained under Chinese control but was administered by the Portuguese until 1887, when it was declared a colony of Portugal. This arrangement was ended in 1999 when Macau was handed back to the Chinese government, but stipulations of high autonomy until 2049 remain to protect the unique nature of this settlement.
Despite the existing presence of traders from other countries, it was the Portuguese who left the strongest genetic footprint upon Macau which, was one of the first European colonies where inter racial marriages were commonly experienced. Macau’s genetic mix is not limited to local Chinese and colonising Portuguese, but also includes elements from Malay, Japanese and Filipino visitors. Another strong influence on the development of the Macanese language in the colony was the declaration in 1576 by the Catholic Church of Macau as a diocese. This enabled church funds and support to be sent into the area, which led to a rush of cathedral building alongside growing influences over education and science. The first Bible printed in Chinese was printed in Macau, but the fact that the Macanese language was never officially taught in schools has helped with its more recent demise.
As the demographics of Macau changed, the Macanese patois developed and thrived as a lingua franca between different ethnic groups. With strong elements of Portuguese and Cantonese, the dialect also contains suggestions of different Indian languages as well as smatterings from other European and Asian tongues. Called ‘Patua’ by the locals, Macanese has both ancient and modern forms. It is a reflection on the importance of Macau as a trading post that Patua had such far-reaching influence. It wasn’t just spoken amongst Macau’s Eurasian population, but also in Hong Kong and other trading posts. Macanese was very much seen as an anti-establishment reaction to Portuguese authority, and there is even evidence of its use in humorous sketches of the time.
Despite attempts by some to revive the Macanese Patua, it is now a dying language and was classified by UNESCO as ‘critically endangered’ in 2009. There is still a handful of original and fluent Macanese speakers in both Macau and overseas, but these are mainly members of the older population. Macau’s modern status as a Chinese gambling capital has not done anything to improve this situation.
Patua’s proponents struggle on with their mission to revive this lost language, and its culture of satire is continued with the writing and performance each year of a Patua play. You are unlikely to hear spoken Macanese as a visitor to Macau, but if you do, listen out for such lovely language gems as ‘beefy’ to represent an English person, ‘babachai’ for baby and the beautiful ‘saiang’, which means ‘longing’ – something that the Macanese people probably do for their lost culture.
There are still those who wish to see Patua thrive, but its demise appears to be inevitable as the population who use it ages.
Bartolomeu Dias Wikimedia Creative Commons
“Plan de la Ville et du Port de Macao,” Jacques Nicholas Bellin (1764) Courtesy of Luna
Macau’s skyline in 2015 – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Guest Author Bio
Mike Virtanen is working in the gaming industry as an online marketing specialist. He spends most of his free-time reading about history.