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Macau - History


Macau History

Macau takes its name from A-Ma-Gau harbour, which in turn is named for A-Ma, the goddess of seafarers. In the 16th century A-Ma's protective powers were expanded to include seafarers from the other side of the world - the Portuguese. The famous seafarers first set foot on Chinese soil in 1513, having heard of the 'Empire of the Chins' from their trading outposts in India and Malacca. An official trading arrangement was drawn up in the 1550s, and the Portuguese opted to settle on the peninsula which had frequently offered them safe anchorage, with inner and outer harbours and sheltered islands to the south. A rental arrangement was agreed upon, and in return the Portuguese promised to rid the area of marauding pirates.

The port soon prospered, thanks to its strategic position midway on the lucrative trading route between India's west coast, Malacca and Japan. Chinese merchants were forbidden on pain of death to go abroad, and they eagerly embraced the opportunity to hire the Portuguese as agents. The wealth generated by Portugal's monopoly on trade between China and Japan was used to create a home away from home of luxurious European houses and baroque churches. Macau became a centre not only of trade in the Far East, but also of Christianity, with the Jesuit missionaries' Basilica de São Paulo hailed as the greatest monument to Christianity in the East.

But Portuguese fortunes were on the wane back home, and threats were posed by the colonial ambitions of nations such as Holland, with the Dutch making two serious attacks on Macau in 1607 and 1627. Macau's golden age came to an abrupt end in the 1630s when Japan was closed to foreign trade, the Dutch took Malacca by force and the port of Guangzhou was closed to the Portuguese. The golden port became an impoverished backwater.

Restrictions regulating the activities of non-Portuguese residents were lifted in the mid-18th century, and Macau temporarily revived as a Chinese outpost for European traders - but only until 1841, when the British came along and took possession of Hong Kong. Macau's economic woes were forever eased by the introduction of licensed gambling in the 1850s, and the arrival of successive waves of refugees boosted the tiny enclave's population.

Portugal made several moves during the 20th century to divest itself of its Far Eastern territory but China didn't seem interested, perhaps fearing the resultant loss of foreign trade. When Britain and China signed the Hong Kong Joint Declaration in 1984, however, it was inevitable that China would seek a similar agreement with Portugal. The Sino-Portuguese Pact was signed in March 1987, but the lead-up to the handover on 20 December 1999 wasn't coloured by the uncertainty and panic that occurred in Hong Kong. Whereas British Hong Kong was administered according to independent, colonial law, Macau was always seen as a territory under the temporary administration of Portugal, taking its cues from China and having a much less confrontational style than Hong Kong. European influences were by no means universal, with few Macanese speaking Portuguese or filled with nostalgia for their Portuguese past.

Macau is now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China. In accordance with China's 'one country, two systems' formula, it retains a high degree of autonomy in all matters other than defence and foreign affairs, keeping its former laws and economic system for a period of 50 years from the handover. Macau continues to enjoy a casino-led economy, with billionaire Stanley Ho monopolising the franchise since the early 1960s. Gambling accounts for a whopping 40% of government revenue, and is the drawcard for a large proportion of Macau's eight million annual visitors. Tourism is the other cash cow, and both came under attack in 1997 and '98 when a Triad war broke out, with groups vying for the profits of chaperoning wealthy gamblers from mainland China; tourism dropped by 13% as a result. Gang violence has subsided since the handover, but tensions remain between the Chinese police and members of the curious Falun Gong meditation sect. Gangster activities continue, however, ranging from money laundering, gun running and counterfeiting to organized crime racketeering and loansharking.

The future will see Macau's identity tied more closely to Hong Kong and the Guangdong hinterland, and a swag of both physical and psychological bridges are being built. Macau is rapidly losing its backwater image, experiencing a massive land-reclamation program and construction boom, and with all manner of plans afoot aimed at attracting investment, trade and tourism. A huge restoration program has tarted up Macau's historically significant buildings, so there's hope that mega-tourism development won't entirely overshadow the more subtle attractions of cultural tourism. Macau is also hoping to cash in on the convention market, but until European airlines are attracted to its airport the bulk of Western visitors are likely to remain short-stay daytrippers travelling over from Hong Kong.



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