The Handover Generation
The children of 1999 are all grown up and have their own views on life in Macau
Eighteen years after the transfer of administration to the People’s Republic of China, Macau is portrayed as a multicultural and prosperous city, patriotic yet without a political voice - A portrait of the Special Administrative Region painted with the help of a group of young people, also on the verge of adulthood
Bridge Nobre de Carvalho, in the direction of Macau. To the left, Guangdong Province and the construction of half a dozen tall towers. Never has the other side been so close. It’s half past six in the morning. In the distance, a very brief gray outline shapes the city. The taxi driver says proudly: “Here it takes little time to reach our destination, it’s not like Hong Kong or the Mainland.”
In an instant the delta is crossed, the city lies to the North. A large part of the Chinese working community lives at the gates of the busiest local land border. Day breaks between Rua Três and Rua Dois da Cidade Nova do Toi San; the strong smell of cigarette smoke emanates from an encounter between two men; the sounds of a sizzling wok over a fire, someone sipping breakfast, imperceptible conversations from passersby. We wait for Wong Ka Chi at door number seven, Fong Seng Kok, just one among many other similar urban buildings of exhausted colours, windows choked by bars and improvised balconies.
Born on February 28, 2000, two months after Macau’s handover to China, Wong Ka Chi has always lived in this neighbourhood, where she shares a two-bedroom apartment with her parents, two of her four siblings and her grandmother. Her mother is an employee at a casino, and due to illness, her father doesn’t work.
At two minutes past seven-thirty, Wong Ka Chi descends, introducing herself as Monalisa, the easiest name to recall. “It’s special,” she later comments. Where are we going to have breakfast? “McDonald’s,” she suggests. We follow in silence, while around us we hear the city coming to life. Monalisa is dressed in black, with a pink panther sweatshirt. At the counter she orders a soda, a hamburger and a hash brown, then we go up to the first floor.
Prior to this interview, contact was always made in writing and in Portuguese, but communication ends up failing. “I can speak Mandarin,” she says. No other language allows us to communicate.
A government job
Attending the translation course at the Luso-Chinese Technical-Vocational School, Monalisa has spent the last two and a half months doing a curricular traineeship in the Macao Public Administration and Civil Service (SAFP). Learning Portuguese was a strategic option, she says, recalling the “One Belt, One Road” initiative launched by China with the mission of boosting trade relations between various economies in Asia, Europe and Africa. Cooperation between Beijing and Portuguese-speaking countries, and Macau’s consecration as a platform between these two worlds, also fits into the adolescent’s discourse: “Macau will need a lot of people who speak Portuguese,” Monalisa concludes, hoping to work in the public administration as a translator or teacher. “Good salary,” she emphasizes, this time in Portuguese.
At Rua Central do Toi San we wait for the 9A bus, which will take us to the SAFP headquarters building on Rua do Campo. With a backpack over her shoulders, mobile phone in her hand, Monalisa seats herself in the middle of the bus. A window frames the city, already recovered from typhoon Hato, which hit Macau in August last year. At that time she walked the streets and helped with the cleanup operation, she remembers.
Monalisa feels patriotic, she believes in the government that represents her and has made Macau a “safer”, “calm” and “prosperous” city. From history, she recalls 1999, speaking of the moment when Macau “became a free land”: “There was no security, the administration was bad,” she says about the pre-transition era.
We turn to Hong Kong, addressing the Occupy Central movement. Has she ever heard of it? Monalisa says that yes, she knows it, but does not support the pro-democracy movement, with a strong student membership, that led to the occupation of the streets of the neighbouring region in 2014.
“It is not good, the law must be obeyed,” she comments in reaction to the demonstrations for universal suffrage.
Outside, a man shouts: “Can you stop the bus a little farther back?” Inside we make space for more passengers. Traffic is perhaps Macau’s biggest problem, according to the young woman. Regarding government initiatives worth mentioning, Monalisa applauds the new law to combat domestic violence: “Personally, I think the family environment has some impact on the development of the children.”
It’s about twenty minutes to nine in the morning. Along the way to the destination of this trip, Macau is heading for another working day.
Adolescents of the transition
Again between Taipa and Macau. On the bus, two women speak in Cantonese, but the words “hospital” and “service” are said in Portuguese during their conversation. We follow the bridge to Ferreira do Amaral Square, a homage to the former Portuguese governor, who was assassinated on August 22, 1849. The gaming empire imposes a siege on the old square, now surrounded by three casinos. It is also home to the headquarters of the Bank of China, once one of the highest in Macau, at 160 meters in height with 38 floors. Down below, tourists, tourist rickshaws and selfies.
It takes a few minutes to get to the Portuguese School of Macau, where we have arranged to meet Rodrigo and Santiago at one o’clock. From the side door of this building designed by the architect Raúl Chorão Ramalho, one can sense Christmas already; stars are hanging in front of each other with ruined buildings of Rua do Comandante Mata e Oliveira in the background. One can still perceive the geometric games of these mid-century structures that have passed. A short trip through modernism in the historical center of Macau, an area classified as World Heritage.
Rodrigo and Santiago Castanheira were born on December 19, 1999, roughly about half an hour before the transfer of the administration of Macau.
“Home is Macau,” Rodrigo begins.
“I can’t explain it, honestly.”
“I was educated by a Portuguese family, I have an idea of what Portugal is like. I went there when I was younger to see how people lived.”
We pass Travessa dos Anjos, the twins speak of Coloane, where they live, at Hac-Sá beach, 45 minutes by bus from their school. They refer to the old quarry, the small isthmus that could not be crossed in times of typhoons, and which gave way to the Cotai Strip, the heart of the gaming city, that Santiago admits to know only from the outside.
“I’ve been [to the casino],” his brother quips.
We arrive at Dumpling Town, a Chinese restaurant at the end of Rua da Arruda, where Emília Pedrosa, the mother of the twins, is waiting for us.
“I was born at a time when I was educated to tolerate other cultures.”
Santiago does not speak Cantonese, requesting a menu in English instead. At the table the dumplings are replenished, served in small bamboo baskets. The boy’s mother, sitting between the two children, says that the friends of Rodrigo and Santiago are of different origins and that, in addition to Portuguese, they end up speaking more English.
“The casinos brought a western element to Macau and all this Anglo-Saxon culture came,” she adds.
Rodrigo and Santiago play rugby, listen to American rap, watch The Walking Dead, Vikings and Games of Thrones.
And in relation to Portugal, do they feel differences in habits and customs?
“I don’t think so,” says Santiago.
Emilia disagrees. Her children are unaware of the natural assimilation of the dominant culture. The spontaneous manner with which they use chopsticks to eat, is an example of this.
“The culture is rooted and everything is so natural, they do not even remember to point it out,” says their mother.
We return to the theme of the Handover, the day they were born. “The transition babies,” that’s how someone described them at the time.
“When I woke up, [the journalists] came to me asking questions. Questions about the empire as soon as I opened my eyes,” Emília recalls, explaining that Rodrigo and Santiago were the last children to be born in a foreign territory administered by Portugal.
“It’s funny, but of course it depends on what we conceive as empire. I was born at a time when I was educated to tolerate other cultures,” Santiago notes.
Their mother returns to the conversation, while pointing to the menu, placing a new order.
“Yat ko ni ko [a order of these]. This Eurocentric vision of the world has not passed this century, it is a very retrograde mentality,” she concludes.
Around a tree
São João de Brito School. We are already seated in the boardroom when Paul Pun suggests moving to the patio: “We’ll be closer to nature,” says the head of the school.
It’s a few minutes past four in the afternoon. In silence, 16-year-old Choi Man Chun accompanies us outside. In the space stands a pink jambo, a tropical tree more than a century old. It is as if life in this school revolves around this tree, not vice versa.
“I had to tell the students that we can not build a bigger basketball or football field here because we have to protect this tree,” Paul Pun explains. While preserving the centennial species, the official hopes that the younger generations will follow the example outside these old walls: “Macau has few trees,” he says.
Choi Man Chun was born in Macau shortly after the first anniversary of the Macao SAR, on December 29, 2000. He is shy, avoiding eye contact, communicating through a translator, in Cantonese, and never losing sight of the wall clock.
“I agreed to play basketball with my friends at four-thirty,” says the young man who is kitted out in sports gear, a white t-shirt, training pants, a kind of second skin. “I want to be badminton coach,” says Choi, who has no plans to enter higher education.
Adept at Chinese literature, he admits to knowing the classics - he has read Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong and Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West - and he does not hide his admiration for China: “China is so powerful, I feel good as a resident of Macau because we have all the support.”
About this place that he inhabits, he admits that he has never stopped to think about how it would have been in the past. Today he sees an “increasingly prosperous” city. And what causes would he fight for if he had a seat in the assembly?
“I would never be a politician, it’s impossible for me to reach such a position,” he says. So what’s missing in Macau? “Housing, because today residents do not dare to buy an apartment, they live with their parents and therefore, more public housing must be built,” he adds.
Choi looks at the clock one last time. It’s a few minutes past five. He runs to his appointment.
Since the establishment of the Macau Special Administrative Region, the director of São João de Brito School has been nominated for a seat in the Legislative Assembly four times (2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013), but never attained enough votes to join the deputies of Macau. Paul Pun even presented a campaign in Braille with the intention of drawing the attention of the authorities to the need to include minorities in the political life of the territory. Also secretary general of Caritas, a life linked to social causes is consistent. São João de Brito, divided between the Chinese and English sections, is just one of the fronts, paying attention to students “who need help”.
Paul Pun however rejects any labels. “It’s simply a school, an educational space with students who need attention and love.” This should be the mission of any educational establishment, he argues.
We remain in the courtyard, the playground is at rest, in silence a handful of lilies venerate the image of Our Lady of Lourdes. Asked about the apparent disinterest of the new generation in Macau politics, Paul Pun replies: “Yesterday, for example, I was in a public session, where people give their opinion about government policies and I was among the few to speak. This is local society.”
The official notes, however, that in Macau the population seeks to resolve conflicts immediately, “through dialogue and commitment.”
Paul Pun argues that it is up to the educational professionals to inform students about the local reality, to make the past known, the history of Macau, and the world: “We must have a global perspective and not only of the country where we find ourselves”.
Macau darkens inside a bus. Rua da Prainha, Pátio da Papaya, busy people performing small tasks, kitchens that extend to the pavement along the Inner Harbour.
At the Catholic Pastoral Center, number 52 on Rua de Francisco António, Mass is already taking place at seven thirty. We are received by Father Alejandro Vergara, a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, a missionary congregation that works mainly with migrants from the Philippines and who has been present in the territory since 1999.
How is religion seen in Macau? “We have a lot of freedom, we do not have any difficulties,” says Vergara, noting that this space also serves as a second home for migrant workers of Filipino origin. Regarding the youth of this community, the religious official notes that “few” were born and grew up in Macau: “But those who live here do not have integration problems, they study and are able to speak Cantonese.”
A few minutes past seven. In the corner, a woman rehearses the last guitar chords. Vergara says that tonight’s Mass will be celebrated in English: “We used to alternate in English and Tagalog, but with the passing of the typhoon [Hato] the missals were destroyed. We still can’t buy more in the Philippines, where they are sold out, because the literature is being reviewed by the Vatican,” he explains.
Under the gray cassock, the priest wears a white tunic and a green stole. About three dozen believers are guided for an hour by Vergara’s voice. They are mainly women, and they take refuge in the chants.
“I feel that there is still a certain racism, that my parents were not totally accepted”
Diane Bautista appears after Mass, hands tucked inside her quispo, her lean body reclining on her mother. We move to the office, where there are two vacant chairs. “I am a Christian in a way, but I do not believe everything that Christianity preaches. I have another view about sexuality, about homosexual marriage,” she says.
Diane was born in Macau on June 1, 2000. She is 17 years old and has a diplomatic vision of the world. “I’m always in the middle,” says the young Filipina.
Everything seems to have two sides in Diane’s universe: there’s Biology and Chemistry, areas of study she finds fascinating, but and there is also drawing and the fantasy world of Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia, her literature of choice. There is Macau and there is the Philippines, but there is also an intermediate place where she wants to be in the future: travelling. And while that does not happen, Diane goes up to the top of a residential tower, right in the centre of Macau. That’s where she prefers to look at the city.
“It is super high there, I go up by elevator with my friends, then we climb some ladder to the roof and there is no barrier.”
“Is it dangerous?”, I ask. “ It is, but it feels good the thrill.”
Sometimes, however, she is obliged to come back down here, to put her feet on the ground: “I feel that there are people who whisper: you were born here, you grew up here, how do you not speak the language?” says the teenager who is a student of the English section at São João de Brito School.
Regarding Macau, she feels that since the transfer of the administration “it is not so conservative” and that it has opened “to more nationalities and different ethnicities”. She says, however, that the city must know how to look to the future and must bet on areas like tourism and culture. “Macau is called a small Las Vegas, there are many casinos, which are the largest source of revenue, but since the president of China has limited the entry of people from the country’s interior into Macau, the gaming business has slowed,” she recalls.
On the face of this almost grown-up girl who, a few moments ago, was clinging to her mother, one can now read the enthusiasm of one who accepts a challenge. If you were a legislator, what would you do?
“I would get involved in the well-being of migrant workers. I feel that there is still a certain racism, that my parents have not been totally accepted, that there is no salary justice.”
The office door opens, someone puts a plate of rice and pansit [a pasta dish] on the table. It is six past nine at night, warm lights illuminate the small businesses of the Inner Harbour to the sound of the guitar and tambourine in renewed prayers.