WHAT DO YOU REALLY KNOW ABOUT MACAU? – Exclusive Interview With Joâo F. O. Botas

Aurelio Porfiri

Macau has a fascinating past, full of stories and events that link in a very peculiar way the Empire of China with the civilization coming from the West. This meeting was not always easy, indeed it was often difficult and, somehow, with issues that are still unsolved. But certainly a place like Macau deserves to be thoroughly investigated from an historic point of view. To be sure, several historians from Portugal, China, Europe, United States have tried their best to shed light on this or that aspect of the important history of this city.

Among the people investigating the past of the city, one should mention João F. O. Botas. He was born in Portugal in 1971 but has lived during the 80s in Macau, where he graduated from the Macau Lyceum (to whom he will dedicate a book) and started his first experiences as journalist, notably in Macau’s TDM. He is now a journalist for RTP (Rádio e Televisão do Portugal). He has devoted several studies to Macau and published some books about it, as the ones about the history of Macau Lyceum and about the situation of Macau during WWII. He is the editor of a very interesting blog about Macau called Macau Antigo, a blog that has had more than a million views.

Why you have become interested in the history of Macau?

I lived in Macau when I was very young… I finished high school there, at Liceu, and I was very lucky to have very good teachers such as Beatriz Basto da Silva in History class. That’s when it all begun, when I became interested in Macau’s history. Some years later, after finishing my upper course (Social Communication/Journalist), in Portugal, I felt, that most people didn’t really know how rich Macau history is. So I thought, I have to do something about this…

Why did you feel it important to study and publish a book about the Liceu de Macau?

Liceu was the place where I spent my youth. I lived in Macau around 10 years. That’s where I matured, where I made friends for life. I used to say, every time I visit Macau, that I feel at home. And it’s true! It all started, around 2005, with a question about the old building of Liceu at Praia Grande (where Bank of China now stands, that quarter in front of hotel Sintra): who was the architect who did that? Liceu had a very, very long life. It started in 1893 and finished in 1999. So many stories to tell…

Can you present briefly some of the most important people teaching and studying there?

Many generations of teachers and students are linked to Liceu. Some of them are very well known, such as Wenceslau de Moraes, Camilo Pessanha, Manuel da Silva Mendes, Monsignor Manuel Teixeira, Lara Reis, Carlos Assumpção, Henrique de Senna Fernandes, José dos Santos Ferreira, Luís Gonzaga Gomes, and many others… Check pages 173-175 of my book.

You had also devoted a book to Macau during war years (WWII). What was the situation of Macau in those years?

I wrote Macau 1937-1945: os anos da guerra (Macau 1937-1945: the war years) a few years ago. Most recently I also had a role in an English book about the same subject. It’s called Macau war years: under the Japanese shadow and it was published in late 2016 by Hong Kong University Press. That period was one of the darkest of Macau’s history. Not because of the war itself, but because of massive food and medicine shortage and also shortage of other products such as paper. And also diseases: cholera, tuberculosis… Macau was under a naval blockade by the Japanese army for many years. Prices rose up to 800 percent and ration cards were imposed. The black market flourished.

Some people have the impression that Macau was a kind of safe haven for people running away from something, a sort of Switzerland of the East. Is it a correct impression?

Yes it is. Between 1937 and 1945 Macau was a safe haven for thousands of refugees. They came mostly from mainland China, but also from Hong Kong. Among them there were several nationalities, including Portuguese and Macanese, but the majority was Chinese. Macau’s population tripled, from around 200,000 in 1937 to more than 600,000 in mid-1945. The 1950 census shows only 188,896 inhabitants. During my research for the book I estimated 100,000 deaths from starvation and disease. Those were days of mourning and misery, bitterness and captivity. Several testimonies and a telegram from Macau’s Governor to Lisbon in the spring of 1942 refer to “three cases of cannibalism among the Chinese.”

In the 500 pages of this book, you mention that Macau, during those years, had a “collaborative neutrality.” What you mean by that?

You have to read the book to understand the geo-political situation at that time… You had the allies, from one side, and the Japanese, on the other side. Portugal’s government had a neutral position concerning the conflict. The Portuguese Governor and Commander-in-Chief in Macau (1940-1946) was Navy Commander Gabriel Maurício Teixeira (1897-1973). He had a very tough job…  Following the surrender of Hong Kong in December 1941, the Japanese decided not to formally occupy Macao but troops went in and out at will and the Japanese imposed a commercial embargo. Maurício Teixeira, as Governor, did all that he could to provide food for Macau’s population. Sometimes the Japanese consul dictated the rules and Macau’s governor sometimes had obeyed trying not to antagonize Japan and jeopardize the neutral status.

What was the role and the situation of the Catholic Church during the conflict?

Macau has a longstanding tradition of helping those in need. During the Second World War, when under the threat of a Japanese attack, it was no different from before. The local authorities distributed bread, rice and water to a population that rose from 200,000 to about 1,000,000 people within two or three years. Of course, the Catholic Church had a very important role.

Is there any institution in Macau that has played a peculiar role during the war and that you think should be remembered?

So many… Everybody helped: the government, the Catholic Church, the Chinese, Portuguese and Macanese civil associations, BNU bank, monks from the Chinese temples, etc.… Because of their help, including several public charities, thousands of refugees pursued their lives after the storm was gone… In the last four years of war Macau’s government had spent on social assistance 12,500,000 patacas, an astronomical sum which represented 75 per cent of the total expenditure of the 40s to welfare.

You are running a very successful blog, Macau Antigo. Tell us something about this blog and its impact on the blogosphere?

Thank you! Around 2005 I started to do some research to know more about Macau and Liceu. I have found many documents and so I started to write the book of Liceu‘s history. But I gathered so many documents that I thought I could use them to show Macau’s history in an attractive way. The idea of writing a blog came almost immediately. Most of the readers are from the Macanese diaspora living abroad, including Portugal, Australia, Brazil, Canada and United States. But there are also non-Macanese readers, mostly Portuguese who used to live in Macau. Macau Antigo is now 8 years old with more than 1 M viewers, according to data provided by Google Analytics.

You are now doing a project involving Manuel da Silva Mendes. Can you tell us who was this person in Macau and what the project is about?

Manuel da Silva Mendes (1867-1931) was a teacher and a lawyer and he became one of the most knowledgeable Portuguese about Chinese culture and philosophy. He wrote hundreds of articles about Macau and China. He’s one of the most influential figures of Macau society in the first 30 years of 20th century. He also had an amazing collection of Chinese art, especially ceramics from Sek Wan, and most of his collection can be seen at MAM, Macau Art Museum. Silva Mendes arrived in Macau in 1901 and lived there until 1931, when he died. He’s buried at São Miguel cemetery. Just after a few years of arriving he built a big house, at Guia. It’s where UNU-IIST now stands. This year, 2017, will be the 150th anniversary of his birth so it’s a great time to publish his biography. The book is almost finished and it will be published on this year’s first semester. I’m doing a pre-sale at the moment with special conditions. For instance, if you buy the book now you will have your name printed on the book as a sponsor.  People just have to contact me jbotas@gmail.com or visit the special website I created: http://manuel-da-silva-mendes.webnode.pt/.

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