Historic Centre of Macao and How it “Changed” Me

Macao has a very special place in my heart. My dad used to be an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) for about six years. As the eldest of five siblings, I had the responsibility of joining him in familial celebrations such as Christmas and even Holy Week. Sometime in 2006, I even stayed there for about 90 days in search for my own opportunities. In my three months of exploring this China’s Special Autonomous Region (SAR), I fell in love with its historic centre, especially since it somewhat reverberates the Catholic culture I temporarily left back home in the Philippines. It was also in this place where I discovered a sense of awe and interest in the meaning of heritage.

It was the first year anniversary of Macao’s Historic Centre’s inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site when I arrived in 2006. I was a graduate student back then attempting to specialize in theatre arts. As we always say in the Philippines, kinilig ako (loosely amazed) by the performance activities at that time in the different squares and parks (acrobatics, Chinese opera, western opera, dance performances, chamber musical performances and theatre shows). There were also different forums about heritage in different museums. With these different activities, the interest from theatre arts was transformed into an interest to study theatre as heritage.

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The A-Ma Temple, one of the monuments inscribed as a World Heritage Site (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
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Some “lucky” charms (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
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The grand staircase of the temple (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
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The Moorish Barracks, a view from the inside (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
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The Mandarin House (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
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The Madarin House’s design mixes Chinese and European motifs (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

The different discussions about UNESCO and World Heritage Sites awakened my younger self. When I was about ten or eleven, I knew I wanted to see the world. My parents would ask if I meant becoming a pilot. I remember remarking that I wanted to learn about the different costumes, food, buildings, dances, performances, masks, languages and the people of the different places found in my new Atlas, a gift from my mom. Interestingly, that interest came from the vivid descriptions and photos found in that book. I had no idea back then that I meant I wanted to be an anthropologist.

But when I was twelve, I had to hide my Atlas. I needed to leave home and entered the seminary, which intensified my interest in the performing arts. But I digress, let me go back to Macao and how it “changed” me.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is composed of several monuments (buildings) and several squares (parks). My favorite among these monuments is The Ruins of St. Paul or populary called putol (cut) by the Filipino community in Macao (due to its missing body). According to the curatorial notes found on the site, when the church was constructed sometime in the early 17th century, it was the biggest at that time. The church was destroyed by fire and later, a strong typhoon. But these disasters left the facade standing on its own, creating an amazing spectacle by transforming it into a sculpture-like monument. The facade is on top of a hill, with 68 stone steps leading up to it. The sculpturesque design is also composed of several carvings – almost like reliefs – including Catholic images of Saints (especially St. Paul) with Oriental themes, such as the popular Blessed Virgin Mary stepping on a seven-headed monster, described in Chinese characters as “Holy Mother tramples the heads of the dragon.”

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The garden inside the Sir Robert Ho Tung Library (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
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The Ruins of St. Paul (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
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Cathedral of Our Lady of Nativity (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
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San Jose Seminary (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
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The Senado Square (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
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Don Pedro Theatre (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Of these monuments and parks, the route from the Senado Square to the Company of Jesus Square is a special place for many Filipinos in Macao. It was there where OFWs meet to talk about the Philippines: politics, personal stories and even gossips about other OFWs. In some occasions, these OFWs even share food – often, their interpretations of Filipino food using Macanese ingredients or their attempt to mimic local dishes.

It was in this space where I met a group of Filipino who eventually became my friends during my short stint in this SAR. Meeting them was accidental: I bought my lunch from a yong tau foo stall. I was looking for a place where I could eat, which led me to a table of a group of Filipino workers in Macao. Two of them were new to Macao and the two others were “veterans” – the older Pinoy came to Macao as early 1999 and the younger, two years earlier.

The meeting was repeated. The other meetings paved the way for me to be introduced to other Filipinos. I learned their stories – many of which were very inspirational. Others were stories of success. While some stories were sort of sad, in the end, their placeness in Macao was still considered a victory. One realization from listening to these stories: bagong bayani narrative must be questioned.

Then, I came to be familiar with how they create a sense of home in this group of islands. For instance, I received a box of pastillas (milk candy) from one of my new found friends, which was made from Chinese condensed milk instead of the usual carabao’s milk. One time, we shared this adobo (chicken and pork stew in vinegar and soy) cooked in Chinese thick soy sauce and some cider vinegar. Since the soy is not as sweet as that in Macau and cider vinegar is sourer than the common sugar cane vinegar used back home, sugar was added to supplement the sweetness of the adobo.

In the apartment of one of my new found friends, I noticed that the kitchen wall was decorated with five cross-stitched artworks. In the middle was the Last Supper, commonly found in the kitchen of Catholic Filipinos back home. Surrounding this image of the Last Supper were other cross-stitched artworks with the following as subjects: Marilyn Monroe, the Ruins of Sao Paolo, a Chinese woman in a cheongsam, and the image of San Sebastian.

Years later, I encountered this book by Martin Manalansan: Global Divas. In the book, Manalansan argues that the “narratives of everyday life reveal the rich intricacies of the commonplace and how these stories intersect or come up against modern institutions such as the nation-state. Everyday life intersects and engages with the intimate, the private, and search for home in modern life.” My encounter with this small group of Filipinos in Macao challenged my perspectives about home. Particularly, these people have proven that aspects of everyday life are meaningful intersections connecting the home country and the host country.

This encounter with the Filipino community in Macao initiated my first unofficial anthropological exercise. Sooner, I was able to combine both my interest in the performing arts and my dream of understanding how a group of people communicate creatively. The experience of carefully paying attention to details and engagement in story-telling without interfering in the narration were “methodologically applied” in my graduate studies and postgraduate studies. The narrative collected in Macao were “archived” in my doctoral thesis, sooner was published as a book. About my Atlas, it is still on my shelf. Once in a while, using it to locate my next adventure.

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