New Internationalist


February 1989

new internationalist
issue 192 - February 1989



Map of Macau Despite its early start as a colony and trading station in 1557, Macau was soon eclipsed by Canton as an entrepot to mainland China. By the 20th century the rapid growth of Hong Kong, only 40 miles away across the Pearl River, had left Macau a sleepy backwater.

Today, shaken by Hong Kong's vibrant economy, Macau has woken up. There's a tourist boom, fuelled by the Chinese love of gambling (which is illegal in Hong Kong). Nearly five million visitors arrived in 1986, 80 per cent of them Hong Kong residents.

The visitors have given a new lease of life to Macau's traditional handicrafts industries. Cheap labour has also attracted the clothing trade, toy manufacturers and electrical assembly plants. Unemployment is around two per cent and the prospects for the future are bright.

But economic success brings its own price tag. Sleepy Macau has acquired something of Hong Kong's frenetic pace. Ugly hotels and casinos have ruined views across the city. The Macanese and an unknown number of illegal immigrants have found work but they are poorly paid and enjoy little protection. The country's first labour law was only passed in 1984 and, while this prescribes a six-day week and bans the use of children, it has done little to improve conditions. Fetid, poorly-lit sweatshops predominate.

Macau remains dependent on its larger neighbours, China and Hong Kong. Virtually all the food comes from China, as does the water and electricity. Most of Macau's exports have to be transhipped through Hong Kong, and it is Hong Kong that provides much of the capital for development.

Photo: Tom Blau / Camera Press Since 1981 the Portuguese government has tried to promote economic independence, spending more in Macau than it has in centuries - on roads, a new telephone system and a proposed port. The colony's rapid economic burst has also stimulated renewed Chinese interest.

In 1987 Portugal agreed that Macau will become a special administrative region under the Chinese in 1999, two years after Hong Kong. The Macanese fear that their influence in the colony's legislature, built up through the years of Portuguese indifference, will be lost when China's bureaucracy takes over. More menacing, they argue, is the prospect of a strait-laced Chinese government closing down the city's lifeline, gambling.

But the cultural threat is feared most. Four centuries of Portuguese occupation have created a hybrid Macanese culture. This has been modified since the 1920s by illegal immigrants from the mainland only two hundred yards away, but is still strong. The few Portuguese there have centuries-old links with the colony. Macanese cooking, the drinking of wine not beer and the architecture all reflect Portugal as much as the Orient. Absorbed by China, the Macanese culture will become a museum, a memory.

Adrian Fozzard

Leader: Governor Carlos Melancia

Economy: GNP per capita figure not available.
Monetary unit: Pataca (fixed to Hong Kong dollar which is also legal tender).
Main exports: clothing and textiles, toys, electronics and artificial flowers destined mostly for EEC, Asia, USA and Hong Kong.

People: 426,400 but excludes illegal immigrants.

Health: Infant mortality figure not available.

Culture: 97 per cent of the population are Chinese, mostly Han. Less than half of the Chinese population were born in Macau. There are fewer than 10,000 resident Portuguese.
: Portuguese is theoretically the official language but Cantonese is used for most purposes. English is widely spoken.
Religion: Taoism and Buddhism predominate but there are small Catholic and Protestant communities.

Source: Asia and Pacific Yearbook 1988 and author information.


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Many illegal workers, child labour.

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Depends on Hong Kong and China for basics.

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Women work, but often in sweat-shops.

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A colony run by governor with elected legislative council.

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Figures not available.

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Good; press and political freedoms are respected.

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Figure estimated around 70 years.

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previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page [image, unknown]

This feature was published in the February 1989 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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