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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest


Between China and Europe: Person, Culture and Emotion in Macao
Joao De Pina-Cabral

London: Continuum, 2002
256 pp, ISBN: 0-8264-5749-5

The history of Macao is full of contradictions and surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that it survived, for over 400 years, as an outpost, if not unquestionably a colony, of Portugal. This indefensible city found ways to turn weakness to its own advantage. It was able to exploit its position as a loophole in the system – a sort of 'back door' for China – becoming a centre for gambling and for the trade in opium, coolies (from 1847 - 1878), gold, and later, illegally, arms and drugs. At the same time, China benefited from having a 'small and controllable Portuguese factory' (p.10) on its doorstep. The survival of Macao and of the Macanese people – the Eurasian population - is the starting-point for Pina-Cabral's wide-ranging study.

Until 1999, when Macao was returned to direct Chinese rule, its status was ambiguous, since the Chinese never granted Portugal definite rights of sovereignty over Macao. For Pina-Cabral , this ambiguity is the central contradiction of Macao's existence – the contradiction between sovereignty, which was ultimately retained by China, and citizenship which gave the Portuguese and Macanese access to power in the administration. Periodically, the tension inherent in this situation would reach an unbearable pitch, and some kind of crisis would result. For Pina-Cabral these regular crises, or incidentes, during which the city would divide along ethnic lines, have structural importance. Adopting Victor Turner's theory of social drama, he believes that 'the reproduction of social structure.... takes place by means of processes of rupture and reparation, schism and continuity' (pp.11-12).

Within the imperfectly defined political framework described above, the Macanese, who belonged to both the Portuguese and Chinese camps, and, at the same time, to neither, were forced to affirm their right to the territory 'by means of claims of identity' (p.71). Living between two cultural worlds, they were particularly vulnerable to stigmatisation, and this affected not only the way in which they positioned themselves in relation to other groups, but also the nature of the Macanese community itself. Pina-Cabral analyses the process of ethnic identification, and the rôle that symbolic mediation and the creation of 'master narratives' plays in this. He shows that just as Macao was able to 'bend with the winds of history' to seize economic opportunities (p.7), so the Macanese adapted their identity to the prevailing mood. When racist attitudes held sway, during the colonial period, the Macanese abandoned their distinctive Creole culture and drew instead on their capital of Portugueseness. Then, in the 1970s and '80s, when the future of Macao was clearly Chinese, the Macanese rediscovered the Chinese aspects of their identity.

In 'Between Europe and China', Pina-Cabral delves into incidents and experiences that intrigue him – a kidnapping, the absence of certain statues, names, the popularity of gambling - approaching each from the perspective of historically informed social anthropology. The result is a fascinating study of 'the perils of intercultural navigation' (p.106).

Rose Hankey

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