Cultural Disconnects and the Macanese Diaspora
I’m currently writing an article on the experiences of Macanese in Hong Kong and Macau during World War II, a period that has been called a “defining moment” by some observers of Macanese history. (The article will appear in a collection to be published by Hong Kong University Press called “War-time Macau”.)
In the process, I have been reading the real-life experiences of many who were not only displaced by the war, but were forced to live as refugees in Macau, the only “neutral” and unoccupied city in Asia. Beginning in January 1942 until September 1945, Macanese returned by the “thousands” (an estimate used by a Macanese historian) to their ancestral homeland to wait out the war, and ponder the futures of their children and grandchildren during what has been called “a significant epoch in the evolution of these communities”.
The war years were especially significant for the Macanese community as a whole. For it set in motion the first decisions to leave Macau and Hong Kong after the war ended, as well as signaling a willingness to acculturate in other societies. Those choices had direct consequences on how expatriate Macanese and their children, including those born outside Asia, would relate to the culture of Macau in later years. I am not suggesting that there was an irrevocable severing of ties, nor am I implying that the decisions to immigrate to other countries were taken lightly. Rather, I am referring to the requirements of adopting a new country and living in a foreign society that necessarily created distances, geographic, cultural, and in some cases psychological, for Macanese in later generations, including those who married outside the community.
This may be a principal reason why many Macanese of my generation and later feel, at times, disassociated from Macanese culture unless we have been taught about its richness and history. Most of us experienced first-hand the trials of our parents and grandparents to “fit” into societies as diverse as the United States, Australia, Brazil, Canada, and Portugal. In many cases, we intuitively grasped at a young age that our relatives would be alone until others arrived from the “old world”. With little contact with our culture, the subtle process of socialization through schools, peer groups, work, media, and even religion pushed us further and further away. Racial and ethnic stereotypes in each new country, especially in the United States, were often institutionalized as we were classified as “Asian” or “Hispanic” in everything from college “equal opportunity programs” to the census. Each produced identities that may not have been strictly accurate, but were acceptable in the short term. In the absence of any other cultural instruction, we had little choice than to conform.
Some of our parents and relatives were more open about our history, but usually expressed it with nostalgia and regret. Often they referred to what Macau and Hong Kong once were, at times with traces of bitterness for having lost good jobs and social positions. But we also noted the implications of “place”, a sense of where the Macanese thought they belonged or did not belong in the old societies, usually in reference to other ethnic communities. Language and cultural short-hand, often with references to those perceived to be above and below the Macanese in the social order, often made such prejudices painfully clear.
This may have been the most difficult aspect of being Macanese in the post-war era. For it suggested, even as we were growing up in egalitarian societies, that our parents and older relatives retained a sense of ethnic inferiority to some and superiority over others in the old world, and were still not free of those bonds many years later. At times, the mix of nostalgia, regret, inferiority, and even shame could be seen in relations between Macanese and within families. In some cases such feelings did not allow younger members to reconnect to Macanese culture, and in other cases made them reluctant to acknowledge their heritage. The legacy of colonization, especially for the colonized, appeared in many forms and continues to touch our lives.
Over time a growing number of younger generation Macanese have learned that these perceptions were a false birthright, and could indeed change. There are signs that many have taken the first step, as evident from communications received each week, by reconnecting with their families, some who have been purposely distant after many years. A case in point involves a person who recently contacted Far East Currents after communicating with her Macanese birth mother many years after she was given up for adoption in the United States. Another involves revelations from a member of an old Macau family whose patriarch died in the Happy Valley Race Course fire of 1918, but kept a second Chinese wife and children “hidden” and unacknowledged for many years. Yet another example involves members of the another family originally from Hong Kong, now living in different parts of Australia, who are corresponding many years after older relatives cut ties over an inheritance.
In each instance, it is clear that old wounds not only heal, but the process of healing itself involves connecting with others who share a common bond: being Macanese. The clash of history and biography may have resounding consequences, but the opportunity to understand and move forward are added benefits that most of us did not anticipate. For those simple reasons, the contributions of writers, scholars, artists, archivists, journalists, anthropologists, and many others will continue to appear on this site. We hope you will keep visiting to see our progress.