An Early Letter Provides Insight

October 3rd, 2017 No Comments

Note: Four years ago, in the early stages of my research, I wrote back to Jim Silva, an old family friend, who raised questions about my “broad definition” of the Macanese that I use on my website. I recently re-read the letter and thought it might be illuminating to others in order to understand my early rationale.

For those who are unfamiliar with him: Frederic “Jim” Silva is a well-known writer within the community, and a frequent contributor on Macanese culture. I have valued his friendship and knowledge over the years, but took this opportunity to respectfully disagree with him. While I won’t reproduce his letter to me, my response (especially in the last paragraph) suggests some early anxieties and hopes as I moved forward. 



Dear Jim,

Please excuse the delay in responding to your phone call and your recent letter concerning my conclusions on Macanese origins. I understand that emotions in this area can run high, so I wanted to take some time to gather my thoughts about what you wrote.

First, I took no offense to your statements in the letter. I have to admit I probably overstated my case, and you called me on it. So I thank you and have made the necessary corrections on the web site. I also realize that you and a few others were the only writers to pursue this research over the years, often with great apathy among our own people. I hope that my offerings, at the very least, continue this legacy and succeed in telling general and academic readers that the Macanese are worthy subjects of inquiry.

There is one issue that I would like to discuss, however. You objected to my broad definition of “Macanese” as anyone who is a descendant of mixed race Portuguese from Asia, and insist in your letter that Macanese can only come from Macau or from a descendant of someone from Macau. You also asked who were the other authorities I consulted to come to my definition.

One of them was you.  In “The Macanese: a Legacy of Portugal in China” (July 2012, pg. 4) you wrote that “Another accepted definition is that a Macanese is a Eurasian of Portuguese and Asian blood. Portuguese and, say Chinese, Goan, Malay or Japanese ancestry – perhaps even more that one of these.” I also consulted the work of anthropologists and linguists specializing in Southeast Asian cultures and dialects. Some have noted that the Malaysian-Singapore dialect known as “Kristang” comes from the Macanese patua. There are even a few speakers of the Macanese patua in Malaysia who refer to it locally as “Nhonha”. That seems to support the theory that the definition of Macanese should be broadened, and not just pertain to Macau.

Yours was not the only objection to my “expanded” definition. I received at least two more insisting that Macanese only means Macau. Clearly, they were speaking more about cultural identity than actual history. I can say that personally I would rather be identified with Macau than the entire region of Southeast Asia. But my goal is to provide a definition of “Macanese” that can stand up to professional (academic) scrutiny, which will ultimately become accepted by a general readership. So the actual roots of our culture should be accurately stated as very broad and diverse.

In the end, most Macanese came from somewhere else (Portugal, Goa, China, Japan, Malaysia), but we ultimately define ourselves by the culture of our ancestors. In this case, our ancestors settled in Macau, which they adopted as their cultural home for almost five centuries. I don’t find anything wrong with identifying culturally with Macau and its rich history, while also writing that the Macanese share that history with many other cultures.

In conclusion, let me provide you with some insight into my own mindset as I’m doing this research. It is very gratifying to receive so many compliments and statements of encouragement from within the Macanese community. Frankly, they push me to continue. There seems to be a growing need to tell the stories of “nossa gente” before they were lost to history and future generations of Macanese living inside and outside Macau.

But I must admit to some personal anxiety over the expectations that my writings have produced. I often feel that some will merely find them to be the musings of an older son who recently discovered his family’s photo albums and old diaries. I may have begun that way, but I can tell you truthfully that I now see much, much more. I see an unwritten history that begs to be discovered and shown to the world. I see connections to social, cultural, and economic processes, which conventional accounts have not explored or explained. I also see historic ties between China and the west that can be renewed through this research. All of this I envision as I overcome my own doubts and inertia (I suppose like any writer) in the process.

Jim, please know that I value your comments (and your criticism) very much. Thanks for allowing me to correspond.

My very best wishes,



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