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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #15 (April 8-14, 2003), page 16.

Archipelago between memory and imagination


By Philippe Pons

Reaktion Books, 2003

Paperback, 135 pages, $25.00

By Polo

The place, Macao, is at the tip of a narrow isthmus that quickly sputters into an archipelago of islands stretching from the mouth of the Pearl River into the South China Sea.

The name Macao evokes every image that every bad boy, Asian and Western alike, holds dear. Gambling, high stakes and low-brow; tuxedo cocktails next door to drunken brawls between rival Chinese gangs; luxurious pleasure houses for every taste; open-air black markets packed with the usual nefarious big ticket items: German luxury cars, Burmese tar opium, Chinese AK-47s. For cheap.

That perception, assuming it was ever more than just an amalgam of travelers’ colorful stories, is quickly passing away — The People’s Republic of China took Macao back from Portugal three years ago. Macao was Asia’s first and last European imperial possession. The city-state was returned to Beijing in December 1999, two years after Britain’s tearful handover of Crown Colony Hong Kong.

Writer Philippe Pons evokes this older, grander, and grungier landmark and legend of Macao. Mr. Pons’ Macao-as-myth lived and breathed for a magical period between the Second World War and the 1980s.

"Cities are fragile constructions, fluid realities," Mr. Pons writes, "they’re the result of a constellation of elements converging at a given moment in time. When that … dissolves, the city keeps up appearances like a hive without a queen, but the heart’s gone out of it. Today’s Macao is one such vanished city," he laments, "existing only in the archipelago between memory and imagination."

Philippe Pons is the author of a number of works on Asian history and contemporary culture, including From Edo to Tokyo: Memory and Modernity. He is currently the Tokyo correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde. The Old Macao, the one presented in his latest book, is taken from his travel journals, spanning a period of 25 years, during the time when Macao was in Mr. Pons’ words "impious and devout, idle and hardworking, frivolous and lethargic, generous and cruel."

It was a time when Grand Jesuit Cathedrals in full Portuguese Baroque, with names like Sao Lourenco and Sao Paulo, brooded over Macao’s busy inhabitants. Tight side streets bristled with temples for Madame Buddha Guan Yin and God-of-Loyalty Guan Di. Construction crews didn’t dare begin without requisite rituals for resident spirits and without rigid conformity to the rules of geomancy, feng shui.

Mr. Pons recalls the smells of Old Macao, "of camphor wood from gloomy workshops … of steaming bowls of soup gulped on street benches … aromas from apothecaries’ potions, the cool of the garden at Sao Jose church … hibiscus in full bloom."

In his closing chapter, "Twilight of an Imaginary City," Philippe Pons writes "In Macao, the present used to mingle with the past that the city incrusted within it … the imaginary city resonated with reminders and rememberings." As lovely as this Macao sounds, as lyrical as Mr. Pons’ writing can be, his Macao may just have to vanish — after a while only travelers’ tales attest to what tourists recall. Reality, what folks live and eat and suffer while enduring there, is an entirely different "story." Maybe not as pretty.


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