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
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
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.