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Macau’s Culture as an Economic Asset Director October 21st, 2015 <posted by macaense>

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#1 macaense


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Posted 08 November 2015 - 06:58 PM

Macau’s Culture as an Economic Asset
Director October 21st, 2015 No Comments

Macau-Chinese-women-in-traditional-dressUnlike the west, culture and economic development in China are not mutually exclusive. In Macau’s case, both can involve tourism, entertainment, media, education, and international business. My own research has shown that the attraction may also encompass social and familial connections. An analogy might be a car owner who is interested in hybrids, then expands his or her horizons by buying a Tesla. In other words, an interest in Macau’s cultural history often leads to the sportier prospects of Macau’s duty-free economy, a gateway to China’s mainland market in the 21st century.

In order to understand this relationship, let me outline three assumptions about culture that I employ in my work. I’ll then conclude by discussing culture as an economic asset, and provide a proposal for the future.


  1. No Culture Stands Alone. Each is the result, in part, of influences, borrowings, and incorporations from other cultures with which it comes into contact.

Several researchers, including myself, have argued that from its very beginning Macau’s society has been transformed by a succession of ethnic minorities. These included Chinese from Guangdong and Fujian, as well as Malays, Indians, Africans, Japanese, Thais, Filipinos, and of course, Portuguese and other Europeans. Their migrations resulted in what historian Sheyla Zandonai has called “complex processes of intermarriage” which have been “continuously woven into Macau’s socio-cultural fabric since the 16th century beginnings of the Portuguese enterprise in China.”(1) As a result, Macau’s society reflects their multicultural presence and remains highly diverse.


  1. Each Culture represents a collective history, often reflecting the shared memory of a people who identify with its major characteristics: language, religion, food, family-community, geography, and socio-economic conditions.

This assumption reflects my belief that Macau’s cultural diversity is the living embodiment of traits that are shared by people who identify themselves as “Macanese”. The collective aspect of Macau’s culture suggests that Macanese living inside and outside Macau identify with some or all of these cultural traits, and as a result, maintain a traditional connection. Due to the particular aspects of being Macanese, which historians Jorge Morbey and Joao de Pina-Cabral have argued are unique to Macau, the affinity to language, religion, food, and family continue to be passed down through generations.(2)


  1. A Culture is valued as a source of identity and significance, and is often considered a collective asset to be preserved.

Alvares-Family-1890s-630x300-slide-show-Many people tend to identify with a culture based on familial or nationalistic ties. In Macau there is also a movement to understand the city’s historical significance, in part because of its proximity to the Chinese mainland, but also because Macau’s culture is considered to be a unique and valuable asset. The concept of culture as an asset, in both tangible and intangible forms, has in fact been adopted by the Chinese and Macau governments. But attempts to develop both forms since Macau’s 1999 handover have been incomplete. Here are some examples.

a.   In 2003 the Chinese government enacted a trade agreement with seven Portuguese speaking countries (Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, East Timor, Mozambique, Brazil, and Portugal) through the “Forum for Economic and Cultural Cooperation”. This agreement, however, was based on a shared language, not necessarily culture, which has limited its effectiveness.

b.   In 2005 Macau was given a tremendous boost when UNESCO designed the Historical Centre of Macau as a World Heritage Site. The U.N. soon began working with the Chinese government to preserve physical structures and Macau’s cultural heritage.

c.   As a result, the “Macao Heritage Law” was enacted on March 1, 2014 to protect both physical structures and Macau’s “intangible cultural heritage”. The latter, as yet undefined, is to be collected, preserved, promoted, and communicated through education to enable it to be passed down to succeeding generations. The law has made notable strides in the area of tangible preservation, but to date seems to have made little progress in preserving Macau’s cultural history.

d.   An earlier attempt, called “the Macau Memory Project”, begun by Fundacao Macau around 2008, has attempted to collect historical materials from local and external Macanese in other countries. Since then the project has met with limited success due to a lack of clear guidelines and low participation. Moreover, data and information accumulated by the project have not been published outside China.

e.   Inside Macau, locally supported organizations, including the Associação Promotora da Instrução dos Macaenses (APIM) founded in 1871, and the Conselho das Comunidades Macaenses (CCM) founded in 2000, have had limited success in “promoting” Macau’s tourism and language among Macanese expatriates. Most of the contacts have been made through twelve (12) officially sanctioned Casa de Macau groups, whose members tend to be retired with limited professional involvement in their respective countries.

f.   In each case, the connection between culture and economic development has been tenuous, and in some cases, not made at all. These sentiments were indicated during interviews I conducted with Chinese and Macanese officials in 2013 and 2014. Many respondents expressed varying levels of frustration that past initiatives have produced very few business and educational exchanges since Macau’s handover in 1999.

Memories.jpg4.   A fundamental omission in all these efforts, which is relevant to both business and cultural work, seems to be an accurate portrayal of Macau’s “intangible culture”, and specifically its historic cultural diversity. There is an old adage on Wall Street: One cannot “leverage” an asset without knowing its true value.

5.   There have been some initiatives toward this goal, including the offerings of Macau’s regional archive by the government’s Cultural Bureau. There is also research and preservation being conducted by the Macau Ricci Institute and the University of St. Joseph, and contemporary studies by the University of Macau. But much of that research is limited to academic discussions, and illustrate only part of Macau’s rich legacy. The exclusion of Macau’s cultural diversity continues to beg the question:

6. How do you preserve the intangible qualities of Macau’s culture, especially its language, food, religion, and community history, as well as promote economic development and Macau’s significance to the world, without a clear understanding of its origins ?

7.  The point is that there should be research conducted on Macau as a culturally complex and globally connected society, and as a historic intersection of East – West relations. This is especially relevant with respect to Macau’s inability to maintain contact with an estimated 1.5 million international Macanese, many now living in countries with highly developed economies.

8.  In fact, just as China was establishing social and economic relations with Portuguese speaking countries in Africa and Latin America, there has been a fundamental disengagement with more than a million cultural Macanese (and potentially 6 million ethnic Portuguese) in the United States, Canada, and Australia, and Brazil who honor Macau’s traditions.

9.  The situation is especially mystifying when we consider that many international Macanese have expressed interest in sharing their expertise and talents to assist Macau’s development. Surveys and interviews of Macanese and Portuguese expatriates conducted in 2013 and 2014 by a U.C. Berkeley research project that I lead indicated a willingness to engage in international exchanges and business ventures in such areas as Communications, Education, Finance, Banking, Media, Bio-technology, Medicine, Information Technology, Graphic Design, Sustainable Resources, and Water Treatment.

10.  So, how can the present situation change ? How can the relationship of cultural and economic diversity in Macau be renewed ?

11.  Allow me to conclude with a two step approach, which attempts to redefine Macau’s external links to the rest of the world, and especially to new generations who are interested in its history.

  1. This can be done first by contributing to a more complete history of Macau from its founding in the 16th century as a culturally diverse society, and by reinforcing the notion of its significance as a cultural-economic crossroads that continues to join East and West in the 21st century. Those will be the objectives of my collaboration with the University of Macau later this year. (3)
  2. In pragmatic terms, for both modern historians and business people alike, a second step is the creation of an on-line archive that can collect materials in digital formats, including a database for working professionals who are willing to promote and share their collective knowledge with succeeding generations. That is a proposal made by ten (10) local and international groups recently organized in Macau called the “International Macanese Alliance”, of which Far East Currents is a member. Once attracted by the richness of Macau’s culture, the objective is to renew connections between international professionals and Macau’s business and education communities that will lead to beneficial exchanges with many more countries.

Conclusion:  As noted earlier, the association of culture with economic development is not new in China. The Chinese government has used cultural ties to maintain contacts with overseas students and professionals for several decades. They also support commercial associations, such as the Macao Association of the Thirteen Hongs (fashioned after 19th century Canton Hongs), for just such purposes.

The proposals in this article offer a similar solution for economic renewal in Macau. The key point is that Macau’s tangible and intangible cultural legacies remain important assets that must be used effectively, especially in light of the SAR’s precarious dependence on gaming. The new path leads toward potentially lucrative government, commercial, and educational partnerships, a journey that can reap multiple benefits for Macau only if strategic cultural ties are renewed.


  1. Sheyla S. Zandonai, “Global Diversity, Local Identity: Multicultural Practice in Macau”, Intercultural Communications Studies XVII: 1, 2009:19-32.
  2. Jorge Morbey, “Aspects of the ‘Ethnic of Identities’ of the Macanese”, Review of Culture, 1994, Instituto Cultural do Governo da R.E.M.A de Macau.
    Joao de Pina-Cabral, Between China and Europe: Person, Culture and Emotion in Macao, New York, 2002.
  1. Dr. Xavier has been invited by the University of Macau to consult with faculty and researchers on these issues during a visit in November 2015.


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