Charm of old Macao falls under wrecker's ball

As the explosive expansion of neighboring Hong Kong has shown, money-grubbing real-estate developers both in the British and the Portuguese-administered capitalistic enclaves on the south China coast have little time for Old World sentimentality and modern aesthetics.

What the wreckers have so mercilessly achieved in Hong Kong 40 miles to the other side of the vast Pearl River delta is tragically beginning to happen here among Macao's 17th- and 18th-century churches, pink-stuccoed government buildings, Mediterranean villas, Chinese temples, and bustling traditional markets.

Much to the chagrin of an overwhelmed minority of aficionados, who have for years extolled the historic charm, atmosphere, and serenity of the Far East's oldest European settlement, Macao's cultural heritage is being ruthlessly destroyed.

A unique architectural synthesis of Chinese and Portuguese influences, the former colony's peeling, pastel-shaded villas submerged in lush, placid gardens overlooking the sea as well as once-magnificent, but nowdecaying, Chinese town houses with delicately carved wooden beams are being torn down with rampant fervor.

Modern, boorishly designed multistoried office and apartment blocks rise with equal rapidity to take their places.

Only recently has Macao begun to emerge from its somewhat decadent colonial stupor. Following Portugal's bloodless April 25, 1974, military coup, the new Socialist government attempted to return the four-century-old settlement, proclaimed a Portuguese overseas province in 1951, to China as part of its decolonization policy.

The six-square-mile enclave, which consists of the now tightly packed Macao peninsula and the mainly wooded islands of Taipa and Coloane, was originally handed to the Portuguese in 1557 by the Chinese for helping them rout the ignominious sea, pirate Chau Tse-lao.

Peking, however, has consistently refused to take back Macao. To do so, it feels, would only undermine the confidence of businessmen, particularly in hong Kong, and force it to relinquish the foreign interests it needs to assist in its massive modernization program.

It is basically only in the past five years that the Portuguese have seriously begun to exploit the possibilities of participating in China's renovation.

Tacitly encouraged by Peking, which by its very indulgence of a capitalistic enclave on its doorstep, controls Macao's destiny, the Portuguese have more or less promoted the territory from a crumbling administrative backwater to a no-holds-barred boomtown similar to Hong Kong except on a much smaller scale.

Determined to cash in, speculators, primarily Hong Kong-based, have been assiduously engaged in a development process, which they hope will transform Macao into another concrete and steel commercial success story.

Although Macao technically remains under the Portuguese government, the real power lies with the Chinese business community.

And if speculators get their way, which seems more than likely, the "sunny laneways that snake their way past baroque churches and ancient gray battlements" or "cobbled streets shaded by swaying banyan trees" of the tourist brochures, could well be memories within the next decade.

With more than 3.7 million tourists in 1979, a 20 percent increase over the previous year, Macao and Hong Kong developers are constructing 10 new hotels, several shopping centers, a $200 million terminal to cope with increasing ferry, hydrofoil, and jetfoil traffic from Hong Kong, and a multitude of vacation apartments.

In addition to a growth of office blocks and social housing, a university, scheduled to be opened next year for arts, social science, and business administration, is also being built. Furthermore, another project calls for an international airport constructed on reclaimed land.

Much of Macao's new prosperity is derived from its expanding gambling enterprises. The great majority of Macao's tourists are Hong Kong Chinese whose main interest is to bet at the casinos, the jai alai stadium, or at the greyhound track.

"For them," quoted one official, "Macao's cultural background holds little interest." Many come over for gambling weekends.

Legalized in the early 1840s, gambling brings in more than $12 million in direct taxes, plus an additional $16 million in franchise payments a year. With much of the real estate development, particularly in choice areas, geared to rich Chinese from Hong Kong for use as secondary residences, many speculators want to turn Macao into a fullfledged Las Vegas-type resort.

As with Hong Kong, a large proportion of this development is uncontrolled. The tasteless, grotesque modern architecture, with little respect for harmony, is nothing new to Macao. For years now, the Lisbon Hotel with its round-the-clock gambling casino has tormented the province's skyline with its mixture of amusement-park baroque and Temple of Heaven Ming.

Similarly, downtown areas are becoming increasingly plagued by monumental eyesores sporting garish balconies and crass entrances.

"It's tragic that the Chinese who have managed to produce among the world's greatest civilizations now only seem to come up with blatant kitsch," commented one regular British visitor.

The Portuguese claim they would like to preserve as much as possible of the old Macao. Indeed, the authorities have renovated such noteworthy buildings as the governor's mansion, a dozen historic churches, the Convent of Precious Blood , and the Don Pedro V Theater, the Orient's first such European institution.

But in the rush to modernize and capitalize on rising land prices, speculators already have taken their toll on some of Macao'straditional landmarks.

The Caravela, for example, a magnificent mansion at the foot of Penha Hill, already has been torn down.

And to the horror of many old-Asia hands, one of the Orient's best- known colonial restaurants, the Pousada de Macao, is destined for demolition because of its prime-site location. Developers, who want to replace the waterfront villa with a new high-rise residential block, maintain that the building is too old to restore profitably.

Furthermore, a splendid row of 18th- and 19th-century Portuguese town houses over- looking the playing fields along the Rua Ferreira do Amara not far from the Sun Yatsen Museum in central Macao are apparently also heading for the chop. One wonders how long other "atmosphere" buildings, such as the pastel-green Belavista Hotel with its gardened terrace and marble staircase, will last.

With severe overcrowding, a high birthrate, and a continued influx of Chinese immigrants from across the border, Macao has no option but to expand. New industries must be created in addition to the present 450 textile factories to provide employment; and residential blocks must be built to cope with its more than 300,000 inhabitants, many of them living in destitute conditions.

But Macao is at the initial stage of development. Many observers wishing to protect more than just a handful of historic buildings feel that now is the most appropriate time to introduce some form of planning and preservation policies.

"Macao is not just a bunch of churches," noted one long-time resident. "It's a spirit. Something you can find nowhere else in the world."

Even the most ardent amateurs of colonial romanticism realize that the Chinese have little enthusiasm for preserving a past which they do not consider their own. but if any economic incentive exists as to why Macao should seek to preserve part of its historic atmosphere, it is the 643,000 foreign tourists who visited the territory last year.

Not only would the Portuguese have to insist on more harmonious architectural norms, particularly in the traditional sections of town, but also provide full protection for the several hundred buildings, both European and Chinese, considered to be of historic and cultural value.

Portuguese officials scream that such a costly preservation program is far beyond their budgetary means. In addition, some observers maintain that the government is unwilling to stand in the path of strong-headed real-estate speculators.

"Most cultural preservationists in this part of the world tend to be nostalgic Westerners," noted one Hong Kong resident and a constant visitor to Macao.

"The Chinese, apart from a small group of academics or enlightened individuals, don't really care about heritage.People in Macao and Hong Kong are out to make money. This is where capitalism is at its purest and anything that stands in the way is trodden under."

Other observers however, refuse to accept this attitude. If Portugal is unable to raise sufficient funds to preserve Macao's heritage, then it should come under international responsibility.

"As one American writer from Hong Kong put it: "Macao is worth saving just as much as Venice."

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