Despite ruling Macau for over 400 years, Macau never became a Portuguese-speaking territory. Moreover, the relationship between the Portuguese and the local Chinese was tense and strained, especially when one compares it with the coexistence between British and Chinese in Hong Kong.
As a matter of fact, in a 1998 representative survey only 22.4 % of the people interviewed in Macau said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the Portuguese rule, while 39.2 % said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. This stands in sharp contrast with Hong Kong, where 68.6 % of the respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with the British administration, while only 7.2 per cent were dissatisfied.
Similarly, Before the handover 63% of Hong Kongers trusted the British administration, but only 35 % trusted the Portuguese administration.
When asked of they felt proud of being Chinese, 74.1 of Macau respondents replied affirmatively, while only 38.8 said they were proud of being a Macau citizen (Yee 2001, p. 64-71).
These numbers should be put in perspective. Of the total population of Macau in 1998, which was about 437 000, approximately 96 per cent were ethnic Chinese (ibid., p. 131). Although Macau was administered by the Portuguese, and despite the fact that when they arrived there were only a few hundred local inhabitants, there was never a massive settlement of Portuguese people. The majority of the inhabitants of Macau are Chinese from mainland China’s Guangdong Province (with the same culture and language as the population of Hong Kong), and a minority of estimated 50 000 from Fujian Province. Most of these immigrants have strong ties with China, given hat more than 2/3 of them were not locally-born, but came from mainland China (ibid., p. 83 and 131).
However, the long Portuguese presence has produced an ethnic minority, which constitutes around 2-3% of the population, of Eurasians or Macanese, who are mostly Macau-born people of mixed Portuguese-Chinese heritage. Another estimated 1 per cent of the population are Portuguese from Portugal, Angola, Mozambique and Goa, as well as people from other countries.
There are several reasons why the relationship between Portuguese and Chinese in Macau was not as successful as that between British and Chinese in Hong Kong. First of all, the Chinese of Macau did not perceive the Portuguese colonial government as efficient, nor were they satisfied with the economic performance of the colony. Whereas Britain, which was the biggest world power until World War II, and which had an immense financial and industrial capacity, provided not only a positive economic framework for the Chinese in Hong Kong, but it also provided an administration the Chinese were happy with. Although the British governed Hong Kong in their own way, they ironically delivered a government that historian Steve Tsang describes as ‘the best possible government in the Chinese tradition’. The characteristics of such government are:, according to Tsang: “efficiency, fairness, honesty, benevolent paternalism, and non-intrusion into the lives of ordinary people” (Tsang 2011, p. 197). In fact, the British saw Hong Kong mainly as a major port and a financial and trade centre where to promote business. They were interested in keeping order, let people devote themselves to their business, secure the rule of law. The Chinese appreciated the benefits of the rule of law and of a professional, high-level civil service, and profited from the good business environment and from the basic welfare system and house construction and relocation projects of the government. Besides, they felt the government was non-intrusive; in fact, it was typical of the British to administer their colonies with few human and capital resources. The British Empire was an economic empire, and the government in London didn’t want to take on a too heavy financial burden. It’s not a coincidence that when the British became broke after WWII, the empire dissolved. Consequently, the colonial government in Hong Kong was per definition minimalistic. For instance, until 1941 the government had but 35 administrative officers (ibid., p. 199). Overall, the government was small, but efficient, and although it never granted democracy, it had a paternalistic and benevolent attitude.
On the contrary, the Portuguese government was not perceived as efficient or benevolent. For decades, the Chinese were almost excluded from the administration, which was monopolized by Portuguese and by Macanese. Ethnic tensions exploded in 1966, when in the course of anti-Portuguese riots the police killed eight Chinese. Even before the handover the Chinese community criticized the government for wasting money in the construction of numerous monuments, and for taking money from Macao to Portugal through the Orient Foundation.
Secondly, the Portuguese language and culture never enjoyed the same prestige as English did in Hong Kong. In the last decades of Portuguese rule, only public schools used the Portuguese language, but they constituted only 10% of all schools. The local Chinese usually sent their children either to Chinese or English schools. Portuguese was the official language of the government and the public sector. But outside of its official sphere it enjoyed relatively little prestige in everyday life and business, so that there was no incentive for the Chinese-speaking population to learn it or even use it at home. It may sound surprising, but English is the second language after Chinese, while Portuguese is only the third most spoken language in Macau (Yee 2001, p. 56)
One possible explanation for this difference might be that English language and (Anglo-American) culture are influential worldwide. For more than two centuries, Britain first and then the US were global superpowers, spreading their tongue, political system and way of life to almost every country in the world. From this perspective, it is obvious that Hong Kongers saw the task of learning the language of their colonial masters not as a useful imposition, but as a practical tool they needed in their working life. In fact, I and millions of other people who don’t come from countries colonized by the British have to learn English as well. The Chinese of Macau, on the contrary, didn’t see learning Portuguese as a priority.
The third reason is that Portugal itself was by far not as strong, rich and stable as Britain. Portugal had major internal problems that weakened its position. In 1910, a revolution overthrew the Portuguese monarchy. In 1928 Antonio de Oliveira Salazar established a fascistoid Republic. He obstinately clung to the colonial empire. Given the economic and political woes of the country, keeping a global empire was a very hard task for Lisbon. In 1961 India invaded the Portuguese colonies of Goa, Damao and Diu. All over the empire wars of independence broke out (see Cheng 1999, p. 35). Other than the British, who accepted the end of their empire, the Portuguese fought bitterly to maintain their rule. But it was obvious that it was just a matter of time before the colonized peoples succeeded in becoming independent.