Ientered Princeton University with the Class of 1973 in September 1969, fresh out of Neptune High School, New Jersey. The Class of 1973 was the first class to admit women; at the same time that it took this “revolutionary step,” it sharply increased the number of admitted students of color and New Jersey High School graduates.
Not long after I arrived on campus, I heard about the “University Scholars Program,” designed to acknowledge and support students of exceptional scholastic skills who wished to pursue an independent curriculum. I hadn’t been invited to the meeting at which the dean of studies introduced the program, but a couple of dorm mates had gone and brought back materials that outlined what the program was all about.
I went to the Dean’s office and submitted an application to undertake a course of study combining anthropology (my major) and East Asian Studies (my minor). To my surprise my application was accepted. I was no longer required to fulfill university requirements to graduate (no calculus for me!); I only needed to fulfill department requirements: take the requisite number of courses and write a senior thesis.
In February of my junior year, President Nixon visited China. I was determined to go to China, but I didn’t want to spend time in Taiwan, then run by the Kuomintang, Hong Kong, a British crown colony, or Singapore, ruled with an iron fist by Lee Kwan Yew. That left Macau, a sleepy Portuguese settlement across the Pearl River from Hong Kong.
Macau Governor Apologizes
Macau was the next best thing to going to China. Red Guards had mounted city-wide protests in December 1966, and they were met with force, resulting in death and injury to many. Local Chinese residents boycotted Portuguese products and refused to sell products to Portuguese families. Eventually, the Portuguese government was brought to its knees. The governor, Jose Carvalho, signed a humiliating letter of apology for the actions of troops and police against the protesters; he did so under a portrait of Chairman Mao.
Carvalho sat atop a local government bureaucracy made up officials from Lisbon and local Macanese, who enjoyed a distinct culture and spoke their own dialect, but the real power was wielded by Ho Yin, a Beijing loyalist. Ho Yin’s son would go on to become the first Chinese governor of Macau after the December 1999 reversion to China.
To everyone’s surprise, Beijing did not force the Portuguese to leave Macau as they had been forced out of Goa by India in 1961. Portuguese traders had settled Macau in the early 16th century, making it the first foreign settlement in China. It was destined to be the last. After the Portuguese “Carnation Revolution” in 1974, Portugal tried to give Macau back to China, but Beijing demurred out of concern that such a development would destabilize Hong Kong. Macau was eventually returned two years after Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China.
Having made up my mind to graduate from Princeton a year early, I went to see Bob Atmore, who headed the Princeton-in-Asia office in Jones Hall. I asked him what he had in Macau. He pulled open a box of index cards, blew off the dust, and pulled out a card for Linson College, a secondary school in Macau established and run by the first Chinese graduate of West Point, Linson Edward Dzau. I wrote to the headmaster, and was offered a job as a teacher, for 500 patacas (US$100) a month, room included.
The college and the anthropology department approved my application to graduate with the Class of 1972. I got my degree in June and then went to Middlebury College for several weeks of Chinese language training before packing my bags and heading to JFK airport for my August 22, 1972 flight to Hong Kong. I arrived in the British colony on August 23, 1972. The next day I took the hydrofoil to Macau, arriving around noon.
I was met by the school’s groundskeeper, and together we went in a cab to the school, a stately if rundown family mansion that had once been the residence of a fireworks manufacturer. Americans of a certain age will remember that Macau was a major source of firecrackers and other fireworks set off during the Fourth of July. By the time I arrived in Macau in 1972, most production had shifted to southern China.
I was shown to my room on the third floor. I had a simple meal and turned in. I awoke in the middle of the night to have a glass of water from a thermos. That’s when I learned that Chinese prefer drinking hot water to drinking cold water. I burned my mouth taking a swig of boiling hot water.
Tipping the Dogs
By the time I arrived in Macau, Linson College was in dire financial straits. Headmaster Dzau’s principal benefactor, a fellow West Point graduate, had passed away and tuition from students wasn’t enough to keep the school going. In October, the headmaster told the teachers that he could no longer pay salaries. They left in droves, leaving me to teach all subjects. I earned money by “tipping the dogs” at Macau’s Canidrome for a Hong Kong tabloid and enjoyed a string of luck at the casinos.
Finally, I left Macau on Christmas Day, 1972 – four months after I had arrived. I had visited the British colony on several occasions including one memorable one when I sat on the upper of a Chinese ferry drinking North Korea brandy and smoking Albanian cigars. After settling in Hong Kong, I landed a teaching position at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shatin.
Reflecting its 400 years as a Portuguese-governed territory, there was much evidence of Portugal’s presence in Macau in 1972. The architecture, the cuisine, even the colorful uniforms of those in the police force recruited from African colonies, all reflected the deep historical ties between Macau and the mother country. Yet, as I had suspected, China’s influence in and control over Macau was everywhere to be seen. Let me relate a few experiences that speak to this observation.
Ilha Verde (Green Island)
A group of teachers at Linson College decided to teach me mahjong, the tile-based games invented in China during the Qing Dynasty. On weekends we would visit mahjong parlors in different parts of the city. Being a novice, I spent long hours observing how the game is played.
On one occasion the group traveled to Ilha Verde, a district in northwestern Macau on the border with the mainland. At some point I decided to take a break and wander around the neighborhood. As the name implies, Ilha Verde was originally an island. It sported a military barracks, a convent, and a cement factory. Over the years, land was reclaimed with the result that it was no longer an island.
I walked into an area of undeveloped land. There were no buildings. To my left was a stream that apparently marked the boundary with China. Suddenly, a few yards away, a young soldier of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stood up. He was guarding the border with a rifle. I froze, as did the soldier. I smiled, waved, and quickly retreated.
The next week the group decided to visit the same parlor. As we approached it in our car, we found our way blocked by a police barricade. Foreigners were barred from entering the area. It had been closed by order of the Chinese government. I never again entered the area.
Macau consists of three parts, the city, which sits on a peninsula, and two offshore islands, Taipa and Coloane. In 1972, the peninsula had not yet been joined by a bridge to Taipa. (It was said that Chinese workers worked slowly in order to make sure that a causeway linking two islands opposite Macau would be completed first.) Access to the islands was by a ferry run by a Chinese company and staffed with Chinese sailors. As the ferry approached Taipa, one could see large hoardings praising Chairman Mao on a nearby Chinese island. There was also a sign prohibiting photographs of Chinese territory. Ferry staff were vigilant in enforcing this rule. Tourists who took photos had their cameras seized.
I loved visiting the islands. They provided a glimpse of rural China, as well as a number of beautiful churches and chapels. Some of the best Macanese restaurants were to be found on the islands. On Coloane, there was a wonderful beach with a villa above it. This building would eventually become the Pousada de Coloane, a traditional Portuguese Inn.
On one trip I was invited to dinner by the police commander of Taipa. He was a former Portuguese officer who had lost an arm in the colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique. He related a story that deeply affected me.
The night before, a refugee fleeing from China had scaled his garden wall and appealed to the commander for shelter. Much as he would have liked to do so, he was unable to shelter the refugee. Under an agreement with China, individuals who fled China to Macau were promptly returned to China. (At the same time that the Macau government issued its apology, it handed over seven Kuomintang “spies,” setting the tone for what was to come.) Sometimes, PLA troops entered the territory to enforce this policy. The officer had informed his commander, and the refugee was picked up and delivered to the PLA.
The People’s Republic of China was admitted to the United Nations in 1971. At the time, Macau housed an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, managed by a Norwegian national and his Australian secretary. The office’s principal work was to help refugees from China, those who had managed to escape forcible repatriation to the mainland, as well as refugees from Southeast Asian countries including Myanmar and Cambodia. China took the position that the office needed to close since there were no Chinese refugees in Macau, which was Chinese territory. The office closed in 1973, shortly after I left the territory.
Following the December 1966 disturbances, the government of Macau declared that China’s National Day would be celebrated as public holidays on October 1 and October 2. Marches of “patriotic” Macau residents and large rallies took place. The largest rally took place at a sports field adjacent to the Lisboa Casino. Thousands of people gathered in a festive atmosphere marked by singing and dancing. There were political speeches and signs praising Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party. A few called for the “liberation of Taiwan.”
Shortly before the holiday, I was approached by a teacher who advised me not to go out in public during the National Day holidays. Not a few people thought I was a CIA spy. If, my friend advised, I went out, then I should not take public transport (the drivers were members of a left-wing union) and, most important, I was told not to take a camera with me.
I took my friend’s advice and walked south to the Leal Senado, the seat of the Municipal Council, in downtown Macau. Afterwards I set out in the direction of the Lisboa Hotel. On the way I passed a bookshop owned by a PRC company. In the window was a large aquarium with a model of a sunken American submarine resting on the bottom.
I figured that were I stopped, I would simply say I was on my way to the casino to play blackjack. When challenged, this seemed to work. Aside from hostile looks, I was not disturbed. I watched the rally from the steps of the Lisboa and then walked back to the Linson College.
My first and most enduring impressions of China were formed during the four months I spent in Macau in 1972. I began to see China as both intensely ideological but also very practical – it could have seized Macau in 1966 but chose not to out of concern that doing so would undermine stability in Hong Kong.
China was determined to protect its boundaries, but at the same time it was reasonable and non-violent. The young soldier could have shot me at close range, but he let me go. Finally, I came to understand that the Chinese government would seek to maximize control over the movements its citizens. Those who dared to flee China to Macau would be captured by the Portuguese and forcibly returned to the mainland to face an uncertain fate.