Robert John PERRINS

Macao, one of two special administrative districts in China, began as a Portuguese colony in 1557 and became the center of Sino-European trade. In 1999 Portugal returned Macao to China. Today Macao is one of the most densely populated places in the world and the only place in China where gambling is legal.

The territory of Macao (Macau or, as it is known in Chinese, Aomen) in southern China was a Portuguese colony for more than four centuries (1557–1999). The territory consists of a narrow peninsula in southern Guangdong Province and the islands of Tiapa and Coloane. Its population, combined with the territory’s small area (23.5 square kilometers), makes it one of the most densely populated places in the world.

The Portuguese name Macao possibly was derived from either the Ma Kwok (Cantonese) temple that has stood in the city of Macao since the fourteenth century or the Cantonese term Ama-ngao (Bay of the Goddess A Ma, the patron of sailors and fishermen). The Portuguese settled Macao in 1557 and named the site “Provacão do Nome de Deos na China” (Settlement in the Name of God in China). Scholars do not know why Chinese authorities let the Portuguese establish a colony. Possible explanations are that the territory was small and of little value and that the presence of the foreigners would encourage trade or that the Portuguese were being rewarded for their perceived assistance in driving away local pirates. Regardless of the reason, the territory became an important base of operations for Portuguese merchants in East Asia. Reporting to authorities in Goa, India, the Portuguese governor in Macao oversaw a vibrant trade with the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and later the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), and his city was an important headquarters for the Jesuit missionary movement in East Asia.

Other European powers, especially the Dutch, were jealous of Portugal’s position in Macao, and several times Macao had to defend itself from attacks by the Dutch East India Company. The colony did shelter the families of English and Dutch merchants who were involved in the China trade at Guangzhou (Canton) 100 kilometers to the north. Regulations there prohibited merchants from residing permanently in the city and family members from accompanying them on trading missions. In 1635, with the expulsion of all foreigners (except for a few Dutch traders) from Japan, Macao became the center of Sino-European trade until the end of the eighteenth century.

After the First Opium War (1839–1842) was fought and four new ports opened to foreign trade, Macao suffered a decline in its importance as a point of commerce on the China coast. However, the Portuguese remained in Macao, although much of the trade with the Qing dynasty moved to Shanghai and Hong Kong. In 1845 João Ferreira do Amaral, governor of Macao, ended the practice of paying the Chinese an annual rent of five hundred silver taels and evicted Chinese customs officials from Macao. In 1887 China and Portugal signed a treaty that recognized Portuguese sovereignty over the colony. Although Macao was now a foreign-controlled possession on the China coast, Macao’s importance continued to decline as Hong Kong’s grew. During World War II in Asia and the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945) Macao experienced a short revival as a safe haven because of Portuguese neutrality.

The governments of China and Portugal in 1987 concluded negotiations for the return of Macao to Chinese rule on 20 December 1999. Macao is governed by a Basic Law (miniconstitution), which underwrites a high degree of autonomy. Under the Basic Law Macao retains its Portuguese legal system and retains Portuguese as an official language alongside Chinese.

The return of Macao to the “motherland” was an important occasion for the leadership in Beijing and for many other Chinese. The return of the last of the foreign-controlled territories to Chinese rule—like the earlier return of Hong Kong by England in 1997—ended almost two centuries of unequal treaties that were a source of humiliation for many Chinese. The return also signified that a new, stronger China had at last come of age as an equal player on the world stage. China hopes that successes in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and Macao Special Administrative Region under the “one country, two systems” banner will pave the way for the reunification of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan.

The Macao Special Administrative Region economy features trade, the local fishing industry, and some light manufacturing, but tourism and gambling predominate. Gambling is illegal elsewhere in China but permitted in Macao, where Chinese tourists represent 70–80 percent of Macao’s casino visitors. During the mid-1990s the colony was plagued by violence as Chinese criminal gangs, or triads, from Hong Kong moved into Macao before the return of Hong Kong. These gangs battled for control of the colony’s gambling establishments, drug trade, and prostitution. The Macao Special Administrative Region continues to be a popular holiday destination for residents of Hong Kong, and its economy is being more closely integrated with that of the neighboring Zhuhai Special Economic Zone.

Further Reading

Boxer, C. R. (1968). Fidalgos in the Far East, 1550–1750 (2nd ed.). Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Cheng, Christina Miu Bing. (1999). Macau: A cultural Janus. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Guillen-Nuñez, C. (1984). Macau. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Gunn, G. C. (1995). Macau, 1575–1999: An economic and political history. Nagasaki, Japan: Nagasaki tonan Ajia kenkyujo.

Porter, J. (1996). Macau the imaginary city: Culture and society, 1557 to the present. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Roberts, E. V., Sum Ngai Ling, & Bradshaw, P. (1992). Historical dictionary of Hong Kong and Macau. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Yee, Herbert S. (2001). Macau in transition: From colony to autonomous region. New York: Palgrave.

Source: Perrins, Robert John. (2009). Macao—History. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1366–1367. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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