The nine lives of Lilau *Honorable Mention Macau Journalism Award

Macao Magazine visits the UNESCO inscribed “Historic Centre of Macao” and learns about the certainties and doubts facing this unique site. (May 2013)

Beco do Lilau, 5A – a house so big that at one point, five families lived in it at the same time. Designed like a blockhouse, the building was raised up from the ground, with an air cavity underneath it to allow for air flow to help with the humidity. “It was like the house was married to nature,” says journalist Cecília Jorge, who was born there, like her father Aureliano Jorge before her. The wood stove in the kitchen was dug into a rock, there were terraces covered with plants and fruit trees and views of the river from dozens of windows, whose wooden blinds protected the house from typhoons.

According to Cecília’s reckoning, the house was built at the turn of the 20th century. “There was lots of light inside, which was so important. Nowadays that would be impossible because of the tall buildings we have. Architecture in Macao is no longer linked to nature the way it used to be.”

When Cecília was born the Lilau area was still considered the “Christian City”, as opposed to the “Chinese City”. Adjacent to Barra, the architecture was mainly of Portuguese and Macanese style. “In Lilau, the humidity blended with the scent of wet grass and plants, the velvety moss of the stones in the walls, near the well (…) and the sun poured in streams through the balconies, through cracks, doors and windows,” she wrote in 1988 in a text later published in Revista Macau, accompanied by photographs taken by her husband Rogério Beltrão Coelho.

Recalling the frequent banquets held there, Cecília says: “I remember being in the kitchen all the time with this short lady who cooked for my family for fifty years. I suppose my passion for cooking started at that time,” she says. Indeed, her talent for cooking is very well known within the Macanese community, thanks to several publications and a book entitled, At the Diaspora’s table: A brief trip through Macanese Cuisine (free translation).

“I remember the different families and communities living their lives differently in the neighbourhood, but everybody got along just fine. Men were out all day, taking care of their businesses, and women stayed at home, taking care of the house and kids, getting together for afternoon tea, exchanging recipes and collective prayers,” Cecília continues. These memories are beautifully chronicled in The Wind amongst the Ruins: A Childhood in Macao (1993), by Cecília’s cousin Edith Jorge De Martini, who talks of neighbouring wives singing duets from window to window, dressed in Chinese silk cabayas or Spanish mantillas, looking like ‘lily flowers growing in the pond’.

Cecília’s impression of the relationship between the Macanese and the Chinese residents in Lilau was that it was good but not very close. “The lifestyle was different, but there were times when the families would meet or exchange gifts, (they were) linked mostly because of business and usually outside their houses. At Chinese New Year, I remember the man of the family visiting the other family houses distributing “lai-si” (red envelopes containing monetary gifts).” But Portuguese, Chinese and Macanese families were not the only ones to inhabit Lilau.

Cecília moved to Portugal for several years but she ended up returning to Macau more than once. On one of those occasions the discovered that the old family house in Lilau no longer existed. Family members had sold it, and it had been demolished in 1989. “It was a pity. But at least I got my children to know and live in it for a while before it happened. I brought João, Raquel and Eduardo to Macao when they were very little, in 1979, to show them their roots,” says Cecília.

First arrivals

Architect Francisco Vizeu Pinheiro points out that the Portuguese were not in fact the only early settlers in the Lilau. “Maps show that in the 19th century, in around 1830, the Lilau area had a high percentage of British residents,” he says, walking us under the shadows of the centuries-old trees in Lilau square.

The first permanent Portuguese houses were built along the Inner Harbour. These were large houses surrounded by gardens, with substantial storage rooms due to the lack of shops in Macao until the 19th century. The Portuguese, accustomed to wine, olive oil and other foodstuffs from their country, had to buy large quantities whenever a ship arrived carrying such produce.

Foreigners were allowed to live in Macao from 1757 onwards, and the city quickly became home to a great variety of nationalities, though mainly people from England, Holland and northern Europe, and the United States.

From the early eighteenth century, to avoid long sea voyages and establish trading networks, merchants began to settle in Macao. It was the Macao written about by American Harriet Low and painted by Irishman George Chinnery.

“Before Hong Kong, Macao was the place where the British established their British East India Company, and a lot of merchants and diplomats came to live around this area,” says the expert on Macao’s urban heritage and consultant to the Institute for Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau (IACM). He notes a building that used to be a British hospital, and another that was an Anglican church. The British residents later moved out as the community’s presence began to weaken in the territory.

In this area, Art Deco influences contrasts with traditional Chinese architecture. It is a clear example of a fusion of Western and Chinese urban and architectural concepts.

Vizeu Pinheiro was responsible for the square’s restoration project whilst working in the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau. He points out the variety of styles in architecture, including simple neoclassical houses, the pink Senna Fernandes family house dated 1898, and the row of white houses up the road in Beco do Lilau that have a hint of Alentejo or the Algarve.

“Those houses show up in pictures from the end of the 19th century (…) they were built by middle class Portuguese families,” Vizeu Pinheiro explains. Some of them have been bought by the government, though all rest of the buildings in the area are in private hands.

One building on Rua do Lilau (No. 1) is of particular interest to the architect. It could be used as one giant house or four smaller ones, with front and back gardens, and bridges connecting different areas. Planned by João Canavarro Nolasco, it was built in the Portuguese style, and once lived in by Coronel Vicente Nicolau de Mesquita, widely remembered for his role in the Portuguese attack on Baishaling, Guangdong, in 1849.

In his later years, wracked by depression, he murdered his second wife and his daughter, gravely wounded two other of his children and then committed suicide by throwing himself down a well at his home.

“It was my great-grandfather, General Joaquim António Gracia, who found him,” says Vizeu Pinheiro, whose family has been in the territory for several generations.

According to Vizeu Pinheiro, as mainlanders moved into the territory, the houses in Lilau started being bought up and becoming places like the recently restored Mandarin House. During the Second World War, in the 1940s, Macanese families started to leave and spread all over the world, to countries like Canada and the United States. The properties started being sold to make way for the construction of towers. “Lilau was transformed into a kind of island surrounded by big buildings that continue to be built to this day,” he says.

The chameleon-like square

“At one time there was no sanitation in Macao, so residents collected water from wells, fountains and springs, or imported it from neighbouring regions,” wrote J.J. Monteiro in his Meio Século em Macau (Half a Century in Macao). During the 1936 drought in Macao, this was particularly common. Indeed, the wells in Lilau were so appreciated that there’s a saying: Quem bebe da água do Lilau, Nunca mais deixa Macau (Whoever drinks water from Lilau, Never again leaves Macao).

Monteiro describes the fountains of Lilau, which were built around a natural spring. They took different shapes, such as a lion’s head, or Neptune, the God of the waters. But after surveying the residents, these designs were replaced with softer forms such as an angel’s face, designed by local artist Coke Wong, in the recent restoration work. Vizeu Pinheiro and his colleague Sally Chine, a landscape architect, started working on the restoration project in 2009/2010.

Lilau’s name became official in 1995, as published in the Macao Gazette, when José Sales Marques was leading the Leal Senado (City Hall). It comes from the former name Nilao, although nobody seems to know how to explain it precisely.

Nilao was the old name for Penha Hill, according to the chronicles of S. Augustine. In Chinese it is called “Á Pó Chéang Chin Tei”, meaning “Grandmother’s Well Square”.

“The requalification project of Lilau square started at the time of the name change. In the place of the old Chinese fountain there is now a circular button made in Chinese brick, as a way of featuring two elements representing the two cultures,” Vizeu Pinheiro says. And the granite sidewalk – calçada portuguesa – has been designed to look like water running out from the fountain, but filled with Chinese-style red bricks. “Red represents ‘life’ in the Chinese culture, showing the water as a symbol of life in that area,”the architect explains.

The residents’ reactions

“Twenty years ago this place was basically occupied by Portuguese and Macanese,” says  Ng In Leng, a local resident. “It was just a piece of land. There were two coffee shops here, but now there’s this nice garden for us residents to have a rest and chat. The floor was sanded before, now it is neat. The buildings are practically the same, but the lamps are new,” she recalls.  Cecilia Jorge also remembers one of the coffee shops. She says it was often visited by local journalists, intellectuals and others because “the lady there did the best coffee in town”.

There is a Portuguese-style kiosk on the corner of Lilau square, which was built in the 1990s. Wong has been running the kiosk for three years now. “The people here are very simple and nice, especially the old native residents,” he says.

Wong grew up in Fai Chi Kei district and moved to Manduco, near Lilau, about 30 years ago. “I don’t live here, because if I did that would mean I was rich, and I’m not.” He laughs and admits that he never used to come by very often, partly because of the Portuguese and Macanese presence. “We had communication problems with the Portuguese. As for the Macanese … well Chinese and Macanese never got along very well, we have different cultures. I would run when I saw a Macanese kid when I was little – I felt like a mouse running into a cat,” he admits. “The truth is that they were better educated, but things changed after the ‘1, 2, 3’ incident and the handover.”

Wong says more people pass through Lilau nowadays, especially after the place was classified as a World Heritage site, for being part of the “Historic Centre of Macao” recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Both Ng and Wong have their ideas about what the place could become. “The yellow house could be a venue for community activities, learning and skills- development programmes,” says Ng. “I have to go to the North district to take part in some of those right now. I see it as an old people’s home, or a library. She understands that development is a necessary evil. “Society needs to develop. This place can’t be like this forever.”

Cecília Jorge and Francisco Vizeu Pinheiro agree that “heritage shouldn’t be kept as a museum, it should be lived”. The architect goes on, “I’m thinking coffee shops, youth hostels or so-called ‘boutique hotels’.” He also shares some projects that his students at the Institute for Tourism Studies (IFT) came up with. In 2008 they sketched a project to create leisure entertainment, rest areas and facilities for residents and tourists in the empty white houses. The plan included a bookstore, a coffee shop and an “indoor river”, involving a glass floor to let the visitors walk over the old waterway.

The Advisory Committee for Urban Renewal recently advised the government to take a combination of measures to regenerate the area around Rua do Padre Antonio – including renovation, conservation and a “facelift”, rather than “invasive reconstruction”. The recommendation was made in January, after a survey commissioned by the advisory body and conducted by the Institute for Sustainable Development of the University of Science and Technology of Macao (MUST).

Most respondents favoured revitalisation of the heritage site through the introduction of cultural and creative activities, shows and exhibitions.

The Government’s plan includes the possibility of adopting the Chiado project model in Lisbon, by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira. He converted 22 buildings affected by a fire in 1988 into one of the most dynamic commercial and tourist hubs in the city.

Art district

Artist Jacques Le Nantec and his wife Armelle believe the area could be a good artistic venue. Residents of Rua do Lilau, though originally from France, the couple received us in their “secret museum” just up the street. In their house, hidden by long grey curtains, stand dozens of shining works of art, some life-sized and mostly of the female form. At the door are two gigantic bronze guards.

“We arrived in 1983, looking for bronze factories and material,” says Armelle, whose husband is a sculptor. “We had a friend living in Macao who said: ‘Come!’ so we set up a small factory in Macao and here we are,” Armelle recalls. “When I set foot in Hong Kong for the first time I remember very clearly the smell of the place, and the sensation of immediately loving the atmosphere of South China,” she continues. “And the food,” her husband adds, while we walk among the bronze bodies, some of them modelled by Armelle.

In a small annexed room there’s a Venus de Milo with arms that Le Nantec rebuilt following several anatomical studies and historical research. But he says he keeps the gallery private, closed to the public, because he likes having it for his “own enjoyment” rather than having to worry about the mess that tourists might make. “The neighbours know what we do here so we’re not a problem,” says Armelle.

Armelle likes to photograph Macao as a hobby. She has published three books, the first of which – Macao, C’est Rigolo – is a compilation of street photos that act like visual haikus: pithy, true and sometimes funny. She likes to document the urban landscape and the meeting point of people with a sense of humour, taking advantage of her outsider status. It is the kind work that never grows dull. “Macao is changing every day, so today you fall in love with one thing but tomorrow you fall in love with another,” says Le Nantec. Macao, My Gods and Macao Illusions are the other two of Armelle’s publications.

At one point, the couple went back to France for 10 years, but then they decided to return to Macao. They had drunk the water from the Lilau fountain. “We stayed for 10 years, went back for 10 years and came back again for one more decade, with no intention of leaving. We don’t want to be in France. Here we feel at ease, at home and at peace.”

This seems to be a common feeling in Lilau.

By Filipa Queiroz in Macao
Photos by Gonçalo L. Pinheiro and Eric Tam
(Issue N. 16, May 2013)


About Filipa Queiroz

Jornalista. Nascida em Coimbra, criada em Braga e a viver em Macau.

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