Thu, Feb 22, 2018 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Macau sees business future in Portuguese past

AFP, HONG KONG

Sitting in his university office in Macau, professor Lei Heong Iok (李向玉) opens what he calls his “treasure” — a dog-eared Portuguese-language dictionary, its velvet cover worn and frayed.

Lei’s decades-long love for the language has turned him into a campaigner for its survival in the former Portuguese colony.

Learning Portuguese fell out of fashion in Macau after it was handed back to China in 1999, becoming a semi-autonomous territory loyal to Beijing and growing into the world’s biggest gambling destination.

Although Portuguese remained an official language and street signage is still bilingual, many in the predominantly Cantonese-speaking territory switched their study focus to Mandarin.

However, Portuguese is back in vogue as China forges business ties with lusophone nations such as Brazil, Angola and Mozambique, and casts Macau as a key link because of its cultural ties and history.

Students in the territory see studying Portuguese as a shrewd career move.

Lei — who was born in China, learned Portuguese in Macau in the 1970s and has been president of the Macau Polytechnic Institute (MPI) for nearly 20 years — says the resurgence in interest vindicates the years he spent in the post-handover wilderness, traveling all over China trying to attract students to study the language and insisting Macau should value its unique past.

“I said we should keep Macau as a different flower, with different characteristics from other flowers in the Chinese garden,” he said. “Today it’s a reality.”

China’s interest in Portuguese-speaking nations is part of a wider push for global influence, as well as a search for new export markets and energy reserves.

Macau hosts a conference every three years where ministers from China and Portuguese-speaking nations gather to discuss business and trade ties.

The territory’s government has also pledged to make it a hub for Portuguese learning — the University of Macau last year opened a new teaching center aimed at nurturing bilingual professionals.

Numbers on MPI’s Chinese-Portuguese translation course fell as low as 10 following the handover.

There are now more than 270 students from Macau and China taking the four-year degree, with graduates going on to work in government, banks and businesses at home, as well as finding jobs in Portuguese-speaking countries.

“Portuguese is a very pretty language,” said student Ana Tu, 21, from Beijing. “There are also a lot of companies doing business with Portuguese-speaking countries, so if I learn Portuguese, I can help them to communicate with each other.”

Classmate Marcelino Luis do Rosario Sousa, 22, said he is going back to his roots. Born in Macau, his father is Portuguese, but Sousa grew up speaking only Cantonese.

After discovering a passion for the language in secondary school, he said he hopes to work as an interpreter for the Macau government when he graduates.

“[Studying Portuguese] definitely will improve my career prospects. The salary is good, but the major reason is I have curiosity in studying Portuguese. I’d love to work in a job I’m interested in,” he said.

Many visitors spend their trip to Macau holed up at a gaming table, but its colonial heritage is also a tourist draw.

Historic ruins, churches, cozy tavernas and cobbled streets are an echo of its history, and the ubiquitous bakeries selling Portuguese-style custard tarts do roaring trade.

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