National Geographic : 1932 Sep
MACAO, "LAND OF SWEET SADNESS" The Oldest European Settlement in the Far East, Long the Only Haven for Distressed Mariners in the China Sea BY EDGAR ALLEN FORBES W ITH all due respect to the dig nity of the great port of Hong Kong and the rarefied atmos phere of its Victoria Peak, let it be frankly said that South China is no place for a poet. For six months of the year its breath is that of the drying room of a Chinese laundry, and its atmosphere is then so humid that you may almost squeeze water out of it. The traveler's shoes ac cumulate overnight a vegetation of luxuri ant green mold, and he awakes in the morn ing with the feeling that a cross-section of his lungs would resemble a slice of Roque fort cheese. Under such conditions, temperamental persons like poets and artists do not burst into poesy and song. Nor can it be claimed that the neighboring districts of Canton and the Si Kiang, or West River, give rise to swelling emotions that can only be ex pressed in sonnets, odes, and lyrics. Yet within forty miles of Victoria Peak is a little wooded knoll where a broken man with an inextinguishable soul re sponded nobly to the impulse of the gods and produced an immortal epic. Though three centuries and a half have passed, the atmosphere of Olympus still clings to the memorable garden, and scores of poets and near-poets from many lands are in the habit of here giving vent to their ecstasy or agony in elegiac verse. Some of them have wrought so well that their stanzas have been chiseled into white marble and grouped about the entrance to the grotto where sang the great master in whose memory they were written. "A LITTLE PLACE WITH A LARGE HISTORY" The place is Macao (Macau); the Vir gilian singer was Luis de Camoens, whose "Os Lusiadas" will forever remind a for getful world that the Portuguese (Vasco da Gama in particular) were a race of dar ing navigators in the great era of dis- covery.* In lonely exile here, in a wild garden overlooking a beautiful inlet from the China Sea, Camoens rendered both him self and his native land immortal. When Nadir Shah carried away to Persia the Peacock Throne of Delhi, he took not back from the Orient so priceless a gem as "the deathless song" with which the aged Cam oens returned to the land of the Tagus. Now Macao is but the tip end of the unimportant island of Heungshan (also known as Macao Island), belonging to China. The Portuguese area, which in cludes two small adjacent islands, em braces less than a dozen square miles; but there are few places in the Orient where a dozen square miles contain so much of interest. It is the oldest European settle ment in the Far East and was for long the only haven of refuge for distressed mariners in the China Sea. Its modest lighthouse there, on Fort Guia, was the first that ever flashed a beacon from the coast of the Chinese Empire, and its little cemetery was then the only spot where a European might find an unmolested grave. Furthermore, Macao is "the Monte Carlo of the Orient," the only place in the world where fan-tan houses, opium fac tories, and lottery tickets finance a colonial government; and it is, beyond question, one of the most beautiful cities of the ex treme East. The very clouds that top each mountain crest Seem to repose there, lingering lovingly. But if you mention Macao to the aver age resident of Hong Kong he will tell you that it is a place of little interest, certainly not enough to justify your remaining over night. The schedules of the Hong Kong, Canton, and Macao steamers are, there fore, so arranged that the traveler who in sists upon going to Macao may arrive * See, also, "The Pathfinder of the East," by J. R. Hildebrand, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for November, 1927.