Q&A – Rogério Puga | Academic, Macau studies expert: ‘The journals of American women are richer than the official Portuguese sources’


With extensive work which includes a PhD on Anglo-Portuguese Studies, the academic and Professor from the FCSH, Nova University of Lisbon, Rogério Puga, has gained an encyclopedic knowledge when it comes to the British and American presence in Macau during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Times spoke to the former University of Macau Professor to learn more about the daily life and the importance of the American presence in the city.

Macau Daily Times (MDT) – Is the English speaking community a third way to revisit Macau history after the Chinese and Portuguese ways?

Rogerio Puga (RP) – There are as many ways [to address Macau history] as there are communities that passed through here. Nevertheless there are many empty spaces and gaps between the narratives from the reports of one nation which are clarified by the [reports of] others. Those differences between the way different people tell the same story help to fill in the blank spaces created by the other stories, so in that sense they are all complementary.

MDT – How can the study of the journals of American women contribute to a better knowledge of Macau history?

RP – In the paper I recently presented on a 19th century Protestant look into Macau, we can see that this person [Caroline H Butler Laing] finds in Macau two odd “living beings” that are the Chinese and the Catholic Portuguese with which she had never had previous contact. As I mentioned, the Catholic processions were, for a Protestant American in the 19th century, as weird as a Chinese procession, and in this sense, the journals of women that spent all year long in Macau and used their journals as a religious [form of] soul-searching are very important. They describe [everything] from the dogs barking to the design of the curtains, being in this way very rich sources to study the everyday life of Macau history in this century, much more so than the official Portuguese sources that were mostly addressing […] administration issues.

In these sources [journals] we find a very personal story that merges with the history of Macau and that allows us to precisely retrieve the story of the daily life of Macau and its human landscapes, its traditions and the specific nature of the American community in Macau.

MDT – Can we say that this American community was living in a kind of ghetto?

RP – I think we can say this: From the Journal of Caroline H Butler Laing we can learn that they lived very isolated lives from the other communities. From the Portuguese they related with the governor only, and from the Chinese they knew only their business partners and few of their staff. There is an American study that calls it the “Golden Ghetto” because the Americans would make a fortune or further the wealth they had when they came to Macau.

For example, the Forbes [family and] the great-great-grandfather of the former American President Roosevelt also have very interesting journals written [from their time] in Macau and there are for sure a few hundreds of other [journals] in the U.S. that are unstudied and unpublished.

MDT – In this (never-ending) research work, do we still find many surprises?

RP – Yes, we definitely do! For example from these sources I found out that the first museum that opened its doors in China was in fact in Macau and not Shanghai as we all thought until 2012. These journals in English language allowed me to realize that there was a “silence” on the Portuguese sources about this museum that was inaugurated in 1828, as it was an initiative of North American and English nationals. But it is clearly stated in these journals in lines like “I went to the British Museum of Macau,” or “They brought a new piece from China, they labeled it and put it in the Museum.”

This explains why the Portuguese historians never came to this conclusion before, as they were studying only the official sources. So in this research I found this. I also learned that the first library of English language books was also located in Macau and started to be established around 1806, although it ended with the end of the monopoly of the East Indian Company around 1834/1835. But Macau and Guangzhou share the status of being pioneers in terms of the English language library, since these merchants would bring books that would accumulate at the headquarters of the East Indian Company that they would take back and forth to Guangzhou (Canton). It was a kind of travelling library. This is just a small sample, I’m sure there is much more to discover!

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