A Westerner’s Love Affair with Eastern Cultures—Interview with Jorge Cavalheiro from the Department of Portuguese

5 Jul 2017


History may be a boring subject for many people. But not so for Mr Jorge Cavalheiro from the Department of Portuguese, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Macau. For Cavalheiro, nothing is more fascinating than history. Having lived in Macao for more than 40 years, Cavalheiro speaks fluent Cantonese. Over the past five decades, he has witnessed the major milestones of the city, including the Portuguese rule of Macao, the handover of Macao’s sovereignty to China, the rapid development of the tourism and gaming industries, and the Macao SAR government’s rigorous efforts to train bilingual professionals proficient in both Chinese and Portuguese. Driven by a love of Eastern cultures, Cavalheiro taught himself to speak Cantonese. He also listens to Cantonese music, studies Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and actively mingles with local people. Looking back, Cavalheiro says, ‘the more I know about the history and culture of Macao and China, the more I like this city.’

From Portugal to Macao

In this fast-paced information age, everyone seems to be living their lives as if they are in a never-ending race, with every minute filled by work, study, or hobbies. But when you are busy envisioning the future every day, do you ever pause to understand your past? Cavalheiro certainly does. Indeed, he has spent the better half of his life studying the history of Macao and Eastern cultures in order to understand their relevance to his life.

In the 1960s, Macao was a Portuguese territory, a tranquil, laid-back small town characterised by traditional houses. At the time, Cavalheiro’s father migrated to Macao from Portugal with his family because of work. Later, they moved into a government-provided house near Kun Iam Tong (also known as Pou Chai Sim Iun). For the young Cavalheiro who had never before been exposed to Eastern culture, Macao was completely different from Portugal. His heart was bursting with curiosity about everything around him.

Cavalheiro frequented Kun Iam Tong as a teenager because he was fascinated with the traditional Chinese architectural style of the Buddhist temple and the cultural reality inside it. He talked to the monks there and worked hard to learn Cantonese. Gradually he learned the pronunciation and meaning of every item in the temple as well as the religious meanings of the various rituals. Even today, he still visits the temple often to relive his childhood memories. ‘­The temple still looks the same,’ says Cavalheiro. ‘­The stone table and the statues of Kun Iam, buddhas and bodhisattvas are still perfectly intact. At first I knew nothing about these things, so they didn’t mean anything to me, but after I learned the stories behind them, I felt I knew them well. This is where I grew up, and now we are growing old together.’

The Red Market is another place frequented by Cavalheiro. Although he lives on the UM campus, he visits the Red Market every week to do grocery shopping and visit childhood friends. He would chat with his old friends influent Cantonese, the mastery of which has helped him integrate into Macao society.

Cavalheiro has many precious historical records about Macao

An Avid Learner of Eastern and Western Cultures

After graduating from high school in Macao, Cavalheiro returned to Portugal to pursue higher education. But he often thought of the busy streets and alleys in Macao as well as the eateries selling authentic local foods. In 1984, he returned to Macao, only to find that the city had changed beyond recognition. ‘­The changes that occurred in the city during my absence were far greater than I had imagined. Many old shops were forced out of business as a result of the rapid economic growth, which was a shame,’ says Cavalheiro. ‘Actually, Macao has its unique characteristics, but amid the trend towards globalisation, the way of life in Macao is now not much different than that in other parts of the world.’

To preserve the unique cultural characteristics of Macao, Cavalheiro began to study the history of Macao; the history, culture, and philosophy of China; as well as the language and culture of Portugal. He has published some articles on the above subjects. Some of them discuss the role of the Portuguese language in Macao government affairs and the importance of promoting Portuguese language education.

Preserving Local Culture

During the Portuguese period of Macao, many foreigners from the West migrated to Macao for its advantageous geographic location. The influx of Western immigrants eventually turned the city into a melting pot of Eastern and Western cultures. After the handover of the sovereignty over Macao to China, many Portuguese and Macanese in Macao left the city. Later, the gambling monopoly was ended, and the tourism industry began to take off. ‘Tourists mostly think of Macao as a gambling city, but actually there are many unique cultural landscapes in Macao that are worth visiting,’ says Cavalheiro. ‘As a Macao resident, I think it’s important to preserve the cultural heritage of Macao, including old buildings, traditional customs, religious etiquette, and old shops, because these are the unique cultural symbols of Macao and they are what make Macao different.’

Rickshaws used to be the most common means of transport for Macao residents

Knowledge of Portuguese Language Aids Understanding of Macao’s History

Because of Macao’s historical connection to Portugal, it enjoys an unparalleled advantage in fulfilling the role as a ‘bridge’ between China and Portuguese-speaking countries. Besides Portugal, Macao has long-standing relations with other Portuguese-speaking countries as well and plays an important role in the areas of trade, economy, finance, commerce, and tourism. Cavalheiro believes that knowledge of the Portuguese language not only can help students better understand the history of Macao; it can also promote the development of collaboration between China and Portuguese-speaking countries. ‘Students who understand Portuguese not only can learn more about Portuguese culture; they can also explore opportunities in other Portuguese countries such as Brazil, the Republic of Angola, and Mozambique,’ he says. ‘UM now offers translation courses in a greater variety of languages, taught by a select faculty. This, and the constantly improving teaching resources, will certainly help students achieve their full potential.

To promote the joint development of Macao and Portugal, the Macao SAR government formulated a plan for training Portuguese language professionals. Cavalheiro is pleased to see that the Portuguese language is receiving more and more importance in Macao. ‘­The Portuguese language is an important medium of communication in the development of the Sino-Portugal relations. It is very helpful for understanding Macao’s history, because much historical literature and many laws were mainly written in Portuguese. Knowledge of the language can help rediscover people, events, and objects from the past that have long been forgotten.’

With a culturally diverse faculty team, the Department of Portuguese is planning to open more bilingual courses in the future to help students improve their Chinese and Portuguese language skills and to achieve well-rounded development. Cavalheiro believes that Macao has a good language learning environment for Portuguese learners, and through these courses UM will be able to produce more bilingual professionals proficient in Chinese and Portuguese. After graduation, students can explore different areas of collaboration to promote the joint development of China and Portuguese-speaking countries.

Cavalheiro is a dedicated teacher and is much liked by his students

Source: umagazine