Macao, an archipelago attached to China, is a place whose name is redolent with myth, legend and history. Established by the Portuguese in 1557, Macao’s role as the Portuguese trading base for East Asia, and also as the outpost for the Christian Church in the area, meant that since its very beginning it has been a region where disparate peoples and beliefs have met, mingled and learned to co-exist. Its position, conveniently located on China’s doorstep, ensured that trade flourished; it became a rich warehouse, where more goods were exchanged than anywhere else in the world. It was also a place of debauchery and turpitude, with gambling dives, opium dens, secret pleasure houses and an astonishingly successful smuggling industry.
Administered by China since 1999, after two decades of intensive development Macao today has been transformed. From the end of World War ii until the 1980s, however, time seemed to stand still, and the city, preserved for a while from modernity, possessed a unique charm. In this Macao, East and West lived together in harmony: curved Chinese roofs, Corinthian columns and cast-iron balconies could be found side by side; statues of the Virgin were matched by little red shrines dedicated to local divinities; and beautiful Portuguese palaces were allowed to slip into elegant decay. It is this lost Macao, a dormant city of illusion, that Philippe Pons’s evocative text recovers.