Saturday, 19 June 2010

Austin Coates, City of Broken Promises

Where history meets fiction: Austin Coates’s City of Broken Promises*.

This year has seen the welcome re-edition by the Hong Kong University Press of books by Austin Coates, an author who lived and worked for many years in Hong Kong, and who wrote a number of seminal works on Macau, a city whose history fascinated him. Born in 1922, Coates, after serving in RAF Intelligence in South East Asia during the War, later became a magistrate in Hong Kong, after which he briefly joined the British colonial service in Malaya. In 1962, he returned to Hong Kong in order to devote his time to writing, and indeed, his books on Macau and other works, such as his biography of the Philippine nationalist, José Rizal, date from this period. Like the older Charles Boxer and the younger John Villiers, Coates represented a breed of British ‘gentleman scholars’, whose interest in the history of the Portuguese in East and South East Asia stemmed from their direct experience of living and working in that part of the world. It is perhaps fitting that Coates should have spent the last years of his life between Hong Kong and a home near Sintra, in Portugal, where he died in 1997.

A Macao Narrative, which was originally published in 1978, is still the most readable account of the history of Macau and an excellent introduction for students or the interested visitor. His later work, Macao and the British, 1637-1842, focuses rather more specifically upon British involvement in the city, from the first recorded visit by the Cornish traveller, Peter Mundy, in 1637 through to the opium wars and the eventual seizure of neighbouring Hong Kong by the British. But perhaps Coates’s most fondly remembered work relating to Macau is his City of Broken Promises, first published in 1967 and now re-issued with the two other books just mentioned, for it is the product both of the author’s energy as a scholar, involving research undertaken in the libraries of Macau, Portugal and Britain, and of his imagination, being a re-creation of stories heard in Macau. His interest in the figure of Martha Merop is said to have stemmed from having seen her portrait on a visit to Macau’s Santa Casa da Misericórdia, or Holy House of Mercy. This same painting is reproduced on the book’s cover. City of Broken Promises is a historical novel set roughly between the years 1780 and 1795. The age of Macau’s great prosperity, when it was the hub for the trade in silks and silver between China and Japan, has long gone. But it has assumed a new, cosmopolitan character, with the arrival of the British East India Company along with other Europeans who have been allowed by the Chinese to establish themselves in Macau so as to limit their presence in Canton to the trading season.

In this at once international and provincial environment, European expatriates and Portuguese and Macanese lead largely separate lives, at most viewing each other with suspicion, while the Chinese who service the settlement during the day, leave it at night to an uncanny silence. Behind the shuttered windows of Macau’s Mediterranean villas and mansions, intrigues and conspiracies abound, and foreign traders consort with their local mistresses or ‘pensioners’, whom they will abandon when they return to Europe, thus breaking their promises of marriage. These promises, along with those of quick profit, give the novel its undertow of deceit, and of course justify the title of the story. Into this social pot pourri step the two main characters, Thomas and Martha, both of whom are, to some extent, outsiders and therefore exceptions to the norm. Thomas van Merop is an Anglo-Dutch functionary of the East India Company, an organisation that proved to be the proverbial cuckoo in the nest, breeding resentment among the local Portuguese, but at the same time guaranteeing Macau’s continuing status as Europe’s main commercial entrepot in the Far East. Through his English mother, Merop is cousin of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and therefore a man of liberal, reformist pedigree. His relationship with his fellow functionaries will be strained by his opposition to the opium trade, in which many are privately involved, among them, Abraham Biddle, a country trader of Dickensian proportions, whose fall from grace is as disastrous as are his attempts to accumulate wealth and improve his lowly status.

Martha da Silva is a Chinese orphan, who has been brought up by the Abbess of the local convent. At a certain age, she has been attached to a local Macanese family, has been mistreated, and has fallen out with the woman who is supposed to protect her, but instead resents her. Unable to return to the convent, she has ended up as the pensioner of Thomas van Merop’s predecessor. She is therefore passed on to Merop along with the Company house and servants. In this unusual domestic arrangement, Martha stands out as a teenager of unusual intelligence and initiative, while also possessing a type of childlike innocence. She speaks fluent French and Portuguese, and has an insatiable curiosity about the world beyond the narrow confines of Macau, and it is this ambition, coupled with one or two strokes of luck, and her own savvy, not to mention a secret marriage to the dying Merop, that result in her becoming Macau’s first native trader, shipowner and wealthy benefactress. The way she achieves this is, of course, the substance of the tale, with all its twists, turns and moments of drama.

One of the novel’s most abiding qualities, apart from its vivid depiction of a particular place and time, is the way it demonstrates the inner workings of colonial society in Portugal’s overseas empire. In the manner of Chica da Silva, the Brazilian slave woman who ended up free, rich and powerful, Martha manages to short-circuit the colonial hierarchy based on class and colour, allowing her to slip into a social role that would normally have been denied her. This is not to say that the Portuguese were by nature non-racist, as thinkers like Gilberto Freyre would have led us to believe, but that caste systems based on race and skin colour were, in pratice, unsustainable in distant realms and at times of social change. In the context of Macau, Martha, the illiterate Chinese orphan girl brought up on the fringes of colonial society to speak its languages and worship its God, is, in any meaningful sense of the word, Macanese, and this reality flies in the face of those whose definition of this group insists on the presence of a Portuguese blood line. Like many intermediary groups that emerged during colonial rule, the determining power of culture over genetics is a reality that Martha readily exemplifies, and this in itself produces a profound identity crisis that she has to overcome in order to survive socially and gain the respect of both the Europeans and the Chinese. Nowhere is this process of learning more vividly illustrated than in the episode in which Martha allows herself to be taken to a Chinese temple in the city, with a view to rejoining the world of her biological parents, and escaping the insecurities of life among the Portuguese and the British, for whom her only use is as a bed mate. It is this struggle between how she is outwardly perceived as a Chinese girl, and how she feels as someone whose upbringing has propelled her into the creolised world of the Macanese that is handled so perceptively by the author. Equally, the ties of kinship between Chinese ‘adopted’ children and extended Macanese families, are amply illustrated in the links between Martha and Teresa da Silva, whose surname she is allowed to adopt, and who is herself in cohabitation with an expatriate French trader, and Teresa’s cousin, Pedro Gonçalves Siqueira, whose commercial dealings and social aspirations in turn link him into the world of the Portuguese administrative elite on the one hand, and the British traders on the other.

This elegantly written novel evokes the multi-cultural roots of modern Macau, but it also offers us a glimpse of the East India Company in its declining years, as old state-backed monopolies gave way to the demand for free trade that would pervade notions of liberalism in the following century. It is also not unreasonable to assume that Coates’s novel formed a type of blueprint for Portuguese writers in Macau in later decades to tap the rich vein of oral history, the tales of forbidden love and scandal that abound in this city. Macau may be a small world, but it contains within it the world.

David Brookshaw

*Published in the Macau Daily Times (Weekend Magazine, 5 September, 2009)

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