Macau, Rhubarb and Custard Apples

Macau Harbour 1890

Macau is a tiny place; a mere pimple on the bum of China, but its impact on the world has been significant. By the year 1600, Macau had already had an influence on China, most notably on diet.

According to historian and author, Austin Coates, a number or fruits and vegetables were introduced into China from Macau including sweet potatoes, peanuts, watercress, pineapples, custard apples and chillies. Shrimp paste was another foodstuff transplanted from Portugal’s widely spread empire. Where would Chinese cuisine be today without peanut oil? Or Szechuan dishes without chillies?

Fruit and vegetables introduced from Macau to China

Most of these crops originated in the Americas.  Early Spanish explorers are believed to have taken the sweet potato from the New World to the Philippines, from where Portuguese traders introduced the crop to China via Macau around 1590.

Watercress is known by the Cantonese as xiyang cai or Western Ocean vegetable, Western Ocean being a colloquial name for Portugal.

Custard apples (another native of the Americas) are called ‘foreign devil’s lychee’ in Macau, recognising that they were introduced by Europeans. Interestingly custard apples are called Sakya in Taiwan because the skin of the fruit resembles the tightly curled hair on some Sakyamuni Buddha statues.

Mandarins and Rhubarb were introduced to the West from China via Macau

But the dietary interchange was not all in one direction. From China to the West came rhubarb, tea and mandarin oranges. The Portuguese transplanted the mandarin to Tangier in Morocco, then under Portuguese control, from where we obtained the word tangerine. (In Gulf countries, the Arabic word used for orange is the same as their word for Portugal.)

Rhubarb had long been cultivated in China for its medicinal, laxative qualities. Marco Polo wrote about it in his travel journals but it was not until the Portuguese settled in Macau that shipments began in bulk. Demand from Europe was such that the Chinese assumed Europeans to be a very constipated race.

Chinese tea had long been known about in the West but again traders based in Macau, many of them British, were the first to open up the market and begin shipping tea in bulk to Europe.

Chinese boars were another important export though Macau for cross breeding with European pigs to improve the standards of European pork.

It is not only China’s diet that was influenced by Portugal. Tempura, which we think of as a quintessential Japanese dish, was introduced by the Portuguese via their trading settlement and missionary base in Nagasaki. The name probably came from quattuor tempora, Latin for those periods when Catholics refrain from eating meat. Tempura may have originated from the Portuguese battered vegetable dish called peixinhos da horta, or ‘fish from the garden’ which resembles tempura (though not as tasty due to lack of dipping sauce).

Vintage Postcard Macau Panorama
Macau, pimple on the bottom of China

Rednaxela Terrace – Hong Kong

My favourite street name in Hong Kong has to be Rednaxela Terrace, just off the the Central-Mid Levels Escalator above Caine Road.

Rednaxela Terrace

The most plausible explanation for this peculiar name   is that the street was supposed to have been Alexander Terrace but the Chinese sign-painter placed the letters from right to left, which was how Chinese read at that time.  The mistake could easily have been corrected but somehow the name stuck.

Jose RizalJosé Rizal, the Philippine’s revered national hero, lived at number 2, Rednaxela Terrace together with some family members for about six months from 1891-1892, while he worked as an opthalmologist at 5, D’Aguilar Street. Austin Coates, in his excellent biography on Rizal describes the area as follows:

A small house, which they furnished and decorated themselves, situated some 300 feet above sea level on the steepest part of the Peak in an area occupied mainly by Portuguese families, originally from Macao, who were the backbone of Hong Kong’s middle class.

This area would have looked a lot different from today and this is the type of view which Rizal might have enjoyed.

View from Caine Road during Rizal's time.

Dr. Lourenco MarquesHis next door neighbour was a prominent Portuguese, Dr. Lourenço Pereira Marques. They became good friends. Marques was at the time a prison medical officer at the nearby Victoria Gaol. Victoria Gaol around 1895 showing laundry yard.

(Amazingly (for Hong Kong), this prison remained in service until 2005 and has now been declared a protected monument.)

Marques was over-qualified for this job but there was little prospect of promotion because in those days, Hong Kong Portuguese were unfairly confined to the lower rungs of the civil service even though Marques himself was a British citizen.

From 1894 he was involved in the fight against bubonic plague which killed 8,600 people in Hong Kong over the next seven years with a 95% fatality rate for those infected.

Jardim Luis de CamoesMarques’ mother, Maria Ana Josefa Pereira owned an estate in Macau which included the Jardim Luis de Camòes, one of my favourite spots in the territory.

A street in Macau was named after Rizal’s friend, Rua Do Dr. Lourenço Pereira Marques which runs along the western harbour of the Macau peninsula. By the way the old name for Maputo in Mozambique, Lourenco Marques, is nothing to do with this individual but was named after a much earlier namesake, a Portuguese trader who first explored the area in 1544.

Rednaxela Terrace in 2011Marques was not particularly happy with his situation in Hong Kong and was interested to migrate. Indeed over the 120 or so years since his time, many of the Portuguese/Macanese population of Hong Kong moved on to new lives in places like Canada, Australia and Portugal.

Perhaps they should have retained their properties in Hong Kong. Number 1, Rednaxela Terrace is now an apartment block and a single compact 1800 sq. ft. flat with 3 small bedrooms is today on the market for a whopping HK$40,000,000 (US$5million).

Sun Yat-sen, President of the Republic of ChinaDuring Rizal’s short residence in Hong Kong another Asian national hero and revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen, the future first President of China,  was also in Hong Kong as a student at the Hong Kong College of Medicine. They do not appear to have met despite the fact that Marques was one of Sun Yat-sen’s lecturers.

When I was last in Hong Kong I visited the Sun Yat Museum which is at Kom Tong Hall, a former grand residence belonging to local businessman, Ho Kom Tong. The location is at the corner of Castle Road and Caine Road and is just a short walk from Rednaxela Terrace. It’s a small world in Hong Kong!

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Museum