Last week I had the privilege of visiting the University of Macau and in Macau I discovered yet another unique variation on the many multilingual landscapes we have featured here on Language on the Move.
Macau, a former Portuguese colony, has been a Special Administrative Region of China since 1999. The official languages of Macau are Chinese and Portuguese. English plays an unofficial but highly prominent role: it is the medium of instruction at the University of Macau and at a number of secondary schools. Other schools use Cantonese as medium of instruction and there is one Portuguese-medium school.
Trilingualism in Chinese, Portuguese and English is just the beginning, though. The linguistic situation is further complicated by the diversity of Chinese and the importance of the tourism industry.
The version of Chinese that is local to Macau is Cantonese but Putonghua is gaining in importance. Macau has about half a million residents but welcomes a staggering number of tourists: close to 30 million tourists visit Macau each year. Most of these come from Mainland China and so it is not surprising that in tourism spaces I overheard much more Putonghua than Cantonese. Written Chinese, too, comes in at least three varieties: traditional characters, simplified characters and pinyin. Furthermore, pinyin looks different depending on whether the writer followed English-based or Portuguese-based conventions.
The languages of other tourist markets also feature with maps and signs in Japanese, Korean and Thai.
The linguistic landscape of Macau is thus extremely diverse and each tourist site has its own conventions, as the following examples demonstrate.
The famous Taoist temple dedicated to the goddess of seafarers, Matsu, from which the name “Macau” is thought to derive, is enlisted on the UNESCO World Heritage List. On the day we visited it was crowded with Chinese tour groups. The languages on display were ancient Chinese inscriptions in stones and on the temple façades. The prayer tablets where the devout can record their wishes and prayers also seemed to be Chinese only (although there were hundreds of them so I cannot be sure that prayers in other languages were not also hidden away somewhere).
The direction and prohibition signs were either in Chinese only or in Chinese and English (of the non-standardized “Chinglish” variety). One stall selling incense sticks and other devotionalia featured Chinese and Thai signs. Portuguese and what might be called “standard English” were notable for their absence.
Our Lady of Penha Church
One of Macau’s many Catholic churches (Macau used to be the staging post for the Christianisation of East Asia and has the largest number of Catholic churches by square mile in Asia), Penha Church sits on a hill and affords an excellent view over the harbour and across the bay to the mainland. The church itself is not a tourist destination but the spiritual centre of a community of Trappist nuns from Indonesia.
When we visited, the church was empty. Outside, there were a few newly-wed couples in Western wedding garb who were out to have their pictures taken. As far as I could hear, they received their instructions from the photographers on how to pose in Cantonese.
The languages on the signage could not have been more different from the A-Ma Temple: inscriptions on the façade were also monolingual but monolingual in Portuguese rather than Chinese. Signs about the code of conduct came in three language combinations: Chinese-Only, Chinese-English and English-Chinese.
Signage relating to the spiritual life of the church was either predominantly in Chinese or English, with one or the other language predominating and a few expressions in the other interspersed. To my great surprise, I also discovered some Latin slogans on devotional cards. A collection box, which looked quite old and featured Portuguese, Chinese and English suggests that the English presence in Macau predates the tourism boom and globalized signage of the past decade.
The so-called “Mandarin House” is another UNESCO World Heritage listed building. It used to be the residence of the Qing dynasty reformer Zheng Guanying. When we visited, the building was deserted and other than the attendants we were the only people present making it a very serene space. Information and prohibition signs were relatively standardized and trilingual in Chinese, Portuguese and English although some prohibition signs were more haphazard and contained only Chinese and English.
What was most interesting was the posters about Zheng Guanying’s book Words of Warning to a Prosperous Age (Shengshi weiyan 盛 世 危 言). What little information about the book I could gather from the information panels suggests that it is a highly relevant text for Intercultural Communication Studies. One website sums up the argument as follows:
As a famous reformer of late Qing China, Zheng Guanying was the earliest advocate of representative and participatory political system in the 1870s, the earliest to call for “commercial warfare ” against Western economic imperialism, and one of the earliest to seriously study international law and its relevance to China’s national identity and foreign relations. He was also one of the earliest Chinese to emphasize the combination of Western medicine and Chinese medicine.
His ideas continue to be highly influential in contemporary China and a translation of Shengshi weiyan would be highly desirable. Unfortunately, I have not been able to discover an English translation. I hope this is not another case of “no translation;” if it is, a translation would be highly desirable not only for Chinese Studies but also for Intercultural Communication Studies.
A discussion of the touristic linguistic landscape of Macau would not be complete without reference to the casinos because that is where most of the 30 million annual visitors are headed. I got to visit two of them: the Venetian, which is operated by the Las Vegas-based Sands corporation and is an imitation of the Las Vegas Venetian, and City of Dreams, a joint venture between the Macau casino dynasty Ho and the Australian billionaire James Packer. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, the gambling areas occupy only a relatively small part of the casinos and while that is obviously where the action is, I did not enter.
Casino resorts are intended to be spectacular and novel. The Venetian, for instance, looks like a cross between a baroque church and Venetian canals and plazas and City of Dreams features a huge fish tank with (digital) mermaids. However, when it comes to signage there is no trace of the spectacular and unique. In both casinos, commercial signage was completely standardized in the non-language of other global consumer spaces. Direction signs were also standardized in Chinese and English.
Portuguese, by contrast, only had a tiny presence on state-mandated signs, particularly the ubiquitous no-smoking signs, which are in Chinese, Portuguese and English. The biggest surprise were the emergency exit signs: they did not contain any English and were in Portuguese and Chinese only.
Analysts of multilingualism in Macau have described multilingualism in Macau as “an illusion” because official societal Chinese-Portuguese bilingualism is rarely undergirded by individual bilingualism. Indeed, all the people I had extended conversations with were either English speakers from Australia, UK and the USA or Putonghua speakers from Mainland China and Taiwan. With three exceptions none of these had learnt either of the two official languages (the exceptions being an American and a Tawainese who had learnt Cantonese and an Australian who had learnt Portuguese).
Despite the amazing multilingualism in the public signage it may thus well be that the various language communities largely keep themselves to themselves. The fact that each space I visited has its own language practices with regard to signage seems to point in the same direction. If so, it is a pragmatic approach that seems to work perfectly well as a way to manage linguistic diversity and public communication with multiple audiences.