Tuesday, July 5, 2022
Saturday, May 21, 2016
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
|View of Macau|
Despite the fatigue, my blood seems to be flowing quicker and hotter, because my heart is beating like a little drum, with a sound only my ears can hear. Macau is already there, within sight, drawing ever nearer, a land I aim to make my own, beneath the gaze of my soul, and, since I'm not getting any younger, beneath the gaze of my Sony, colder and more objective, permanent.
I set down my camera and pick up O Corsário dos Sete Mares – the novel I've come to present to the citizens of Macau on invitation from the Casa de Portugal – so that my fictional character might reconnect with vestiges of his passage through this place, traces he would have left behind as a real person, sailing through here more than 450 years ago. Still, the ferry bringing me from Hong Kong on such a swift crossing of this little slice of the China Seas has nothing at all in common with the ship, caravel, junk or galley that transported the protagonist of my book.
Nor does my journey share anything in common with his! The trip from Lisbon to Macau has taken some 24 hours thus far, between flights and transfers through the airports of Amsterdam and Hong Kong – the blink of an eye, despite the aching bones, swollen legs and head heavy with lack of sleep. lt took my Pirate, clothed at the time in the skin of a Jesuit novice, two years to travel half this distance, from Goa to Malacca, Sancian, Lampacau and, finally, Macau, a trade outpost that had only recently begun hearing the Portuguese language spoken in its streets.
The ferry pulls into the terminal, and Macau welcomes me with a spectacle of lights and sounds a world apart from mine. Then, amidst my shock at being the Other – a fo-lang-chi like my protagonist – I notice with a sigh of relief a friendly hand waving to me from the other side of customs.
The ample bay, that had come into view from the ship's bulwark, sprawling at the mouths of the Sikiang and the Chukiang, or Pearl River, offers itself like the beautiful body of a woman, with its verdant hills, plains and forests. His eyes fixed on the graceful silhouette of the temple that seemed to be keeping watch over the harbour from its high vantage atop the mountain, he leaps from the dinghy with an indescribable desire for conquest, only to blaspheme angrily as his boots sink up to the knees in the thick mud of the Amaquao anchorage, at the Bay's Entrance.
He raises an embarrassed gaze to the heavens, begging God's pardon for that sin and the many other vices of his past life as adventurer; a life still so recent that his now respectable status of Jesuit novice had not yet been able to rid his soul and tongue of such bad habits. Despite his many prayers, fasts, sacrifices and penances, not even a thousand lives lived in the shoes of an honest man could redeem the misdeeds he had committed during his eighteen years of wanderings in the East, as merchant, pirate and mercenary.
With an irritated gesture he refuses the help of the three freed slaves who want to carry him to shore on their backs. Despite his having given them their freedom – as he had all the other vassals of his substantial household when he had renounced the world to take the Jesuit orders – these lads, crying on their knees, had begged him to let them accompany him on the dangerous voyage to Japan. At last he had agreed, moved both by their great dedication and by his need to bring with him a retinue of servants, seeing as he was not travelling in the role of simple missionary but rather as the envoy of the Viceroy, D. Afonso de Noronha, on a visit to the Daimyo of Bungo.
He makes his way to shore, crossing the slick mudflat to the dry land at the docks, bringing the lads in tow laden with chests of baksheesh to appease the mandarins, tribute the Viceroy intends for Otomo Yoshishige and the food and remaining belongings, outward signs of a wealthy merchant, as he himself had been only a short while ago. He would no longer return to Lampacau, where he had fulfilled the mission entrusted to him by Novice Master Melchior Nunes Barreto and had left behind a completed church.
His superior must certainly have sent someone to greet him. He casts his gaze around the harbour – if this huddle of rudimentary wood structures could really be called a harbour – and doesn't recognise the place, despite his having been one of the first Portuguese to set foot in the Land of the Lotus – name given by the locals to this sliver of Chinese soil – until then, off-limits to the fo-lang-chi.
A pang of nostalgia grips his chest as he sees the long lines of men of various races winding and intersecting between the anchorage and the warehouses in a great to-and-fro of loading and unloading, His nostrils take in the smell of sweating bodies mingled with essences and spices – an odour so familiar it had penetrated his very skin – and the clamour of barked orders in a mix of languages, of shouts and slaps, comes as music to his ears. Half naked slaves and local workers race along, some toting baskets and Martaban jars laden with Chinese silks and porcelain on their heads or broad shoulders; others, their backs bent and stiff as the pillar of a balance scale, sustain a great bamboo pole across their shoulders, from which hang, suspended from ropes at each end in a miracle of equilibrium, heavy bundles of goods.
More shocking, however, is the womanhood that throngs the place, females of every colour, shape and age, their heads covered with shawls, veils or scarves and their bodies wrapped to the toes in skirt-like sarongs. In far greater numbers than he had seen in Lampacau, where five Jesuit fathers have been ministering for some time now, persuading the men, with promises of heaven or threats of excommunication and hellfire, to take just one of their consorts in marriage and forcing them (very much against their will) to renounce the others. Amaquao, on the other hand, is still a no-man's-land with neither law nor order a paradise for the practise of plunder and piracy, in particular the purchase of slaves, consorts and concubines.
Like that group of girls, there, escorted by a woman and two armed Javanese guards, being sent ashore from a captain's galley a little less than a stone's throw from where he stands. A Portuguese merchant awaits them with his servants – who scurry to shepherd the girls discreetly from the pier – and not a single townsman or local businessman denounces him to the authorities for abducting the children, a crime punishable by death. The new merchandise will not be sold on the open market, like the Javanese and black women are, but rather in an under-the-table transaction in a warehouse or at the seller's home. He had lost count of the times he had witnessed or participated in such an exchange, and never without fear, since the mandarins, with the aim of ending trade with the Portuguese, had circulated the rumour that the barbaric fo-lang-chi were stealing boys and girls to eat them, despite being well aware it was the local businessmen who were selling the children to the foreigners.
At that precise moment, the girls' escort turns her head in his direction, and the fleeting glimpse of her face stuns him so, that it nearly knocks him unconscious. Meng? It cannot be! From that distance all Chinese women look alike. This must be the Devil tempting him, bewildering his reason with a mirage of forbidden fruit. To find her here, the bride he had lost, nearly a decade ago, far away in China, would be the most improbable of all occurrences...
My very kind host from the Casa de Portugal drives me on a visit through the historic city centre and on to the islands of Taipo and Coloane, now joined to the peninsula by modern bridges and, like Macau, victims of runaway construction, much of their forests having given way to concrete jungles, where an unimaginable number of casinos proliferate.
The old neighbourhoods, built by the Portuguese along the centuries, are the exception. A sight for sore eyes, they emerge like oases of beauty in the stone desert. I feel my search for times long past might be in vain. Only two names connect me to the life of my Pirate: the A-Má Temple, which in those days was already being glimpsed on the Barra hillside by the sailors on the merchant ships that came to anchor there, and Mong Há, not because of its fort, which came much later, but because of the original settlement, the residents of which did business with the first fo-lang-chi who arrived here and gave the uninhabited anchorage the name of Amaquao.
We return home at sunset, and the car seems to be navigating a sea of light, a dense, hot glow, almost magical, that only the Orient has. Rounding the corner, the name on the pretty street sign in blue and white tiles (so Portuguese) hits me like a fist: "Rua Fernão Mendes Pinto"! Chance or premonition? My Pirate materialises before my very eyes, and I bite my lips to keep from shouting.
"Brother Fernão Mendes, did you have a nice trip? The Novice Master asked me to come and wait for you, to take you to your lodging."
The voice startles him, draws him out of his torment. A man, still young, has been looking him over from head to toe with surprise. With difficulty he pulls himself together and, to drown out the inner voice clamouring in his mind, he greets the new arrival effusively:
"Brother Gregório Gonçalves, God grant that I find you in good health! Have you converted many of the Chinese?"
He had met him in Goa, this secular priest, who had come and established himself in the provisional Portuguese merchants' town to – in his words – put an end to the disorder and chaos and to make Christians of the Chinese villagers of Mong Há.
"Forgive my tardiness, but I didn't recognise you... Come with me."
"Don't be shocked by my appearance, dear brother I come dressed not as a Jesuit novice but as the Envoy Fernão Mendes Pinto," he explains, smiling at the man's amazement.
"The business that brings me and Father Melchior Nunes Barreto to these parts of China and Japan must be conducted with great determination and prudence. If we want the mandarins to welcome us and to help us, both here and in Canton, with the release of the five Portuguese men held in captivity there, we must present ourselves in high status roles as diplomats and scholars, officials respected above all others, and not in priests' robes, for the mandarins detest religious men of any order, branding them vile and ignorant people."
The colour rises in the priest's cheeks, and Fernão understands he must have already suffered first hand the disdain of the prideful Chinese officials. His smile returns, as he changes the subject:
"The Novice Master told me of your travels upon these seas, as well as your captivity in Peking, during which you learned the language and customs. Skills that served you well on your first visit to Canton and which were sorely missed when he journeyed there of late without you."
Having now forgot that image the Devil had hauled up from the inferno of his memory to trouble him, Fernão burns with curiosity to know the results of Father Melchior's suit on behalf of the captives but asks nothing of the priest, since Jesuit matters are not the business of other orders.
"l sailed for many years upon these seas, plundering the Moors and trading, on the ships of rogue merchants, with a handful of fellow-Portuguese and entire crews of Chinese sailors, who, as you know, always bring their families with them, so I made a point of learning their language. Later; in Peking, in the house of the captain under whom I served until I left to complete my sentence of forced labour on the Great Wall, I learnt the mandarin's speech, which is more difficult."
"Have you been to Amaquao before?"
They were crossing the lively Portuguese camp, a jumble of cabanas built of bamboo, lumber and palm fronds, with rice straw roofs. The huts' appearance makes it hard to fathom the immeasurable wealth that passes through the hands of the merchants who do business and fill their coffers there, safe under the watchful eye of the Viceroy, who deducts for the Crown a fifth of all the revenue to which he feels entitled, despite not spending even one gold coin on these private voyages.
When the accord, reached last year by verbal agreement between the veteran Captain-Major of the Goa-Japan Trade Route Leonel de Sousa and the Haitao Wang Po, the highest-ranking mandarin in Canton, enters into effect here, as it already has on Lampacau, the Portuguese will be able to conduct their business freely, provided they pay tribute to China like other nations. Fernão believes that Amaquao, with its magnificent bay sheltered from typhoons and situated in a strategic location, at the entrance to Canton, will soon overshadow in wealth and importance all other ports of call on the route to Japan.
"l washed up on this shore, by accident," he answers laughing, without sharing his thoughts. 'At a place called Ha Wan Kai, where there is a rock in the shape of a frog that seems to croak at full tide. It was during my days as a merchant, when I sailed in the service of the nobleman António Faria in pursuit of the pirate Coja Acem, who had taken two ships from us carrying a rich cargo belonging to the captain. We caught up with him near the Isle of Thieves and defeated him in such a fierce fight that we were forced to land at this peninsula with our ships in disarray and our goods soaked with all the water we had taken on through the holes left by the bombardment. We thought it was a desert island, but the colourful novelty of the silks and other fabrics we brought out to dry, hanging from the trees or spread out on the rocks, attracted a crowd of Chinese villagers from the only settlement that existed on the solid ridge of the peninsula, and they were awestruck to see us and the Malays, Indians and slaves we were carrying, people with clothing as strange as their faces, above all the "black devils”, whose dark skin and white teeth frightened them."
"The people of Mong Há paint their teeth black, to distinguish themselves from the animals," the priest interjects, smiling. "You ran another great risk, since it was forbidden, under penalty of death, for the Portuguese to set foot on Chinese soil and for the Chinese to help us or trade with us."
"The Haitao-Fushi's powerful fleet gave chase as if we were the wokou, the sea bandits who were ravaging their coasts! Nevertheless, since the people of Mong Há had numerous grievances against Coja Acent for his frequent raids on their settlement, the heads of the families Hoi, Cheong, Lam and Chan decided to convey their gratitude to us for our having rid them of this terrible wokou, and, despite the imperial decree prohibiting any dealings with the fo-lang-chi, they took us into their homes and fed us with rice and fresh vegetables from their farms. The goods we gave them in exchange whetted their appetite for more, and the elders guaranteed us that our countrymen would always be welcome to trade there, because they intended to request permission from the mandarins. This was much to our satisfaction, since Amaquao was closer than Canton, was solid land and was inhabited by friendly people."
"Despite their show of friendship, the villagers erected a heavy bamboo fence around the settlement, just in case!" Gregório says ironically. "Nevertheless, they must have reached some kind of agreement with the mandarins, since they now have a market here, right out in the open, though the merchants also pay them weighty sums to look the other way. Even so, when the monsoon comes, the mandarins in charge force us to dismantle our houses and leave. Last monsoon, I disobeyed and remained in a hut with some Christians.”
“And they left you alone?" Fernão wondered, knowing the officials would not have tolerated even the slightest defiance of their orders.
The priest wrinkled his brow in disdain:
"They tore down the hut and seized us, me and my little flock, dealing out lashes and other abuse, whether for having dared some disobedience or for not belonging to the group that bribes them. They freed us at the start of the monsoon, with the arrival of the merchant ships," He adds, defiantly, "When they leave again, I'll do the same once more, this time with all the more reason, since my congregation now numbers 75 Christians, some of whom are Chinese, and we have erected a church. It may be made of straw but it is the first ever built on Chinese soil. Look, Brother Fernão Mendes, we have arrived at our destination."
The rich merchant's house, where the Novice Master had found lodging, is only distinguished from its neighbours bf its size and by the throng of slaves and servants that inhabits it.
|Casa de Portugal|
We continue on at random: down tiny streets, alleys and passageways, emerging at last onto Rua Pedro Nolasco da Sílva, with its beautiful Portuguese cobblestones, extending out from the steps of the Consulate and the Casa de Portugal with the nobility of a red carpet. A tranquil street (a rare find in a Chinese city), its ochre and yellow façades reverberating in the gentle heat of the sun, contrasts with the Rua de S. Domingos, where, after visiting the church, we finish our tour at the charming Portuguese Bookstore, which welcomes us like old friends.
I feel like neither tourist nor foreigner, rather, like a character spirited away to a parallel universe by dint of some mischievous yaojing or the Script Road organisation. I'm moved by this piece of Portugal on the other side of the World, for centuries loved and protected from the winds and waves of the profit pursued by mediocre governments. Living history, body of Chinese stone and soil, nostalgic soul forged from the iron and tiles of Portugal, woven from ancestral memories, steeped in the essences and spices of blessed isles, moulded in the dreams, sweat and blood of many races. It is this spirit of the Place and the Age of Discovery – of lives lived long ago, so fleeting and, for the same reason, so volatile and imprecise – that I seek to grasp with my writing.
A Space the size of the World and an Age of adventure, violence, cruelty and suffering, but also of heroism, generosity, knowledge and honour. Slights inflicted and suffered. Passion, death and resurrection of man, belying his insignificance. A pilgrimage of initiation, the greatest example of which is that of Fernâo Mendes Pinto: merchant, mercenary, sailor, ambassador and writer, captured three times and betrayed sixteen, during the 21 years he sailed to India, Ethiopia, Arabia, China, Japan, Tartary, Makassar, Sumatra and numerous other locales on the "world's eyelash".
Melchior Nunes Barreto looks ill, his face pale, eyes sunken, shoulders sagging under an invisible but heavy load. Fernão fears the cleric may intend to follow in the footsteps of the late Father Francis Xavier dead three years earlier on Sancian, exhausted by travel and the dream of a Christian China, an impossible mission from which he had tried, in vain, to dissuade him.
The Novice Master's host is away, doing business with the captains of the ships anchored in the harbour, and the priest, without entering the house, takes his leave with a "peace be with you, my brothers." The Novice Master takes a seat at the table, and the slaves rush in to serve him a varied repast, complete with a good Portuguese wine.
"Do you feel well, Father?" he asks, piously. As if the trials of the voyage to Japan weren't enough, Melchior had sought new duties, dedicating himself body and soul to the liberation of the Portuguese captives.
"I'm still here, for better or worse, God willing!" he laughs good-heartedly, adding, "and you, my son, how was Lampacau?"
"The church has been completed, Father, just as you commanded."
"Oh, Brother Fernão Mendes, that has been our worthiest accomplishment in nearly two years of travel! We have done little more than sail at the mercy of the seas, ever in mortal danger and with no way to reach Japan. Perhaps this mission does not please the Lord, and He would rather we return to Malacca or Goa..."
Fernão senses the priest's discouragement and fears he might decide to return to India, indifferent to the harm it would do his mission. This was not the first time he had regretted the voyage, and he had only persevered thus far for want of a ship that would take him back. They had left Goa early in April of 1554. However, owing to delays and impediments caused by the captains of Malacca, they had only managed to disembark at Lampacau in June of the following year, another monsoon gone and without a ship to take them on to their destination. Forced to overwinter on the island, they dedicated themselves to the arduous task of saving the souls of a large congregation of sinners, hearing confession, celebrating weddings and building the church.
"How could God withhold his blessing from our mission," he argues fervently, "when the Daimyo of Bungo and all his people wait for us to come make them Christians? We are nearly there, Father! The monsoon is never late, and there are plenty of ships that will take us there, as they will profit in some way from our mission, as well." Changing the topic, to distract him from thoughts of the frustrated voyage, he adds, "How was your trip to Canton? Were you able to liberate the captives? Did you learn the whole story of the junks?"
When, months earlier, he had accompanied the priest on his first trip to Canton, to serve as his jurubaça, or interpreter, he had been able to unravel the mystery of the junks that had vanished off the shores of Fujian, since they had not had the opportunity to speak with the captives.
"They had not released them, at least not while I was there,"the priest laments, 'but the presiding mandarin – thanks to that piece of amber we gave him when you were there with me – demanded Mateus de Brito be brought from Fujian to Canton, and I was able to speak with him. His appearance pained me deeply. He looked nothing like the nobleman he is: dirty, barefoot, chained at the ankles, head uncovered, hands and neck clamped into holes in a board, upon which was written his alleged crime."
Fernão shuddered with a vivid sensation of the weight of the cangue on his neck, the pillory on his hands, the chains on his feet, cruel torments he had endured during his own imprisonment in Peking along with eight others, all sentenced to death. It was on his last campaign as a pirate in the fleet of Captain António Faria that his ship had sunk in the Bay of Nanking, and nine Portuguese survivors, castaways on an inhospitable beach, had thanked God for their lives, unaware of the torturous pilgrimage through China that awaited them, a via sacra so painful it might even surpass the sufferings of Mateus de Brito or Galiote Pereira.
"l entered the promised land as a spy, to bring back news, and I left Father Estevão de Góis behind to learn the language and clear a path for our brothers, that they might stay on in the cities and spread Christianity.”
Impatient, Fernão interrupted him almost forgetting the deference owed his superior:
"There is no greater delusion than the belief that one day there might be Chinese Christians! Only if God creates new ones, because those present on this earth today are not even worth mentioning. For our efforts among the Chinese to bear any fruit, it is necessary to thoroughly master their language, laws and customs, to arrive with a great delegation in the name of the King of Portugal bearing fine gifts for the Emperor and to pay large sums to the tyrannical and covetous mandarins, in order to establish treaties and entitlements with them, that they might allow us to live there for years, rather than the single month they have conceded to the merchants."
"We should be going,” Melchior says, raising himself from the bench with a tired sigh. “l promised the priest Gregório I would recite mass at his church, the first ever to be erected on the Continent!” Fernão senses the offended tone in the voice of the priest, who changes the subject as if ashamed of his own resentment: "0n the way I will tell you about the terrible ordeal our countrymen endured and a strange case that connects to you, as well."
They go out into the chaos of the camp, crossing paths with people of various races, a large number of which are Chinese merchants from the mainland, who enter the isthmus to conduct their trade with the Portuguese, with the mandarins' permission. They make their way to the cluster of warehouses that surrounds the immense market for the trade, purchase and sale of products, products that compete there having been shipped in by the Portuguese from all over the world - from Europe, Africa, Arabia, India, the four corners of Asia, the islands and archipelagos of every ocean and even Brazil, a recently discovered new world.
And the holds of the Portuguese ships bring not only goods but new ideas, new customs, new knowledge to be traded among the most diverse peoples on the planet. Despite having committed some misdeeds in the past, of which he is ashamed and repentant, Fernão feels great pride at having participated in this exchange of knowledge. In fact, he had cured the Lord of Satsuma's gout and had performed surgery on the wounds of the son of the Daimyo of Bungo, feats that had earned him the recognition, admiration and friendship of these powerful Japanese rulers, creating bonds that were now bearing fruit for the Jesuit fathers.
Melchior's voice draws him out of reminiscences belonging to a life he forsook when he donned the novice's cassock and took the orders, but which, when he least expected it, would haunt him with temptations.
"The settlement has grown large enough to merit construction of its own church, as in Lampacau, but only when the mandarins agree to allow the Portuguese to stay on here as long as they like, without expelling them or tearing down their houses".
"So it must come to pass one day, because Amaquao is a better port than the island." Fernão concluded, impatient to learn the truth behind the disappearance of two junks in the fleet of his friend Diogo Pereira with 32 Portuguese souls on board. "Reverend Father, wouldn't you like to tell me the news you heard in Canton?"
"l had almost forgot, and you play a part in them! Mateus de Brito revealed the mystery of the junks to me. They were coming from Siam with a rich cargo bound for sale in China, when, arriving on the shores of Fujian, they were attacked by a Chinese squadron, which gave pursuit and was able to capture them after fierce fighting. Desirous of the ship's contents, the Naval Admiral and Provincial Governor had accused them of piracy, seizing the cargo for their own profit without declaring the spoils to the Emperor. To eliminate any testimony of their misdeeds, they killed most of the Portuguese, their slaves and both Chinese crews, whose families were not even spared, in total, 90 men, women and children."
"Good God! And did no one on land learn of the cruel massacre?"
"The mandarins were careful to leave alive just some of the Portuguese who couldn't speak the language and who therefore couldn't denounce them, parading them shamelessly around the Province – clapped in irons and pent up in cages as trophies of their war on piracy without hope of rescue. But God does not sleep. Among the Chinese that the Admiral and Governor had slaughtered were natives of Fujian. Their relatives reported the crime to the Emperor, who then ordered an inquiry. Following the investigation, the mandarins were punished with the utmost severity, and the surviving Portuguese, acquitted of piracy, were convicted solely for trading without a license, and sentenced to a much lighter prison term to be served out in the jails of various other cities."
"If the case was ruled to be other than murder; why not release them?"
"The crime of murder was pinned on Mateus de Brito, for his having killed Chinese soldiers during the battle of the junks." Fernão heard the disappointment in Melchior's voice. "l paid the presiding authority a bribe of 1,500 gold coins, reminded him of the pact that Leonel de Sousa - whom they call Chou Luen – made with Haitao Wang Po granting freedom of commerce to the Portuguese, but I was only able to persuade him, as a sign of good will, to commute the death sentences to prison terms and to place all of the captives together in the Canton jail, so that they might help each other and be easier to free. During these proceedings I relied on the precious assistance of a Portuguese gentleman who lives as a wealthy local merchant with his Chinese wife and his sons. His name is Jorge Mendes..."
"Jorge Mendes?" Fernão exclaims, incredulously, "My brother in arms, in prison and in exile in China? It can't be, Reverend Father; the world is just not that small! He remained in the service of the Tartars who freed us, rather than return with us to Malacca."
"Well, it is the very same Jorge, my son! Didn't I tell you this was a strange case? He was also dumbstruck to learn you had joined the Jesuits. He told me how you sailed together as pirates in the fleet of Captain António de Faria, how you were marooned with seven other Portuguese at the bay of Nanking and were all prisoners in the same Peking jail, condemned to labour on the Great Wall…' The priest laughs, adding: "He assured me he would easier believe Satan had repented of his sins and become a priest than had Fernão Mendes Pinto, the jack of all trades!"
"lt is easier to see the mote in your neighbour's eye than the beam in your own!" Fernão exclaims, wounded by the proverb and the priest's laughter. "The nerve of that scoundrel! I can tell it is him by the sense of humour, without a doubt."
"It was after he learnt you were in Amaquao that he decided to come here in person, with a cargo junk, and take us to Japan. He told me you are in for a big surprise, for he has found the treasure you lost in Quansy."
Fernão had a lump in his throat that threatened to strangle him, a cold sweat drenched his body as if he had been seized by ague, and he was unable to utter a word.
"lt was he who brought me back," Melchior adds, taking no notice of his fit. "He could not find a priest in Canton who would marry him and his companion – she wants to be baptised, as well – so he asked me to celebrate their wedding here, where you could be his witness. The bride is the daughter of a Portuguese man exiled to the Great Wall and a Chinese woman. What is this treasure you lost, brother Mendes?"
Fernão tries to overcome the swoon that was robbing him of his balance, as it had hours earlier at the pier when the woman had glanced his way. Had Jorge Mendes found, at last, the two long lost daughters of Vasco Calvo? If Jorge's wife was Lijie, Vasco Calvo's beautiful younger daughter then the lost treasure had to be the other girl, sweet Meng, his bride...
I fell ill on arrival. Not with the terrible scurvy, pleurisy or tropical fever that threatened the daily lives of my Pirate and other sailors, exposed for months on end to all kinds of bad weather and the sub-human conditions of the "prisons of the sea" in which they sailed across the oceans.
Whether really a virus or just a stuffy nose caused by the shock of moving between the frigid air conditioning of the hotel and the spring warmth of March in Macau, it was an insignificant ailment that nevertheless forced me to miss my first writer's talk on the human condition. Proof positive that the Portuguese of today are no longer like those of yesteryear – strong, ugly, daring! They remain presumptuous and envious, retaining that curious and clever spirit that makes them masters of the last-minute improvised solution and of adaptation to new worlds each time the incompetence of rulers and lack of opportunities compel them to emigrate.
I congratulate myself, nonetheless, that the status of a woman, in the West, is no longer what it was, that of mere object in the service of men, slave, consort, concubine or even wife, bought, sold or given, used and abused by her owners, be they slaveholders or fathers, husbands and brothers, as is the case in the many nations where islamic fundamentalism is practised, as well as in India, among other countries. Without rights or a life of their own, they nevertheless take their destiny into their own hands and set sail on voyages of adventure, incognito at first, disguised as men, with the same courage and same indomitable spirit, in search of a better life.
It is thanks to that centuries-long struggle that I am able to write novels and that I am here, in Macau, attending a talk among Portuguese-language authors from various continents, listening to a Mozambican writer whom I admire greatly for her work's denunciation of the conditions endured by African women. "l write stories of their humiliation, pain and sacrifice," she says, adding, "l speak of feelings, but not of sex and eroticism, because it's the men who know how to write about those things."
I'm stunned. The feminine erotic has been, throughout time, a force that moves mountains. A woman, real or fictional, is not complete without her sexuality. The Book of Genesis, in the Old Testament, is the best example, and it has furnished me with material for a score of erotic stories on the inferior status of women, in the biblical temples, their lives, thoughts and feelings and the repercussions today. Definitely written in a language different from that of a man, since male perception is a complete other. But who could know better than a woman how to describe the sensations in her body when she loves and offers herself? Or her revulsion when violated? The exact measure of the piloerection in her skin, the sigh clutched in her throat, the roar of the blood in her ears, the intensity of the wave, the vertigo in the spasm?
|Portuguese ship (Nau) - Macau´s Maritime Museum|
The novice Fernão Mendes is making an effort to apply himself with devotion to the ritual of the mass, serving as acolyte for the novice master and priest before the decorated cabana's rustic altar. The church is full of believers. After all, he who goes to sea learns to pray, instructed by the fear of death, every sailor's most loyal and constant companion.
He lacks the strength to contain the windstorm of memories Melchior had inadvertently whipped up with his news, opening a "Pandora's box" filled with the secrets of a still so recent, morbid past. His body goes through the motions, his gestures puppetlike, his thoughts and feelings having long since flown away to that distant purgatory of penitence, guilt and remorse that was his Chinese prison.
In the absence of evidence and testimony, the death sentence that had loomed over the nine Portuguese captives for the practice of piracy was commuted to months of forced labour on the portion of the Great Wall in Quansy. There, in that backwater, they had suffered the pains of hell, more keenly as a result of the hatred and contempt they piled on one another (product of the arrogance and envy that flows in Portuguese veins) than of that hurled at them by their tormentors, and at last they surrendered any hope of freedom and returning home.
Nevertheless, no matter the infamy of the portuguese people, they always carry the name of God on their lips and in their hearts, so that, though He bring down the worst of punishments upon them for their sins, the Lord never abandons them to a wicked fate in the lands of savages, idolaters or pagans, resorting often to His mysterious ways for their salvation.
The first miracle to befall them in Quansy had been the unlikely presence of Vasco Calvo in that godforsaken place. A Portuguese merchant, he was once a fellow prisoner and fellow exile of Tomé Pires, the ill-fated ambassador sent by King D. Manuel to the Chinese Emperor! With no way to return to Portugal, the Alcochete native had married a Chinese woman, who had borne him four children, and was leading a tranquil life, accepted by all as a local citizen.
He had welcomed them into his home as though they were family, easing their hunger desperation and loneliness. And, in the certainty they would remain there for the rest of their lives, he had offered the hands in marriage of his daughters Meng and Lijie, his most prized possessions, to Fernão Mendes Pinto and Cristóvão Borralho, the two friends he liked best, as they were the only prudent, level-headed men among their band of rabblerousers.
From the moment he saw her, Cristóvão was deeply in love and was loved by Isabel, the secret name with which her father had baptised Lijie, in the absence of a priest (just as he had Meng, whom he had called Ana) in the house's secret chapel, where they prayed every day with a fervour that had moved even the stoniest of hearts in the band of convicts.
The older daughter was not as beautiful as her sister, but she had known how to captivate him with her sweetness and understanding. She had opened her heart to his most intimate confidences, and he had confessed to her his inordinate desire for a captive Cochin-Chinese girl, a bride abducted by António Faria as she went in search of her groom. He had paid her weight in gold for her and had loved her like a queen, but he was never able to soften the hatred and revulsion she felt towards him. Huyen had preferred death to his love, leaving him with a wound in his chest that festered and would not heal. The girl consoled him with tender words and loved him, asking nothing in return. Full of gratitude, he had agreed to their marriage, begging God to let him forget the unconquerable Huyen in the arms of this submissive Meng, sealing thus his fate in exile.
But man proposes and God disposes... They were busy preparing for the wedding when the threat of the Tartars became more real and the fear of death or a fate even worse took hold of everyone, like an outbreak of the plague, perverting their reason and their lives while robbing them of hope for the future. In an act of desperation or of love, Meng had offered him her chaste body, since she had already given him her soul, opening like a blossom in his hands, and he had accepted her as a gift from heaven.
He had loved Meng, but that love had not been able to extinguish the blind passion he felt for Huyen, the abducted bride, whose passive body shivered with disgust when he caressed her searching for silken lips that recoiled in revulsion or sombre eyes that seemed to pierce him without seeing, afflicting him with pain and vexation. Burning with spite, he took her with the fury of a rapist, repeatedly, to hurt and humiliate her in return, yet without ever satiating the hunger that consumed him and all the while making her detest him even more. Meng was his refuge from the war, the maternal lap on which he would lay his tired head and, eyes closed, feel the passage of tender fingers through his hair.
The relentless ringing of a bell hauls him up from a well of memories, returning him to the sacrament of the mass at the moment the Novice Master consecrates the host. The novice shudders in expectation of God's wrath, perhaps a bolt of lightning – deserved punishment for his wicked thoughts, the base emotions that, upon his remembering the women he loved, had filled his soul, displacing from it the love of God.
Melchior had made that same gesture of consecration at Our Lady of Grace Chapel, in Goa, on the fourth Sunday of Easter the eighth day of April in the year of our Lord 1554, before they would leave on this voyage to Japan, as the priests who were to set sail knelt and renewed their vows to God. In a faith-fuelled rapture brought on by the death of Father Francis Xavier – of whom he had been a friend – and the miracle of his body's incorruptibility, Fernão had determined to enter the Jesuit order by force and had thrown himself on the floor, before the host, declaring the same vows of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience he had heard the other brothers take, swearing to the Novice Master that he was firm and fast in the life of sacrifice he had chosen. Melchior had dressed him in the novice's cassock, and he had listened, in ecstasy, to the wailing of his friends, had received his parting embraces, and, making a public gesture of the renouncement of his worldly possessions, had pulled the jewelled rings from his fingers and hung them on the image of the Baby Jesus.
In the end, staying true to his vows had not been as easy as he had imagined. He continued to commit the sin of pride, incapable of suffering offences and turning the other cheek. In Panane, when the Moors had provoked them, he had unsheathed his sword and, had it not been for the Novice Master's scandalised imperative, he would have sent one of those scoundrels to hell; Melchior had forced him into a prudent retreat, and Fernão was left lingering on the shame of having run from the fight, overcome with resentment towards his superior. Now all it had taken was Meng's name to fill his body and soul with the flames of desire, fuelled by the memory of the sweetness of her skin, of her breast like a fruit nestled in the palm of his hand, of the flavour of a kiss, forbidden pleasures he had believed extinct.
The second miracle at Quansy had brought the nine Portuguese captives their freedom, come to them with the horsemen of the apocalypse embodied in the horde of Tartars who had begun their assault on the Great Wall, attacking the city with the scourge of God, burning and levelling everything in their wake, leaving behind them a trail of blood, rape and murder. Retreat had been impossible, because the gates in the Wall were shut.
A frenzied crowd was running amok through the streets: men, women and children, lords and vassals, spurred on by fear, pursued by the red horde that hunted them mercilessly. Shoving, pushing, fighting over an unlikely refuge or hiding place that might save them from the mob, throwing themselves from the tops of the ramparts to avoid falling into the clutches of the enemy.
Fernão had rushed to Vasco Calvo's aid but had found the house empty with no hope of saving his bride, he had taken an inconsolable Cristóvão and the others to the Quansy jail where a few Tartar prisoners were being held. By their side, and being foreigners to boot, they just might have a chance. The scheme worked, and the captain of the invaders, after watching them fight skirmishes with swords and halberds, rather than kill them, offered them positions of command within his troops.
At the encampment of the "red devils" they had searched for their brides for days on end, in every stockade, particularly in the tents where they kept girls for the enjoyment and pleasure of the victors. Meng and Lijie had disappeared without a trace, caught up in the tide of war.
Awakened once again from his brooding by the sound of the Novice Master blessing the faithful and still out of touch with where he is, he stands watching the parishioners' frenzied vociferous exit. A couple approaches him, and Fernão, tears in his eyes, recognises Jorge Mendes and Meng smiling at him.
|Chinese Opera in a street of Macau|
The lamps are lit on the yellow and crimson decorative arch at the entrance to the tiny street near the hotel, and it's pulling me towards it, like a magnet, on a search for times long gone. Fernão Mendes Pinto called it a pailou in his Peregrinação, and I'm passing beneath it, content to have encountered some vestiges of the past. I feel as if I've crossed the threshold of a magic portal to re-enter that parallel universe, where, in a world created anew with each step, I am one more among the cast of characters with whom I cross paths.
The street, covered overhead with canopies, glows with the lights of a dozen half-arches suspended from above like dossals or small theatrical curtains, in those same tones of red and yellow adorned with elegant Chinese characters the meaning of which is unknown to me. A crimson curtain decorated with colourful dragons and birds, whose symbols I must remember to investigate, hides a stage built next to a temple, a house like any other, now distinguished by one of the half-arches, by the continuous flow, of people and by the smoke emanating from its joss sticks.
To my delight, there will be a theatrical presentation, of drama and music with ancestral roots, and so I thank Buddha and the tutelary gods for having led me here. I love Chinese Opera as well as Japan's Noh Theatre, so attending this event on a street in Macau seems like a dream.
Along three rows of benches laid end to end are some fifty old folks, men and women from an activity centre or senior home. Their caretakers are distributing meals to them, and they eye me suspiciously, as they eat. There is not one other Westerner in the audience, and the man who had refused me the last empty space beside him now makes room and waves at me to sit down. I bow my thanks and accept.
An altercation erupts between two women in the audience, one of whom wants to sit in the space being reserved with a bottle of water by the other. I don't understand what she is saying, but the tone of voice and gestures are universal, The intensity of her voice and quantity of her words increase in direct proportion to the length of silence maintained by the other woman, who turns her head the other way as if the scene had nothing to do with her. Exasperated, the claimant goes to the temple to pick up a wooden stool, which she sets right in front of her mute opposition, sitting down with the triumphant air of someone who has routed an enemy. Her "adversary" lifts the corners of her mouth in an enigmatic smile, at the same time moving the bottle to let a well-groomed old-timer sit down beside her, to whom she offers a bun, with an effusive smile.
The agitation of the crowd dies down as the first chords sound from the string, wind and percussion instruments. The curtain opens onto a minimal but brightly coloured set in which the singer-actors spin with a lightness and grace that fascinate me. The first piece is undoubtedly classical. I recognise a few of the character types from the styling of their costumes and make-up, The voices are very beautiful, and the acting, so expressive, renders the plot nearly comprehensible. There are unrequited loves, despotic patriarchs, clever, comic servants, orphaned damsels in disgrace, an old nobleman who recognises the long-lost kidnapped daughter he believed dead or gone forever – a theme quite dear to imaginary humans from East to West.
In this unreal atmosphere I feel as if I'm in the Other's shoes, the fo-lang-chi, glared at with surprise and suspicion, who travels to the ends of the earth eager to "discover" this universe so new and incomprehensible, yet wonderful, to him. I connect with Fernão Mendes Pinto in that same fascination with the Orient that I read in his impassioned descriptions of the ceremonies and pastimes of the people he met along his wanderings. I imagine him absorbed in watching a performance, perhaps at the A-Má Temple, so alien in the eyes of the shocked and curious villagers of Mong Há, the fishermen of Haojing or the pilgrims from Mainland China come to worship Guanyn, the goddess of mercy.
He had sought refuge at the temple of Guanyn, in the certainty that he wouldn't find any of the Portuguese there and that the Chinese, despite their shock at his presence, would leave him be, upon seeing him perform his own rituals with equal devotion. During his long travels, Fern had learnt to pray to the Christian God in the temple of any divinity from any religion, whether in China, Japan, Java, Sumatra or Siam, because his wandering life and his knowledge of other men and other worlds had taught him that there was but one God, no matter which name was used to invoke him in the hour of need.
Today he does not wish to pray. He needs only to be alone, to think, to rid his soul of his resentment towards the ungrateful God that had abandoned him. He had divested himself of all his possessions to follow Him, as a soldier of Faith in the conquest of heathen souls, had erected churches to Him that he might be worshipped in the lands of idolaters, had renounced earthly reward in exchange for the salvation of his soul, humbly placed in His service. But the Lord, desiring greater sacrifice, had also taken from him all he cared for, from the women he had loved to the brothers he had called to India while he grew rich, whom He had rewarded with martyrdom at the hands of the Moors. And still unsatisfied, He had gone even further.
At this very moment he is expected at the church of brother Gregório Gonçalves, to serve as acolyte to Father Melchior for the celebration of the marriage of Jorge Mendes to the daughter of Vasco Calvo, baptised at dawn with the name Ana, which her father had given her in secret. Ana is Meng, his betrothed, who had vanished amidst the Tartar onslaught. The bride of his brother in exile is Meng and not Lijie, the younger daughter, as he had at first thought.
He wipes his eyes with his sleeve, so that the Chinese, so guarded with their emotions, will not be taken aback at the spectacle of the tears streaming down his face, but he cannot avoid them. God had mocked his feelings pitilessly, spit disdainfully in his face by calling Meng back from the shadows of his past, had stolen from him a hope to which he had clung despite its being forbidden by the sacred vows he had taken upon entering the Society of Jesus. Now there was nothing left to take.
The Novice Master, aware of his feelings, had demanded as punishment that he be present, to purge his soul of the carnal desire and to fulfil the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity he had taken, but Fernão had refused to obey defying his superior's command. Perhaps they will expel him from the Society – Melchior has every right to do so – because in a fit of rage, without heeding his explanations, he had nearly killed Jorge Mendes inside the church.
When he had first seen Jorge and Meng standing there, smiling at him, he hadn't even noticed the absence of Lijie. He only had eyes for his beloved, stunned by the wave of emotions stirred in him by seeing her after so many years, as if her absence had intensified his desire and made him love her all the more. Not even when his old comrade had embraced him, moved with joy, had he been able to take his eyes off of her. Time had been kind to her, had preserved the delicate lines of her face while moulding her svelte, girlish figure into the voluptuous body of a woman he craved to hold in his arms.
In Meng's dark eyes he could see the tenderness with which she had always gazed upon him, but also an infinite sadness that put a lump in his throat. Did she love him still? Was she tormented, seeing him clad in priestly garb, thinking she had lost him before they had even been reunited?
"So, a priest?! You are Brother Fernão Mendes? I cannot believe it!" Jorge exclaims, looking him over from head to toe without releasing his embrace. "But if you think you will be taking my confession, you have another thing coming!"
"l am only a novice; I still have not taken my final vows," he had said, trying to supress the emotion in his voice. "Let us sit together on that pew, and you can tell me all that has happened since we parted, down to the smallest detail. How did you find Meng and Lijie, when Cristóvão Borralho and I could not, though we scoured every nook and cranny of the barbarians' camp? And Lijie, why has she not come with you?"
"Let us sit then, for it is a long and extraordinary tale."
The church had emptied, and Fathers Melchior and Gregório were by the altar having a lively conversation on matters pertaining to the congregation of Amaquao, the difficulties of staying on in China and the voyage of the Jesuits to Japan. They sat together on the pew, and Meng slid away from them, adopting the withdrawn posture of those in prayer.
"You could not find Meng and Lijie, because they were not in your camp." Jorge began, and, seeing his surprise, continued on, before he could interrupt: "They were captured in the house of some of their mother's very wealthy relatives, where Vasco Calvo had left them, making sure they were safe, before going to hide in another house with his wife and the two boys. The relatives had paid great sums to the enemy captain in exchange for their lives and had given him the two girls as a guarantee of their fealty. Since, the rare daughters of a fo-lang-chi would make a dignified gift for the Tartar king, they were placed with the plunder destined for Altan Khan and did not travel with us."
By conceiving a strategy for the siege of a Chinese fortress, leading the troops that stormed it and being the first man to get inside, Jorge Mendes had won the esteem of the Tartar king, who made him a general and heaped privileges upon him, even allowing the return to Malacca of the eight other Portuguese men who had participated in the battle. It was after the departure of those comrades, during a feast at the camp, that he had seen the two sisters again.
He could no longer remember the reason for Altan Khan's celebrations, but it might have been the betrothal of his sister to an allied monarch, because they had lasted several days, and, on the final evening, as was the custom in their land, the king had distributed fine gifts to his officers: jewels of gold, silver and stones, precious clothing and textiles, weapons, horses and women, which he had ordered brought from the tents where the magnificent spoils of his conquests were held. Among the captives the Khan had intended to offer were Meng and Lijie.
Jorge had done everything to rescue the two sisters, he had thrown himself at the king's feet, begging him to release them to him, for they were the daughters of a Portuguese exile in Quansy who had promised them to him in marriage, a union that had not been consummated solely because his troops had invaded the city. Since the Tartars kept various wives and concubines, his argument had carried weight.
"They are yours," Altan Khan said, "if no one will challenge you for them."
An older general had wanted them, a rival, envious of the favour the king had bestowed on the stranger and inclined toward anything that would see him lose face. He challenged him to hand-to-hand combat.
"Had I fought with him, I would have had no difficulty defeating him, as he was old and had had too much to drink", Jorge had concluded, his voice choked with emotion. "The Khan understood this and did not desire the humiliation of his valued general, so, with jokes and flattery he prevented the duel and divided the gift, offering Lijie to him and granting Meng to me. And that is how she became my bride."
Dumbstruck, Fernão had gazed at Meng without hiding the tears running down his cheeks or the stifled sobs that shook his frame.
"She was my bride, Jorge!” he had stammered. “We were about to marry…”
"You had left; you always spoke of returning to Portugal. The two of us were there alone. With no hope of ever seeing you again, Meng agreed to live with me”.
"You are a traitor, Jorge Mendes! She is my wife.”
"What has got hold of you, man? You are a cleric, a priest!”
"You Judas! You scoundrel!”
He lunged at him with a sword a young acolyte had brought him after the mass had ended and was only prevented from piercing his heart by Meng who had come between them, giving the priests time to seize and restrain them.
I won't be in Macau long; I’m headed for China, where I’ll wander for two weeks (it’ll be over before I know it) on what’s likely to be a fruitless search for traces of Fernão Mendes Pinto and other Portuguese adventurers.
I don't know if I’ll return, because I never drank from the Lilau Fountain; I was distracted by the photo session of a chinese bride and groom clad in western-style clothes including a dress worn
by the beautiful bride-to-be – in white with wreaths of purple leaves – that seemed to have marched right out of a portuguese folk parade. l also missed seeing the Camões Grotto, one of the reasons I had wanted to come to Macau.
I certainly missed many other sights I should have seen, but I'm leaving immensely richer than I was when I arrived, albeit without having won the jackpot at the Casino de Lisboa. I’m taking with me a magic trunk, filled with images, sensations and impressions for future reminiscing.
I'll never forget my talk with the students and teachers at the Portuguese School and the warm embrace of their applause; the emotion as I listened, in a room full of friends from the Casa de Portugal, to one of the best ever presentations of my Corsário dos Sete Mares; the thrill at seeing my works on display at the lovely Portuguese Bookstore, refuge of our culture on Chinese soil; the new acquaintances mode at warm and intimate gatherings.
The gardens, the beaches, the squares and cobblestones, the traditional shops hidden down tiny streets and alleyways, the shark fin in the storefront window, the tastes, the smells, the mystery.
Forever after, Macau.
In the calm of the pagan temple caressed by wafts of perfumed smoke, Fernão's heart is soothed, and he knows what he must do. Even if they do not expel him, he will leave the Order of his own volition, expressing a lack of inclination toward religious life. He will complete his mission as the Viceroy's envoy to Japan and, upon returning, make arrangements for continuing on to Portugal, as he had intended to do before his spiritual epiphany, a moment of madness for which he had paid dearly. He would return to his homeland nearly as poor as when he had left, despite his having been one of the richest merchants in India.
Before exiting the temple he burns some incense in honour of Guanyn, merciful divinity that she might take pity on him.
Translated from the Portuguese by Ray Granlund