Portfolio of Kimberly Johans

A collection of articles created during my stint as a journalist at The Macau Daily Times

Laying the foundations of Macau’s culture

Posted by Kimberly on February 1, 2008

By Kimberly Johans
Published in The Macau Daily Times
February 1, 2008 (2,675 words)

Having travelled to Macau on well over a hundred occasions during his lifetime, the Orient Foundation’s president, Mr Carlos Monjardino comes across as a man to hold in awe. As well as the former, Mr Monjardino runs two other foundations (the Stanley Ho Foundation and the Monjardino Foundation) also having a hand in half a dozen more. His accomplishments range from helping renovate what still is, the reference hotel in Dili, the Hotel Timor, to his current museum project in Lisbon that focuses on the relationship between Portugal and Asia. Called the ‘Museum of the Orient’, due to open in May, its central focus will be the amazing Kwok On porcelain collection, donated by French sinologist Jacques Pimpaneau. The museum also aims to “support research into the history of art, anthropology and the history of religions.”
A father to a dozen children, eight of whom are adopted and half of whom he admits still lives with him, Mr Monjardino doesn’t come across as the sort of man to do anything by halves. Take the Orient Foundation’s presence in Macau, for example. Having been established some 20 years prior, the Foundation may have its head in Lisbon, but through the years, it has aimed to reinforce that link between Portugal and Macau by introducing artists, singers and writers, publishing books by such well-known authors as Henrique senna Fernandes and hosting dozens of art exhibitions every year.

As the foundation’s by-laws suggest, “the aims of the Fundação Oriente are to carry out and support cultural, educational, artistic, philanthropic and social actions, predominantly in Portugal and Macau.” Then there’s IPOR (the Portuguese Institute of the Orient) which he also had a hand in setting up, and the Portuguese schools in Macau.
Mr Monjardino’s close association with Chief Executive Mr Edmund Ho has, over the years, allowed him to accomplish a great deal on behalf of the Foundation. His concern over who may step into those shoes when the time came led him to suggest Susana Chou when prompted, although he added that she would not want the mantle.
In a lengthy interview with the Macau Daily Times, Mr Monjardino spoke of the Foundation’s present, Macau’s past and the future of both.

Q) What role does the Foundation now play in Macau?

We were worried about how things were going to turn out here, in Macau. The Foundation, to a certain extent, was born in Macau. We had to look after it before anything else. But today I don’t think that the Foundation is needed in Macau as much as in the past. Macau has lots of money and culturally, there isn’t much we can do. We go on doing things, having our exhibitions downstairs and we bring Portuguese singers and so on, but not as much as we did in the past. Then, we had an exhibition every fortnight. But then people never paid much attention to the exhibitions. The cultural life in Macau is not something very intensive.

Q) You don’t think that’s changed at all over the past two decades?

No, not really. In terms of the curiosity for European cultures, no. In terms of the curiosity for Chinese, our neighbours (I still call them our neighbour), yes. There is some curiosity about, for instance, Chinese painters. We’ve brought in some young Chinese painters to Macau. When we have an exhibition of Chinese art, then you can see more people turning up.

Q) Do you feel that by doing that, you’re losing what is basically the essence of the Foundation?

No, we’ll go on doing it. I’m not saying that I’ve ceased to do it. We don’t do as much as we have in the past because, quite frankly, I can’t have an exhibition to bring from Portugal and then have 35-40 visitors. That’s odd! I don’t think the people in Macau are very culturally minded, not as it is in Hong Kong. I think I would have much more people in Hong Kong visiting our exhibitions if I had the same exhibitions in Hong Kong as I have here. It’s been like this for many years and what I can’t go on doing is having two or three exhibitions a month. But that’s OK. It’s our job and we’ll go on. On the social side I don’t think there is much we can do. That should be left to the local government. I think it would be odd for us to do things that the government has an obligation to do, wants to do and is ready.

Q) What about the expat community in Macau? Is that an area you could focus on when it comes to garnering interest?

I don’t think there is a big difference between the Portuguese community now and the Portuguese community before the Portuguese administration left. Perhaps people are more fortified than the people that were here at the time. Still, we don’t see them much around here when we have an exhibition. Perhaps that’s something we should look more into and we’ve discussed them. But we really have to do something about it. Perhaps they just don’t know about it [the Foundation]. Perhaps it’s not publicised enough. On the other hand, we have quite a lot of Chinese going to Europe, students. Although nowadays it’s less Europe and more to the States.

Q) Tell me a little about the transition period, after the hand-over?

One of the things I had in mind [during the handover] was that I would re-negotiate with Mr Ho, the gambling contract. Were we going to receive, for the territory, what we needed to have? Like the airport, for instance. I started to build the first steps because what we wanted to be was Macau. A territory that was autonomous, inside China. Not to depend on Zhuhai. Because if we had to use either the Zhuhai airport or the port or to use Hong Kong, Macau as a territory would disappear and lose its identity. This was something I didn’t want. This was why I started asking Mr Edmund Ho to put into the contract, to build an airport, a new port and so on, because this was away to protect Macau. This is actually what happened and I’m very happy about it. People criticised me a lot when it started because they thought it was rather silly of me. We weren’t taking the money with us to Portugal and I wanted to leave something in Macau.

I have to adjust my mind, from the ideas I had when I was here in 1986 and now. I had no problems at all with the government here. On the contrary, I have known the Chief Executive for more than 20 years. It was easy to understand what his ideas were and what he thought was best for Macau in terms of what the Foundation could have. Immediately after 1999, it was important. Nowadays…it’s less important, our position, than immediately after 1999. Nobody knew that Macau was going to be as rich as it is. So there are a lot of things that they [the government] can do and they feel, they themselves have to do it. Not a Foundation and, in this case, a foreign Foundation. We are, apart from the Portuguese Consulate and perhaps one or two companies such as BNU, the only institution that remains in Macau, that’s Portuguese and knows a little bit about Macau. We keep that link between Portugal and Macau in all sorts of ways. We publish books, but then in pure cultural terms and in what I wanted to do….well, for example in Mainland China, it’s not hard at all. If we were to bring a Portuguese painter to Beijing or Shanghai for instance, there’s thousands of people that go to see the exhibition. Here…no. Macau hasn’t been a cultural sort of spot as most people are not interested in culture. We’ll go on insisting but sometimes we feel it’s a bit too much for the results we get.

Q) There was an issue, during the time of the handover, concerning the Foundation and government assistance?

We had been receiving, as part of an agreement, 1.6 percent of the gambling receipts from STDM towards the Foundation. When the time of the handover came around, the [Chinese] government stipulated that a condition of this continuing was that the headquarters of the Foundation had to shift, from Portugal, to Macau. I did not agree with this and as a result, the assistance was taken away and handed to the Macao Co-operation and Development Foundation. I do regret that. That percentage of today’s revenue would have helped the Orient Foundation immensely.

Q) Do you feel the Macao Co-operation and Development Foundation is doing as much with that support as they should?

No. [But he declined to comment any further].

Q) Tell me more about the museum [in Lisbon] the Foundation is in the process of establishing.

This is one of the most important museums, because it will be one of the few museums in Europe. It’s a rather enormous, huge thing. We spent a great deal rebuilding it. The building cost us a fortune, about 28 million euros. First of all, it will have two collections. The first has to do with the Portuguese presence in Asia. We have all sorts of things, from the 16th century onwards, about 1,000 pieces. And then we have a very nice collection that was donated to us by a French association. The Kwok On Collection is a popular art collection of all Asia. It goes from Turkey to Japan. There we have around 14,000 pieces which will be shown. We will open in May and I think this museum, or so I’m told, will be one of the most important oriental museums in Europe. I think we have the connections, as people know, with Asia, that perhaps no other European country has. The Brits had it, but not at the same time we did.

Q) Was this one of the initial goals of the Foundation?

When I started the Foundation 20 years ago, the reason why I started this Foundation was exactly to do that. To pick up some links that existed between Portugal and those countries and exploit and and make it revived and try to investigate or research what we introduced in the 16th and 17th centuries on those cultures,because we did quite a lot. For example, in Japan, a lot of Japanese words are actually Portuguese. We brought things from Europe to Japan that they didn’t have so they adopted our interpretation of those things. So this is what we’ve been doing in the last 20 years to establish a sort of cultural co-operation with those countries.

Q) How do you feel going forward over the next five or ten years? What will you change abut your methods or approach?

We will do much more, at least than we have for the past five or so years, to try and show the Portuguese what China is, India is, Japan. And when there is a problem, like what we have today, that people try and pin on the Chinese, we try to explain a little bit what the reality is. We have conferences, seminars and we bring people from all over to discuss, for instance, the energy polices in India and China, how this is going to affect us, the Western world in general. We try to make better known, these countries, that people don’t know much about. We are going to teach Mandarin at the museum and all sorts of things connected to the Chinese culture. Many years ago, we had a role here. Now we have a different role altogether and we have to adapt ourselves and understand that.

Q) Is it difficult trying to get the Macau consumer’s attention away from gambling to culture and sport?

The government’s trying to do something about it. There’s lots of seminars and so on. People come here because they’re curious about Macau and have heard about the gambling. Now there’s the demand for exotic places where people can hold seminars and I think it’s working out well. Now they’re staying longer and sport is something that the government is doing a lot to sponsor and I think that will put Macau on the map not only for gambling. They have the money and the conditions to receive people.

Q) Does the government assist the Foundation in any way?

Well, we talk to them. We have the programs for the year and I send this and whatever we intend to do in Macau, to the government, which they’ve always accepted. If they agree less with some parts then with theirs, then we shift and do something else. Obviously we’re a foreign entity and we have to understand that. They assist us in the way they assist IPOR (Portuguese Institute of the Orient), the way they assist the Portuguese schools, which they could do more of. Although perhaps if we changed the type of school that we have here, they would help more. We are exempt from tax, as a Foundation but that’s it.

Q) Where do you see Macau going over the next few years?

There were a lot of industries when I came here in 1986. there are still some industries but nowadays lots, if not most of them, have disappeared. It’s impossible to have room for everything. With casinos doing what they are, being like mushrooms, it’s impossible to have both. When I was here [in 1986] to make 5,000 patacas a month was very good. Nowadays, people are working at the casinos and starting at 15,000 patacas. So people naturally shift to the casinos and tourism in general. When I was here, the quota of Chinese people that were allowed to come to Macau every month were 120. That was all. That was the understanding with the Chinese. Even back then we were already thinking about this problem because we had factories moving from here to Vietnam that had cheaper labour than here, in Macau. So we had to think about other things to do in Macau at that particular time. My government had much more money to spend than it could spend! Our budget had a surplus all the time, although not as much as we have today! That’s why Portugal’s never spent a penny in Macau the last 20 years we were here. It was interesting. We were completely independent as 80 percent of our activities here, we didn’t need to seek permission from Portugal. This was good and bad. I didn’t have to ask anybody to do what I wanted to in Macau. Portugal was too far away and not very interested. Hong Kong depended much more on Britain than we did respectively.

Q) Do you think Portugal ever regretted giving Macau back to the Chinese?

I don’t think so. Macau is successful and one of those reasons it’s more successful now than when we were here is because it’s China. If it wasn’t China it wouldn’t be as successful because they opened up the borders for gambling, which they were doing or themselves and not for us. If we were still here then perhaps the situation would have remained as it was in 1999. Perhaps a little bit better but not as much as it is now. We missed lots of opportunities when we were here.

Q) Do you think the idea of Macau, with its Portuguese roots, would ever be diminished over time?

I was afraid, as I feel most people were, that after 1999 the Portuguese historic idea would disappear completely. Fortunately the territory gains more by having those characteristics then not having any at all, just being another Chinese piece of land. So I think it’s important to keep that historic aspect and I think the Chinese government agrees they want to keep that difference. They want that to be a plus and I think it will go on being like that.

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