Macau Days: a new tri-lingual book from Art + Australia
Macau Days is a tri-lingual book (English, Portuguese, Chinese) that includes a series of poetic texts by Brian Castro and artworks by John Young, an introductory letter by Edward Colless of the Victorian College of the Arts and a response from the University of Adelaide’s Paul Carter. In the lead-up to the launch of the book, on 14 November at Melbourne’s MPavillion, Young and Castro spoke briefly with VCA Honorary Fellow curator Natalie King about the work and their shared histories in Macau.
Natalie King: Can you tell me about the genesis of the book Macau Days?
Brian Castro: John initiated things in 2012 with his series of blackboard and photo works called The Macau Days. I immediately responded by saying Macau has a special place in my childhood memories, and asked if he would like to do a collaboration on a larger exhibition and book on the topic. It took another four to five years before things fell into place.
John Young: The old Macau exists only in our imagining and memory. It is the oldest colonial port that served as a bridge between Europe and Asia. Those who lived in Macau were transcultural since the 1550s, with poets, novelists and artists occupying the space with a rich tapestry of worldviews, lifestyles and philosophies. Over the past two decades this precious yet fragile cultural territory has transformed into a gambling hothouse for the Chinese rich, with at least 38 casinos that articulated the coming of a Trumpian kitsch-like phantasmagoria. My initial exhibition in Hong Kong was never an exercise in social history, but rather an investigation into what visual forms and imaginings of the old Macau could take.
When Brian and I talked about the possibility of a book and another exhibition, I was tremendously excited, I respected his work greatly, ever since his first novel Birds of Passage, in which he implicitly referred to his childhood origins in Macau. Since then, in the many novels he has written, such as Shanghai Dancing, there have always been references to Macau. Both of us have referenced Macau in our work over the last 30 years. We both, after all, came from the same Southern Chinese diaspora.
The most exciting aspect of making this book for me was the introduction of another medium – text – to this Macanese imagining and memory making. But Brian brought even more: a gastronomic dimension.
King: The texts and images in Macau Days are based on the lives of six historical and mythological figures who lived for a time in Macau, a mixture of saints and sinners. Can you tell us a bit about these central figures?
Castro and Young: These figures lived in Macau in different eras. Today, some of their deeds are very well documented through text and visual images, whilst others, the more transient characters, could only be derived through documentations in Portuguese or Chinese, or from the time they spent outside of Macau itself. The goddess Mazu we know mainly through oral transmission, and existed only in myth. These varying aspects are probably the most exciting upshots in the memory making – the multi-dimensionality and the thickness of time this book reaches.
Mazu is the goddess of the sea after whom Macau is named. She is a mythical figure invoked by fishermen and sailors from the 10th century ACE.
Luis Vaz de Camões is a soldier and Portugal’s most celebrated poet from the 16th century who most famously wrote the epic poem The Lusiads.
Wu Li is a poet, painter and priest who was born in China in the 17th century – a generally obscure and holy man. He converted to Catholicism and became one of the three first Chinese Jesuit priests.
Giuseppe Castiglione is a Jesuit missionary, painter, well-known nobleman and friend of the Emperor, who was also born in the 17th Century, albeit some fifty years later than Wu Li.
Camilo Pessanha is a poet and lawyer who was disillusioned by the law in Macau and developed an opium addiction. He was around in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Wenceslau de Moraes is a Portugese writer, lover and traveller who features on the cover of our book. He is a tremendously interesting character, whose life in a sense is so much a part of our present sense of flight and homeless travel. He wrote extensively about the Far East. As a poet and man of letters, de Moraes arrived in Macau from Portugal, he married a Chinese woman and had a child, yet his roaming spirit took him to Tokushima, where he had yet another family. Having found his spiritual home in Japan, and his ultimate love, he left behind copious writings of his journeys in the Far East, yet never returned to Portugal. His was a diverse, multi-lingual life, a life of miscegenation, eccentricity, and becoming foreign.
King: Can you tell us a little bit more about the Chinese sea goddess Mazu?
Young: Traditionally and mythologically, Mazu was a young silent girl who saved the lives of seafarers, and could manifest herself at a distance without travel. She was clairvoyant. Historically, there stands a large statue of A-Ma or Mazu at the mouth of the harbour of Macau, welcoming all who arrive. Indeed, Macau was named as the translation of Mazu in Chinese. There is also a temple devoted to this shamaness, which holds too many stories to tell. As the feminine or the anima, she stands in stark contrast to another group of women, the women pirates – who ruthlessly ruled the Southern Chinese seas for centuries. Both these feminine aspects are referred to in the book.
King: What is the role of food – ‘the flavours of Macau’ – recipes and dishes as the work of memory?
Young: Memory is the work of flavour and smells, like Proust’s Madeleine biscuit soaked in tea. Food and its connotations become an immediate and visceral yardstick of a culture or place. You can always feel the differing proximity of a new culture’s food from your own ‘comfort’ food. It opens worlds up in an immediate way. Brian references food a lot in his writing to explore cultural differences in olfactory and taste – it’s a sort of intransitivity that has been more explored in the written text than in the visual arts.
King: How did you arrive at the unique format of melding recipes, trilingual poems, reflections and artworks into the publication?
Castro and Young: This was the best way we could think of combining memory and history and cultural re-call, bringing the eye, taste, sound and smell into a confluence of experience. It is the least likely but most indicative conjunction. Macau Days is less a social history or poem than is an eclectic work – a kind of objet or curiosité de Macau.
To listen to an in-depth interview between Natalie King, Brian Castro and John Young, come along to the launch on 14 November, drink a glass of champagne and have a squiz at what is bound to be a significant new cultural artefact. More details.
Banner image: Supplied by Art + Australia.