Na edição de 16 de Setembro de 1990 o New York Times publica um artigo intitulado "It's Countdown Time for Macao" da autoria de Robert Elegant. É um excelente resumo do que era o território quase a entrar na última década do século 20. Faltavam 9 anos para a transferência de soberania de Portugal para a China.
Knowing that both are doomed to extinction - at least in their present form - tiny Portuguese Macao is making a determined bid to take over Hong Kong's luster as a tourist mecca, particularly after the last two remaining foreign-ruled territories in China return to Beijing's rule, before the end of this century. There is a chance, albeit a remote chance, that Macao may succeed.
Hong Kong has attracted tourists first as a shopping paradise and second as the gateway to China. But prices are now high, and travel to China has shrunk to a tenth of its volume before the atrocity in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Otherwise, Hong Kong is a concrete, steel and mirror jungle of towering buildings, hardly the languorous paradise travelers expect in the subtropics.
Macao is not eschewing the high-rises - which include hotels that rival Hong Kong's. But it is also developing the resorts Hong Kong has never succeeded in featuring. An international airport - after 54 years with no international flights, indeed no airport at all - is designed to gain traffic and feed the resorts rising on the territory's two offshore islands, Taipa and Coloane. The airport is to open in 1993.
Besides, Macao will, Beijing willing, continue to offer the two traditional diversions that attract tourists from new rich Asian countries: gambling and girls. Although its immediate postwar abandon has diminished, Macao is still a city of sin.
In the minute Portuguese enclave on the southern edge of China, the past, however, is more important than the present or, perhaps, the future.
Minuscule Macao, which was taken by Portugal in 1557, was not merely the first European colony in China. It was Europe's and, later, America's first gateway to East Asia: Japan and Taiwan, as well as China itself.
Macao is also to be the last foreign colony in China. It will revert to Beijing's control in 1999, two years after Hong Kong does. Macao's glories are in the past. But what glories they were. In the 16th century, St. Francis Xavier, the Apostle to the East, made his epic voyages from Macao. In the 17th century, Portuguese battalions marched north from the colony to help the Ming Dynasty fight the invading Manchus - in vain. A few concrete remnants of the grandeur are still visible: the Monte Fort, whose guns drove off the Dutch invasion of 1522, and the grotto where Luis Cameoes, Portugal's national poet, is reputed to have worked on his epic poem, ''The Lusiad.'' The inevitable museums are a little threadbare and a little sad.
Amid the growth of modern high-rises, it is very hard to recreate in my mind the squalid, yet mysterious, tangle of lanes and alleys through which I followed George at a discreet distance on my early visits to Macao. George, a raffish Macanese, knew every opium dive and gambling joint in the colony. Opium was illegal, yet officially tolerated. Gambling was not only legal, but officially encouraged as well.
Forty years ago, when I first saw Macao, it had already been obsolete for a century. The emergence of energetic, pushy British Hong Kong had reduced it to a lethargic and charming backwater. Hardly seven square miles in all, it has always looked like a second-rank Mediterranean fishing port, rather than an imperial outpost.
Having during World War II won its reputation as ''the Lisbon of the Orient,'' a hive of intrigue and sin, Macao clung zealously to its evil ways. Its chief source of revenue was gold smuggling, its second gambling or, sometimes, the other way round.
Gamblers have long come to Macao, and their numbers are still increasing. More than six million visitors will enter Macao this year -an overwhelming number for a territory with less than half a million residents. Of these, 4.5 million will come from Hong Kong. Of the remaining 1.5 million, about a third will come from Japan, Korea and Taiwan, demonstrating the growing trend toward intra-Asian tourism.
In the 1950's, Macao also profited from general smuggling: refugees from China into Hong Kong and embargoed goods from Hong Kong into China. More prosaically, its chief manufactures were matches and firecrackers.
The second Macao International Fireworks Contest will be held from Sept. 27 to Oct. 5, lighting up the sky over the Praia Grande, the waterfront esplanade, with cascades of light that silhouette the heroic equestrian statue of Joao Ferreira do Amaral, the most tumultuous and colorful of the Portuguese governors who ruled the territory. Winners of the first contest were Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese factories; presaging the territory's eclipse, Macao fireworks have been driven out of the market by Chinese cheap labor.
Yet a century and a half of decline has now been arrested - temporarily perhaps. Macao is frenziedly building and expanding. Yellow construction cranes bob busily over new high-rises and over the beaches of its still bucolic outer islands as it prepares to be a fitting bride - or sacrifice - to China in 1999.
Among other baubles to please its new master, Macao is building an international airport. It will possess two complete sets of immigration and customs checks: one for passengers coming to Macao, the other for those going directly to China. It is a well-thought-out design to entice Asian travelers to come to Macao on direct flights, bypassing crowded Hong Kong.
Aside from those renewed ambitions and the end of gold trafficking (which became pointless after Richard Nixon let the price of gold float freely in 1971), the essentials of Macao are unchanged. The chief sources of income - and amusement - are still gambling and girls.
''The big spenders come down from Taiwan or Japan and take the presidential suites, which can cost as much as $2,000 a night,'' a concierge in a glossy hotel explained. ''But they're never in those suites. They're always in the casinos, which're open 24 hours a day.''
The symbol on its publications reaffirms Macao's continuity with the past. Not, however, the continuity of sin, but the continuity of piety. For its services in propagating the faith in the Far East, Macao was centuries ago honored with the title, ''The Holy City of the Name of God.''
Its symbol today is the Church of St. Paul, which was built in the early 17th century by the Society of Jesus. Striking out from Macao, the Jesuits were the first Europeans to penetrate Ming Dynasty China. Today only the five-story-high facade of their church remains. The facade of St. Paul's, the building stripped away by fire, has watched over Macao in much its present form since the year 1635. It impresses today with its power, as well as its sanctity, as it did then. Beneath the cross on the peak, four tiers of niches are filled with statues cast in bronze by the first cannon foundry in Asia.
The monumental flight of stairs leading down from St. Paul's is now used chiefly by tourists. At its foot lies a small plaza fringed with curio shops.
Lean Japanese marching behind triangular pennants and well-nourished Americans in baseball caps are, however, not noticeably drawn by the rather new antiques. Yet shops in the old quarters, as well, remarkably, as some of the hotels, still offer interesting, though not particularly valuable artifacts: porcelain made for export in past centuries, handicrafts of both Chinese and Indian origin, and, quite recently, Han and Ming Dynasty objets d'art newly looted from old tombs and allowed to leave the country by corrupt officials.
In the bright dawns of the 1950's, the first sight from the decks of the night ferry that took more than six hours to traverse the 40 miles from Hong Kong was of dark-green hillsides studded with villas painted pastel pinks, greens and blues. A Mediterranean port dominated by the bishop's palace looked down on the muddy Pearl River flowing intact for many miles through the white-capped South China Sea.
Today visitors peer through the spray-spattered windows of a jetfoil, which takes less than an hour from Hong Kong, or a hydrofoil, which takes an hour and a quarter. During their swift passages no one can stand on deck. (continua)