AN INDOLENT PAST NESTED ON THE HILLS

by Eric Sautedé

Lilau Square is a striking embodiment of Macao’s identity: a place of en-counter, of cultural co-existence between the Portuguese and Chinese; place made permanent by the preservation and renovation of its remarkable urban structure and architectural styles.

On one side, covering three sides of the Square (Largo) along the Alley (Beco) and the Street (Rua) of Lilau, one falls under the charm of a typical Mediterranean atmosphere made of colonial houses with some very distinctive features such as patios, wooden shades covering numerous street windows or small bridges connecting detached houses and built to prevent the spread of pandemics in the nineteenth century. On the other, across the Barra Street, one stumbles upon the walls of an opulent traditional Chinese compound consisting of a series of brick courtyard houses covering an area of some 4,000 square metres along the street leading to the temple of A-Ma.

Lilau Square and its surroundings were one of the first residential quarters of the Portuguese in Macao, and later became the magnet for the rich, powerful or simply famous: among them British merchants from the East India Company; the retired official and literary figure Cheng Kuan-Ying who built his residential complex (the Mandarin’s House of today) in 1881; or the British sinologist and first translator of the bible into Chinese Dr. Robert Morrison, who lived behind Saint Lawrence Church; and his contemporary George Chinnery, British painter whose numerous and prodigious sketches and paintings of Macao have captured our imagination, who had his house and workshop for almost thirty years in the nearby Rua de Ignacio Baptista.

Largo de Lilau is situated at the very beginning of Barra Street in the prolongation of Rua do Padre Antonio, Rua de São Lourenço and Rua Central, defining an axis that runs parallel to the Praia Grande and offering an equidistant, thus convenient and yet sheltered connection between the Interior Harbour, where all commercial dealings used to take place, and the Praia Grande, the semicircular, half-moon shaped seaward beach of fame along which the Governor’s Palace took permanent residence in 1884.

Lilau is also associated with its fountain, its bica, one of the few natural springs of the territory and thus a vital resource for daily life back in the early days of Portuguese presence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But the effects of Lilau’s water go beyond its routine usage – the spring is imbued with powerful attributes, if the Portuguese popular poem is to be trusted: Who drinks the waters of Lilau, will never forget Macau: He either marries here in Macau, or else returns to Macau.

As often in Macao, the origin of the name Lilau is quite obscure and changed over time, although lilau means “water spring” in Portuguese. From some records, Nilau, later on transformed into Lilau for pronunciation’s sake, used to encompass a wider area and designate what is today Penha hill, which was rechristened when a chapel for Our Lady of Penha de França was built in 1622. In Chinese, the official name literally means “the old ladies’ well” and according to local lore refers to an altruistic grannie who, during the Ming dynasty, dug up the well to facilitate the life of the neighbourhood and its residents.

Since July 2005, the whole square has been recognised as UNESCO world heritage and is a landmark along the “historic centre” of Macao that runs between the emblematic A-Ma Temple, from which the name of Macao is derived, to the iconic Saint Paul’s Ruins, whose imagery has come to represent Macao in the world’s mind. The square has been tastefully and genuinely renovated with buildings being repainted in theiroriginal pinks, greens and yellows, and the square itself decorated with black gas lanterns and an elegant and peaceful kiosk that, together with a few wooden benches and the shade of two venerable banyan trees, create an atmosphere of utter serenity. The fountain itself, after having been condemned for almost a century and badly redesigned in the 1990s, has now been restored to its original self, together with itsbasin in granite and its chubby-child face fountain-head in bronze, thanks to the attention and dedication of municipal architects. Artists are back too: the renowned French sculptor Jacques Le Nantec and his photographer wife Armelle have set-up their museum in Rua de Lilau, and as the Macao government has pre-empted most of the surrounding buildings with a view to make heritage “alive” once more, further developments and cultural rejuvenation of the area will undoubtedly occur in the near future.