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Camilo Pessanha’s Macau Story: How the Chinese City Inspired Portuguese Symbolist Poetry

By Mr Christopher Chu and Ms Maggie Hoi


Camilo Pessanha arrived in Macau in the spring of 1894, leaving behind both a legacy, as well as a part of himself – literally. The Portuguese symbolist known for the Clepsydra rests inside Cemitério São Miguel Arcanjo, Saint Michael the Archangel Cemetery, where the turquoise blue chapel compliments the colorful Portuguese architecture of nearby Praça do Tap Seac, Tap Seac Square, and the neighboring São Lázaro parish which includes St. Lazarus’ Church.

Photo 1: Camilo Pessanha seated in the front row, far left. Sun Yat-sen is seated in the front row, second from the right.


It is often believed that a broken heart prompted Camilo’s decision to leave Portugal and head east. His marriage proposal to Ana de Castro Osório, the sister to Portuguese writer and close friend Alberto Osório de Castro, was rejected. Camilo and Ana remained cordial, often penning letters to each other over the subsequent decades. It would later be Ana’s initiative to publish Camilo’s poetry into a consolidated book, which would later become the Clepsydra.


Generation connections

Camilo linked Lusitanians across geographies and generations. While his poetry has been extensively studied, his personal life made for good art. Inside the dining rooms of Portuguese restaurants 1601 ALBERGUE hangs various murals designed by architect Carlos Marreiros. The artwork décor fits comfortably within the yellow painted dormitories of Albergue da Santa Casa da Misericórdia where women and children once sought refuge during the uncertainty that unfolded during the poet’s time.

Other remnants are less obvious, hidden among the parks, gardens, and buildings scattered throughout Macau. Under the Guia Hill Lighthouse and surrounded by residential apartments is Jardim de Vasco da Gama, the Garden of Vasco Da Gama, which was built in 1898 to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the Portuguese explorer’s trips from Europe to India. In addition to fundraising with Hong Kong’s Portuguese diaspora for the project’s construction, Camilo penned “São Gabriel,” a poem which referenced Da Gama’s ship that took him around the Southern coast of Africa.


 


Photo 2 & 3: The original fountain of the Jardim de Vasco da Gama before the bust of the explorer was added in 1911. The picture shows the park as it sits today.


The garden is across the street from the Instituto Cultural de Macau, the Cultural Affairs Bureau, a yellow-white building that had once served as the home for Liceu de Macau, a Portuguese-curriculum public secondary school. After stints as Head of the Land Registry and later a deputy judge, Camilo returned to the classroom where his dog Arminho would accompany him for lectures. He gave speeches at the Grémio Militar de Macau (known today as the Macau Military Club) and another at the Governor’s Palace, discussing the role of ancient Chinese art in modern society.

Following his death in March 1926, Rua do Mastro next to Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro (commonly referred to as San Ma Lo) was renamed Rua Camilo Pessanha. In the 1980s, Camilo’s image was featured on Macau’s currency, the pataca, until the city’s handover in 1999. That same year, a statue of both the poet and his dog were erected in front of Hotel Lisboa. In 2016, an art installation of Camilo was later installed in the courtyard of the Portuguese consulate, which served as the St. Raphael’s Hospital during the writer’s time in Macau.


Macau’s Historical Witness

Camilo’s tenure in Macau overlapped as global conflicts were reshaping country borders.  A year after Portugal transitioned away from its monarchy in Lisbon, Camilo was part of a Macau delegation to welcome Sun Yat-sen just months after the Qing Emperor made way for China’s republic. But the former teacher/lawyer/judge was often mired in controversy as well. His relationship with a concubine offered fodder from the local press while his use of opium physically hindered his health. Inside the municipal chambers of the Leal Senado Building, Camilo petitioned for greater Chinese representation. He was later brutally attacked following an unfavorable ruling when serving as Head of the Land Registry.


Despite his literary contributions, in Macau Camilo is often overshadowed by Luís de Camões, the 16th century Portuguese poet believed to have partially written the epic tale Os Lusíadas, The Lusiads, by Inner Harbor. Like Camilo, Camões’ image was celebrated on Macau’s pataca, but Camões’s June 10th death day is observed both in Macau and Portugal to recognize Lusitanian cultural pride and its language. In a 1924 speech, Camilo once questioned if Camões had ever landed in Macau, but cited the Os Lusíadas poetry as reflecting the sadness one experiences when exiled away from home. Camilo believed that it was the emotions of despair and the shared experience of struggle that connected strangers across different races, faiths, and philosophies.

 

Photo 4: Members of Instituto Macau in 1920 standing at the Camões Grotto. Camilo Pessanha is pictured second from the left.


Today

Camilo’s life in China coincided as questions arose how Macau would exist between new republics in Portugal and China. But despite the changes around him, many of Macau’s buildings that Camilo admired still stand today. When his 1999 statue was installed, the northern edge of the Taipa was visible from the side of the Hotel Lisboa. Today, that view is now blocked by cosmopolitan structures and integrated casino resorts.


While discussions have risen to exhume Camilo’s remains to the National Pantheon of Portugal - the highest posthumous tribute reserved for only the most respected Portuguese citizens - subsequent planning has never materialized. Camilo’s story in Macau is as much a part of Macau as the Chinese city itself. The centenary anniversary of Camilo’s death takes place in 2026 - It will be interesting to see what other changes are in store as the calendar pages turn.

 

Photo 5. Camilo Pessanha, seated in the second row far left while holding his dog, Armino, at Liceu de Macau.


Notes:

Christopher Chu and Maggie Hoi are the co-authors of Macau’s Historical Witnesses and Camilo Pessanha’s Macau Stories. Both books are available in the club’s library.

Photo 1: Sun Yat-sen’s 1912 visit to Macau. Photo courtesy of The Archives of Macao (MNL.09.13.F).

Photo 2: Jardim de Vasco da Gama. Photo courtesy of The Archives of Macao (MO/AH/ICON/MTL/MO/014).

Photo 3: Wikimedia Commons.

Photo 4: Members of Instituto Macau in 1920. Camilo Pessanha is pictured second from the left. Photo courtesy of The Archives of Macao (MNL.01.09G.Icon).

Photo 5: Wikimedia Commons. Photograph journey by António Conceição, published in Hoje Macau newspaper in July 2010.

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