Archive for Macau

The answer is to leave history

I was in Macau over the weekend for two reasons. First, to attend the graduation of a former Galaxy Entertainment colleague who had gone back to university as a mature student and second to spend some time at the “International Forum on UNESCO Memory of the World (MoW) International Advisory Committee-Working Group “Education and Research”, sponsored by the Macao Foundation and the Macau Documentation and Information Society. Graduations are always good events; all that work being acknowledged by friends and family and the sense of personal accomplishment. Our education is such a large part of our ‘personal history’. This made me remember that education is the wisest move I’ve every made, even when I didn’t do that well. I caught the opening of the MoW conference and then almost all of the first two presentations; Dr. Roslyn Russell, Chair of the International Advisory Committee of UNESCO Memory of the World Programme and then Professor Lothar Jordan, Chair of UNESCO MoW IAC Working Group Education and Research. I returned in the afternoon for a round-table discussion with Dr. Russell, Prof. Jordan and about a dozen others.

Memory of the World – what a great name for a cause and organization. What is it about? I’m going to say it is about capturing, documenting, interpreting and inspiring the memory of people. This particular part of it was focused on ‘documentary heritage’ – the written artifacts of memory. Macau has the well-deserved reputation in the Perl River Delta of being more historically aware and sensitive than either Hong Kong or Guangdong province. Its 400-year history as the final port-of-call in the Portuguese empire has given Macau a magical quality. Now dotted with gleaming fairy-tale casinos and rebranded as the Las Vegas of the East it has ample public funding for remembering its past. Oddly though, we didn’t talk about the specific documents from Macau very much at this forum. Maybe they did in the bit I missed in the morning but I don’t think so. The afternoon discussion was trying to figure out how the Macao Foundation could implement a feasible memory of Macau programme that could become part of the Memory of the World.

“The answer is to leave history”, which is something I’ve heard or read or seen but can’t place at the moment but kept running through my head as I listened to the group of historians, archivists and librarians talk about MoW and Macau. I’m pretty sure what they mean by memory is ‘personal history’ and not place or organizational history. Those memories, which are more personal and only understood once experienced. There was talk of a workshop which didn’t sound appropriate to me so I proposed a series of facilitated conversations about memory in Macau. Right away, this begged the question of who should/would/could attend these facilitated conversations? Should it only be academics, librarians, archivists and other information professionals? We agreed it should be more than just these professionals although they had skills and knowledge about memory, history, archives and documents that would be useful to know and learn. I would want to include people from the performing arts. My experience in Macau is that dancers, poets, playwrights, musicians are frequently mining their own Macau stories for their creative work. I would want the conversations to target identifiable groups; for example, Macau’s secondary school students, woman, recent immigrants, creative artists, academic and information professionals and so on. Two young men had many insightful comments. Inaciso Pangchi Chan from the Macau Heritage Ambassador Association noted that the Macau Archives were essentially inaccessible to the Macau public because the archival materials were frequently in Portuguese and most of the public only speak, read or write Chinese. The Ambassador Association organizes small group tours of 10 or less people for local Macau residents and these are frequently over subscribed showing a real passion for understanding local history in Macau. He noted that over half of Macau’s residents had only recently arrived in Macau and too frequently knew almost nothing about the history of Macau. Most alarmingly many young people in Macau didn’t know where the famous ‘Ruins of St. Paul’ were located, in the early 17th century the largest Catholic Cathedral in Asia. There is very little if any Macau history being taught in the secondary schools. This is due to a lack of teaching materials and there are no secondary school examinations on Macau history. I suspect failing to teach local or recent history is a common failing in many places. Hong Kong suffers from the same lack of local history in its secondary schools. Dr. Sharif Shams Imon from Macau’s Institute for Tourism Studies proposed that there should be some end-result for these conversations, for example, an exhibition or series of seminars. We agreed that this would be a good approach. As with most around the table discussions, the coffee break was lively and gave us a chance to talk in small groups. Hong Kong’s recent experience with national education and the strong public reaction against it was one of the threads. Focusing on ‘correct history’ by the middle and upper classes in Macau was another thread. Whitewashing history happens without people even imagining that they are doing it.

So if the Macao Foundation does try to run facilitated conversations on memory, personal history and the Memory or the World what should they do? I can imagine a series David Gurteen inspired knowledge cafés, Bohm Dialogues and Open Space Technology facilitated events run over a period of 3 to 6 months leading to an exhibition of the created and collected documents. I’ll be interested to see what happens in Macau with Memory of the World over the next 12 months or so. The answer is to leave history.

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Chinese Character Normalization – Finding People in Greater China

For most of this past year I’ve been working on a project that involved searching for Chinese people in various online databases using their Romanized names or their Chinese character names. When you are searching for someone’s Chinese name inside a database there are some quite thorny issues. With the rise of China as the world’s 2nd largest economy and Chinese people traveling and spending more and more around the world these issues about identifying Chinese people by their names are going to become a part of many knowledge workers day-to-day tasks. Here is the definition of Greater China from Wikipeida.

Most of the time trying to find a Chinese person among many other Chinese people in a database by name is not very successful. Most of the problems are around ‘Romanization’ and ‘Simplification and Traditional Chinese characters’. If you are interested in ‘Romanization’ see this Wikipeida entry. The ‘Romanization’ problem is that there are simply too many methods and no real standard.

In mainland China, people are by law required to use ‘simplified’ characters for their names. This assumes that there is a ‘simplified’ character for that name. In Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan people use ‘traditional’ characters for their names. If you are interested in the difference refer to this Wikipedia entry. In any event, ‘simplification’ is a master stroke of censorship and knowledge control by the mainland Chinese government. Mainland Chinese have difficulty reading books, pamphlets and newspapers from outside of China. What better way could there be of controlling knowledge than by changing the writing system people use every day? Conversely, people from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan have a difficult time reading ‘simplified’ characters. Some claim it is harder to go from ‘Simplified’ to ‘Traditional’ than from ‘Traditional’ to ‘Simplified’ but I’m not sure. Reading Chinese is always hard for me and I’ve learned both character sets, sort of, up to the 1,000 character mark.

However, since there are different character sets a problem arises when someone from mainland China comes to Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan and start to use their written character name to open accounts at banks, shops, hotels and so on. The same happens when people from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan go to mainland China. Simply put, people can’t easily read this person’s name. The solution is to ‘transform’ the name into the ‘correct’ character set; ‘Simplified’ Character to ‘Traditional’ Character or ‘Traditional’ Character to ‘Simplified’ Character. It happens all the time when a person opens an account where there details will be input into a database. They write down their name in the character set they are comfortable with using and the person either collecting the names or the data-input person ‘transforms’ this name. Interestingly, all Hong Kong and Macau Chinese people may apply for a ‘home return permit‘ card that lets them cross the border into China easily, and also lets the Chinese government know they have arrived. Their names are always ‘transformed’ into simplified characters when there is corresponding character between the ‘traditional’ character and the ‘simplified’ character. I assume these transformations are more accurate than some of the others. I know some of the transformations between ‘simplified’ to ‘traditional’ are not always accurate. This is due to imperfect knowledge of the mapping rules between the character sets. Sometimes people are in too much a hurry so they simply guess. All Chinese names have at least 2 characters and many, maybe the majority, have 3 characters. Sometimes the transformer will transform 1 or 2 characters and leave 1 or 2 character unchanged.

The end result is that if even if you have a Chinese person’s correct name you may not be able to find it in a database because someone has ‘transformed’ the name. Sometimes you can’t find a Chinese person in a database because you believe their name is written with character ‘X’ but in fact they write it with character ‘Y’. The only way to solve this problem is for the database’s search engine to ‘normalize’ the search. Here is an excellent summary of ‘normalization’ prepared by Michael CY Chan.

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Web 2.0 and a very public Hong Kong/Macau Family Feud

Hong Kong and Macau have had front row seats at a very public family feud over Stanley Ho’s fortune. The 89-year-old tycoon’s 3 living wives and 16 living children are positioning themselves for their share of between 2 and 3 billion USD, mostly in gambling and property assets. Rich people’s fighting in Hong Kong and Macau is very common and normally confined to private meetings and courtrooms followed by press conferences and newspaper articles. However, this feud has moved onto Youtube when one of Stanley’s lawyers posted 3 videos. This seems similar to the Wikileaks approach/philosophy of not having any secrets. I have no idea if it will help one-side of this family feud or the other-side.

Posting these videos on Youtube goes against the view ‘the Chinese’ like to be closed and secretive. Local culture in Hong Kong and Macau is a blending of Chinese, British, Portuguese, Japanese and American influences. Openness and transparency are not the norm but is that something truly Chinese? Maybe so, maybe not. I’m more than a bit suspicious of ascribing things to being ‘Chinese’. This is a good example of the 2 extremes for how to communicate; one open using Web 2.0 and putting it out there for everyone to see and one closed with controlling and censoring communication channels.

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Language Police – Why are you speaking Cantonese?

I’ve been in Macau now for almost 5 months. Just after I arrived I did a 2-week series of guest blogs at Cognitive Edge. Since then, I’ve been very quiet here except for updating the Events page and doing some twitting.

Some of those CE postings were about groups and how they define themselves. Being in Macau makes me think what is a group in this part of south-east China. How are Macau’s groups different from Hong Kong’s groups or are they different at all? There is something going on here in Macau that intrigues me and I’ve been noticing some rather odd ‘language encounters’ since I’ve been in Macau. In Macau people frequently speak Putonghua to me first in shops, taxies, buses, etc. If I answer in Cantonese (trust me when I say it is bad Cantonese) they switch to Cantonese and only seldom to English. In Hong Kong very seldom does someone speak Putonghua to me and when I speak or answer in Cantonese they frequently but not always respond in English. Some of this can be explained as skill-level with English in Hong Kong being higher than Macau. However the assumption of ‘this westerner may speak Putonghua’ in Macau is definitely a different assumption from Hong Kong.

Should we all speak the same language so we can share knowledge and information more easily? This has been the express aim of standardizing language in China for a few hundred years. It really got going in the 19th century with the ‘white language movement’ and since 1949 its been an aim of the central government to get the population to use Putonghua in conjunction with simplified Chinese characters and Romanized Pinyin Chinese. Changing the characters was and remains a master stroke in information control. Mainland Chinese cannot easily read newspapers and books published in the traditional characters used in Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The central government has been largely successful and even in Guangzhou, the home of Cantonese, the vast majority of people speak Putonghua very well. The case in Hong Kong and Macau is very different. Putonghua in Hong Kong and Macau is gaining ground slowly since the handover to China in 1997 and 1999. Putonghua is encouraged in Hong Kong and Macau but it is not a required language. It is very odd that the national language of China is not a requirement in the schools of Macau and Hong Kong.

Over the past several weeks there has been a groundswell of protests first in Guangzhou and then Hong Kong about the suppression of Cantonese in Guangdong province. These protests started when the local authorities proposed stopping Cantonese television broadcasts on the both of the local television stations. The justification was the Asian Games to be held in the autumn required more exposure to Putonghua, the national language of China, among the general population. Somehow, in a few months time with no local Cantonese television, the local population’s fluency would race upwards and everyone would sound just like they were from Beijing. Also, during the games visitors wouldn’t want to / need to watch Cantonese television. That there are several Putonghua television stations broadcasting 24/7 in Guangzhou was ignored by the local authorities. The reaction to this plan was swift and loud and in Cantonese. Protests were held in Guangzhou and these were quickly suppressed by the local authorities. The protestors moved to Hong Kong. The SCMP has been awash in a very old and acrimonious argument over the merits of Cantonese and Putonghua. Here is a nice summary of the history from a Victor Mair on the Language Log site. Lucy Kuo, of the LA Times has a similar view here. Chang Ping, a writer from mainland China, wrote this insightful editorial in the SCMP, here.

The Cantonese issue has not been reported in the Macau Daily Times, one of the English language papers here in Macau. From asking a few local Macanese they have told me it isn’t seen as much of an issue in Macau, ‘we really should speak Putonghua but we need to speak to our parents’ is the sort of response I heard. It does seem that Macau people are less wrapped up in being so identified with the Cantonese language.

I was in Hong Kong last week and when I asked a few long time Hong Kong friends about this controversy they were adamant that they were not going to begin speaking Putonghua anytime soon. Things like, ‘over my dead body this is going to happen’ is the sort of response I heard.

On the mainland there is an expression that can be paraphrased as, ‘nothing is more painful than having to listen to a Hong Kong person speak Putonghua’, it is meant in jest but it is true that listening to a Hong Kong Cantonese speak very high pitched Putonghua is rather painful.

Sharing knowledge normally does require sharing a common language. There are ways around this but they require technology and/or expensive human translators. Hong Kong likes to call itself ‘Asia’s World City’, but as Mark Pixley from Leadership, Inc. of Shenzhen likes to say it would be more accurate to call Hong Kong ‘China’s last Cantonese speaking city’. I wonder how long Hong Kong can stay this way?

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