Notes from Underground by Edward Wilson-Lee

Edward Wilson-Lee

Notes from Underground

 

Last September, during typhoon season, I was in the Chinese city of Macao at the invitation of a local literary festival to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Luís de Camões, the Portuguese national poet and author of the epic Lusiads. Like many things to do with the shadowy life of Camões, the exact date of his birth is unknown, but the celebrations will culminate this year on 10 June, the Dia de Camões, which is also Portugal’s national day. 

Macao today is a strange Chinese-American confection, a ‘special administrative region’ to which the middle classes are bussed from inland to visit the only legal casinos around. Gambling at baccarat is taken seriously here and is done in unexpected silence. But away from the mirrored and hulking palaces of sin, the city retains its Luso-Cantonese colonial character, which can be detected in the neoclassical buildings through which drifts the sweet smell of ba wwa, a Macanese caramelised pork delicacy. And as in any long-standing settlement, there are reminders of earlier residents, from the Temple of A-Ma, which honours the goddess after whom the city is named, to the Jesuit College of São Paulo, of which only the facade remains. 

As the city began to close in response to signal number eight, which indicated the approach of Typhoon Koinu, I hurried to reach a promontory that holds a shrine of another kind: the Gruta de Camões or Camões Grotto, in which the vagabond poet had supposedly written part of

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