This unique library contains over 20,000 books of all kinds and in a huge variety of languages, many of which have been in its collection for countless decades. The history of the collection charts a veritable book odyssey that began in 1873.
In that initial year, Januário Correia de Almeida, Viscount of São Januário, the then governor of the Province of Macao and Timor, approved the acquisition of articles that would form the beginnings of a private library, the Biblioteca Macaense (Macanese Library). It was to include national and foreign books for the use of a handful of members and subscribers. The acquisition of books for the library was given to an adminis-trative commission group, made up of illustrious personages such as interpreters, translators, professors, civil servants, and writer and journalist Pedro Nolasco da Silva.
In 1884 Clube União, which had already gifted books to Biblioteca Macaense, opened its own library with books that it sent for from Portugal. According to articles published at the time in local newspapers Echo Macaense and O Independente, however, there was a need for a library in Macao that was public and open to everyone.
Ten years later, the Macao Central Library was established, next to Liceu Nacional (National School). It was funded by donations from local readers and regulated by the government of José Horta e Costa. At one point it worked out of a room in the Santo Agostinho Convent and the Hotel Bela Vista building.
In 1922 journalist Henrique Valdez put public pressure on the administration to give the library a permanent home in the former Flora artillery barracks. As he wrote in the newspaper O Liberal: “In the Guides to Macao we will no longer, as now, tell tourists to visit the São Paulo ruins, the fantan houses or the opium factory; we will also tell them to visit Grande Parque, the Museum and the Public Library.”
In the end, in 1927, the Macao Public Library was set up in two rooms of the then Leal Senado, the former Macao city hall whose building is currently occupied by the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau.
Building up the library
The Macao Public Library was inaugurated in 1929 after many months of work, receiving books and drawing up regulations, which, amongst other things, set out that owners, directors or managers of companies and publishers were required to send two copies of each of their publications to the library.
A year later the Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post wrote: “In the Senate House there is a beautiful library (…) which is said to be a replica, on a smaller scale, of the celebrated library of the Convent at Mafra, in Portugal. The most attractive thing you can see in the Macao library are the delicate carvings that make the lower of the two floors pleasant and peaceful.”
The Library of the Convent at Mafra was designed by Portuguese architect Manuel Caetano de Sousa in the Louis XV style at the request of the Canons Regular of St Augustine. To this day it is considered to be one of the most important Portuguese libraries, with a valuable collection of around 36,000 books, whose shelves are elaborately carved from Brazilian wood.
Several articles in the Macao press, and elsewhere, would later describe the Macao Public Library as “one of the richest libraries in the East” and “the pride of Macao”.
In the 1950s the number of readers registered at the library was around 4,000 and the books supplied were numerous – including 14,000 books from the late Commander Dr Lourenço Marques. In 1962, the now re-named Macao National Library by the Overseas Minister (Ministro do Ultramar), had over 43,000 books.
Luís Gonzaga Gomes, a renowned Macao intellectual, was the interim librarian. From 1962 to 1967 he did notable work including binding a number of works into folios, including old Macao newspapers and magazines, to allow researchers to access them. The lawyer, professor and writer Henrique de Senna Fernandes was the library’s director for almost two decades.
The library is on the first floor of the grand neoclassical building housing the old Leal Senado. In stark contrast to the stone stairs leading up to it, flanked by granite Doric columns, modern glass doors open up into two completely different rooms. The first is modern, with shelves full of large heavy-looking books, some reading desks and a microfilm viewer. The second is a two-storey library furnished in elaborately carved wood and filled with ancient tomes. Some of the books are on display in glass-topped cabinets.
Stella Lee is a translator and researcher at the Cultural Institute. For the last ten years she has focused on the collection at the library, based in a chilly private room piled high with musty-smelling documents and manuscripts.
Last year Lee’s publicaton Confrontation and Inter-change: Review of Rare Books of the Macao Central Library, included synopses of 114 works that are most representative of local texts not produced in Chinese.
“The collection … covers all areas. A majority of the books belonged to people from Macao. For example Camilo [Pessanha] owned both works of literature and linguistics, including the study of Chinese. Pedro Nolasco da Silva, who to my mind was the most important donor, worked as an interpreter for the government and as a teacher, which accounts for his large collection,” Lee explains.
Copies of Tratado de Amizade e Commercio entre Portugal e a China (Treaty of Friendship and Trade between Portugal and China) (1888), are held in three different versions – Portuguese, Chinese and English, the latter a limited edition by British publisher Dorling Kindersley.
“It was printed with watermarks,”says Lee. “When we see rare books and we find this type of paper we immediately understand the importance of the book. If, for example, it was a dictionary, this type of paper wouldn’t be necessary.”
Also in the collection is the small volume Regni Chinensis Descriptio (1639), by Father Nicolaus Trigautis. It is proof that at the time, despite the complex printing process, books the size of modern paperbacks were already being printed.
Some of the dictionaries in the library tell a special story of their own. They are precious examples of the first books in Europe and Macao to be printed using moveable type – a method of printing using moveable components, such as letters, to produce the text. One such text is Christiani Pueri Institutio (1588) by João Bonifácio. The edition held at the library is not the original but a subsequent edition printed by the Cultural Institute, though nonetheless invaluable for the tale it tells.
As Lee explains, “One day a missionary stopped in Macao on his return to Japan from a mission to Europe (which took in the Vatican), accompanied by some young Japanese ambassadors. They stayed in Macao for ten months, waiting for “good winds” to enable them to continue on their journey. In that period they printed a book, which they did with the aid of moveable type equipment.”
The missionary was the humanist, theologian and evangeliser of the East, Alexandre Valignano, and the young men were representatives of the daiymos (feudal rulers) of Kyushu (the third largest island of Japan). It is not clear where they acquired their printing equipment, but it is believed to have been from Madrid or Lisbon.
Christiani Pueri Institutio, about the Christian education of young people, was the first book to be printed in Macao by a printing machine using moveable type. Produced in Macao’s Jesuit College, it came 135 years after Johannes Gutenberg (1400–1468) used moveable type to print the Bible, and 200 years after the Korean Buddhist Treaty was published – considered to be the oldest publication printed in the Orient using the same method.
Before that a book by Father Miguel Ruggiere, a companion of Matteo Ricci in the evangelisation of Southern China, had been printed in Macao, but using the woodcut printing technique employed for several centuries in China.
Some time later, Englishman Robert Morrison published another book with the support of the East India Company. This was book was printed using moveable type but in two languages.
Lee explains how difficult it would have been to produce the huge English-Chinese dictionary, involving so many characters and of such varying sizes. Some of the translations include encyclopaedic-level contextualisations.
“This book is very important because it was pioneering in the history of translation and it was made in Macao,” she says.
As the researcher notes, moveable type in Chinese in fact appeared four centuries before Guttenberg’s Bible. Woodcut printing was a technique used in China and then in Korea and Japan in the seventh century. Blocks of wood were used to carve out images and texts that could be reproduced by embossing, though the technique was not very practical and therefore not often used.
Unlike the Western alphabet, hundreds of moveable characters were needed to print a book in Chinese. “At least 2,000, but 20,000 was the best option,” Lee explains. “There was also the time needed to organise them on paper.” It is estimated that Morrison’s book, for example, took around ten years to complete.
According to the researcher, it did not take long for the printing technology developed in Macao to be implemented in cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai by Macanese people such as the Noronha family, whose signature can be seen on several books in the Library.
Small collection with a big impact
Although the library is relatively small, it is quite diverse. As well as literature, linguistics and China studies, on the first floor, which is not normally open to the public, are housed books on history, mathematics, philosophy, religion, botany and medicine. Included are books with titles like Feeding the brain, Treaty on Naval Hygiene, and Conversations in Eastern China. “Hardly anyone looks at these books anymore, they are too obsolete,” the researcher says.
Currently the most looked-up items at the library are newspapers, by researchers and journalists. Luciana Ritchie, who worked at the library for several years and is now digitalizing works at the Areia Preta archives, highlights some rarities in the collection, including fragile and brittle copies of Macao newspapers Abelha da China (1822), Gazeta de Macau (1824) and Echo do Povo (1869).
Abelha da China (China Bee) was Macao’s first newspaper and is also considered to be the first newspaper in modern Chinese history. Issue One was published on 12 September 1822 at a time of great political agitation due to clashes between liberals and absolutists. It was published weekly on four pages of Chinese-made paper and its editor was the Dominican prior in Macao, Friar António de S. Gonçalo de Amarante.
“We have these copies kept in special boxes that stop them being destroyed by damp. Many of them are also available on microfilm,” Ritchie explains. In addition, we have copies of 20 current newspapers, 100 old newspapers, and official bulletins of all the former Portuguese colonies: Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea, India, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Príncipe, and Timor. In terms of books, we currently have around 20,000.
The library is no longer the biggest but is still the most beautiful and special library in Macao. Housed as it is in the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau (IACM) building, it is sometimes known as the IACM library, and shares the pride of the IACM in the building’s place on the List for UNESCO World Heritage. At one time it promoted and hosted cultural activities such as book launches, talks and celebrations of commemorative dates, though these events are now infrequent. “Since the transfer of administration to China there has been a lack of interest in these types of activity. It’s a shame,” Ritchie says. Perhaps it has been overtaken by more modern partnerships and is not part of the usual tourist trail but, as Valdez predicted, the library is included in some of the city’s guides.
Macao now has eight public libraries. These libraries are split into two sectors, each with basic copies of books in Chinese and Portuguese and other foreign languages. The main one, the Central Library, opened in 1983 in Tap Seac Square. It has a collection of around 123,000 books, copies of 310 magazines, 39 different newspapers, and 234 rolls of microfilm. It is part of a public reading network of over 200,000 volumes in total, made up of the libraries of the former Leal Senado, Sir Robert Ho Tung, Itinerant, Mong Há, Ilha Verde, Taipa Island, and Coloane.
Since 1993 all have undergone a digitalisation plan that allows readers access to books and publications via a computer. As well as newspapers, and thanks to the continuous installation of new equipment, some literary works are now also available in digital format.
On Avenida Almeida Ribeiro, right in the tourist heart of the city, is a well-hidden treasure often overlooked by Macao residents and tourists alike. En route to the city’s more famous casinos and bakeries, visitors regularly pass right by a fascinating piece of history housed in the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau: the library of the former Leal Senado. (By Filipa Queiroz/macauhub)