The Goddess of Macau
by Graeme Hall
(Fly on the Wall Press, 2020)

Macau is a liminal space in at least two senses. First, it is a former colony of Portugal and a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, hence it bears traces of cultures of both countries without fully belonging to them. When I travelled to Macau from mainland China in the 1980’s, the main impression then was that it was very much unlike China, with its posh shops with air conditioning, casinos, clean streets, and people dressed in Western styles, unlike those in Beijing, whose appearance was Oriental and largely frozen in the past. Although I was aware that this impression was superficial, it remained in my mind ‘til the present day. The second reason of Macau’s liminality is that it is placed on islands, not unlike Venice. Hence it is suspended between sea and the stable land and, by the same token, between life and death.

Graeme Hall, the author of the collection The Goddess of Macau, plays on these connotations of Macau, yet without stating them explicitly. They are just weaved into stories of various inhabitants of Macau, representing different generations and classes as well as people from the outside, yet connected with the indigenous population. For example, water as a promise of escape and as a treacherous element is present in “And All Will Be Well” and ‘River Crossing with Night Herons.”

Apart from the setting, the eight stories collected in this short book are linked by their main subject of loss, understood as a situation when something important cannot be regained or redeemed, but its absence haunts the present. In some cases, this haunting verges on literal. This is the case in “River Crossing with Night Herons,” where a young couple escapes from the communist Red Guards who arrived in their village by crossing a river, but only one of them—the man—survives. This leads to him continuously replaying past events in his head and, ultimately, solitude and waiting for death so that he can be reunited with his beloved. On other occasions, the loss is more subtle; it refers not so much to losing people, as missing an opportunity. Such a situation can be found in “The Jade Monkey Laughs,” which is my favourite in the entire collection. Its protagonist, a female servant, has an affair with her boss, hoping that it would lead to a marriage. However, he changed his mind due to malicious rumours, but she remained in his service for over 50 years until he decided to leave his home and move in with his niece. His farewell gift is a collection of precious jade animals, yet in reality, this gift is worthless because the woman exchanged these animals, locked in a cabinet, for fake ones, except for a laughing monkey, whose cheap replacement she failed to find and whose owner decided to keep for himself, perhaps in he knowledge that she was cheating him. In this story, the loss is doubled, as first it is caused by quashing the romantic hopes of the heroine and second by quashing her hope for a small revenge.

Throughout the stories, we get many details, giving us insights into life in Macau. They concern, for example, making tea, which provides the title of the first story, “A Short History of Chinese Tea”: “I enjoy making tea, a skill I learnt from my aunt, and I take pleasure in the attention to detail that is needed. I know, for example, that for jasmine the water should not be too hot, but instead should have crab eyes. It was my aunt who taught me how to judge the temperature of boiling water from the size of the bubbles. Shrimp eyes the coolest, and then crab eyes, fish eyes, rope of pearls and raging torrent.”

These details point to the difference between the inhabitants of Macau and other places, as well as the role of rituals in their lives. Practically all of Hall’s characters respect traditions, of which drinking tea is just one example, but women have a duty to transmit them, as is the case with an aunt teaching his niece the art of teamaking. By the same token, these characters respect social hierarchies. This makes women disadvantaged, as they don’t enjoy the privilege of choosing their own partners, but they have to wait for men to choose them (or not) and have to put up with their infidelities, cruelties, addictions, indifference, and absence. Whilst they are victims of patriarchy, at the same time they need to live as “modern women,” earning their living, on occasions as prostitutes, as is the case of Mei-Wa, the main character of two stories: “The Price of Medicine” and “From Somewhere the Scent of Jasmine,” as well as the lady who excelled in tea-making and eventually opened her own tea-house because her wealthy husband left her almost destitute.

The juxtaposition of tradition and modernity is also reflected in the structure of some of Hall’s stories. They often take place at two temporal orders and include two voices: one belonging to the character living in the present and one from the past. It takes some time to discover that these are the same people, as time has inevitably changed them. However, the usually traumatic past holds grip on their present. The only way to escape is death and even this is not a final escape, as the dead turn into ghosts haunting the living, such as the wife of the owner of the antique shop, vising her sick husband in “From Somewhere the Scent of Jasmine” before she takes him with her for good.

Given that China has changed so much, reading Graeme Hall’s subtle, touching, and well-constructed stories, I wonder what he thinks about the future relation between this giant country and this relic from the past. Will it become like other large Chinese cities or preserve its liminal status? Judging on the ending of “An Apartment on Coloene,” whose protagonist has a gift of predicting the future, it is better not to know.

Click here to buy The Goddess of Macau.