Sunday, March 6, 2016

City of Broken Promises: The Complexities of Expatriate Life

View of the Praya Grande, attributed to Lamqua
         This is a city of broken promises.  I know it.  I was born here.
         It may be that you will try to keep your promise.  If it still
         pleases you to keep me here, I am sure you will. But this
         you must know.  Though I might dearly love to, I would be a fool
         if I believed you.  In Macao we know this, that when the time
         comes it is always otherwise.  Whatever words may have been
         said, whatever promises made, when an Englishman goes, it is

         A few months back, I had the good fortune to meet Patricia Lemos, a journalist based in Hong Kong.  Patti was in Salem, Massachusetts doing research on Harriet Low, a young women from the town who voyaged to Macau in 1829 and resided there for the next four year, whose nine-volume journals provide a marvelous glimpse into expatriate life in China in the early nineteenth century.  Patti had read my chapter on Harriett in True Yankees, wanted to learn more, and so arranged for us to meet at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library, a trove of materials from the East Indies trade.  Our chat was delightful, and I learned much about Low’s life after she left Macau and settled in Great Britain.  Patti’s research will give us a dramatically different idea of the woman that Harriett Low became.

         A month or so after our meeting, an unexpected package arrived in the mail, bearing Hong Kong postage.  Patti had kindly sent a thank you gift—a fascinating piece of fiction entitled City of Broken Promises, a depiction of the Old China Trade from British and Portuguese perspectives.  First published in 1967 (and repeatedly reissued), the book was penned by Austin Coates (1922-1997), an erstwhile British diplomat who spent over a decade in East Asia.  With most of my time committed to research and teaching, I do not have a great deal of time left for fiction; however, reading Coates’s work brought some unanticipated surprises.

City of Broken Promises is a complicated book.  On one level, it is a love story between a British East India Company (BEIC) supercargo and an orphaned Portuguese-Chinese girl/woman.  It is certainly a fascinating literary work, and scholars interested in this aspect of the book will find Rogério Miguel Puga’s review a penetrating analysis.[2]

         On another level, the book recalls the career of Thomas Kuyck Van Mierop, whose tenure in China covered the years 1780 through 1797. Van Mierop’s journal served both as Coats’s primary source of evidence, as little else has survived that would help to recover the tale, and as a literary device that Coats used to provide the fabric for the multiple themes that the book develops.

         City of Broken Promises is especially the story of Marta da Silva, the Luso- Chinese woman who lives at the bottom of Macau’s complicated social structure. Confined between the interstices of race, gender, and class, Martha struggles to find a place in which she can locate her identity and protect her integrity.  We first find her as an orphan who must navigate the close customs of both cultures, as well as that of the English who are beginning to dominate Macanese society and economy.  Van Mierop promises to marry Martha, and to extricate her from the confining web that is his Macau.  But, will he?  More interesting still, as Martha begins to use her own wits to establish a life of independence, did she need him to do so?

         In my first pass at the book, it was the wonderfully complicated constellation of plots, the intricate nuances of expatriate life that I found especially intriguing.  Through Martha and Thomas, Coates explores the dizzying array of customs, laws, mores, and expectations that expatriates were required to navigate in order to survive Macau’s colonial society.  This is an especially fruitful vein for Americanists like myself.  Through Coates’s writing, we are introduced to a different view of the East Indies trade, one that transcends conventional categories such as ‘Americans in the China Trade,’ ‘the British colonial world,’ or ‘the Portuguese in Macau.’  City of Broken Promises carries us into a world that is not just oriental, but, indeed, one that had to be as disorienting for its participants as it can be for historians who attempt to make sense of it.  The novelist Coates reminds historians that our efforts to reveal the past, to recover the voices of the forgotten, requires imagination as well as research. 

[1] Austin Coates, City of Broken Promises (Aberdeen: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), 149.
[2] Rogerio Miguel Puga, “Thomas Kuyck Van Mierop, East India Company
Supercargo in Macau,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch,  51 (2011): 7-30.

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