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A look at 19th century Macau through the eyes of French painter August Borget at Macau Museum of Art.

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Writer

They’re images painted far before this generation could ever remember. The location is an iconic one in Macau, A-Ma Temple. Yet, the scene is without doubt from a different era: children in robes and shaved heads at a game of chess laid out on the ground; a makeshift eatery where a small crowd gathers; two spotted pigs nearby are tucking in too, as a fortune-teller – clearly unperturbed by the activities around him - speaks to an absorbed devotee; two women with children pass by a noble lady and her maids; a boy takes an old blind man home, after wishing for better health at the temple. More people on the waterfront are gaming and trading. In the background, we see St. Paul Cathedral (before it became ‘ruins’ after a great fire that destroyed everything but the façade), and Mount Fortress guarding the (then-natural) coastline of Macau.

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The 1840 painting ‘View of the Great Temple in Macao,’ a glimpse into the Far East that Europe was just beginning to discover, was personally acquired by King of France Louis Philippe I, and it is one of the 140 works by French artist Auguste Borget (1808-1877) now on display at the Macau Museum of Art (MAM).

In one of his letters, Borget wrote: “My dear friend, it's so hard to describe the Chinese objects in European language, not to mention the Great Temple of Macao, surely the most beautiful wonder I saw on this earth… I come almost every day to this place, whose name in Chinese is Neang-Ma-ko (A-Ma Temple)... instead of being impressive by its grandeur, it draws attention by the smallness of its proportions and especially because of its eminent Chinese characteristics...”

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Related: Contemporary Art in Florence

Borget is not a name that immediately comes to mind when you think of great 19th century French artists, but in any case he was also an avid writer, deeply influenced by Honoré de Balzac. Looking at his paintings, you can see his ability to tell a memorable story as if they were written words. The eight short months that he spent in Macau inspired 40 of his paintings, which provided precious insights into colonial Macau – with all its colourful customs, people and dramatic changes – not only for someone involved in foreign affairs like the French king, but also to people today, helping to understand contemporary Sino-western relations.

The pictures are snapshots of the lives of the Chinese during the late 19th-century. On one hand, instability: a family relocating on foot with all their belongings; a beggar; a man on the cangue in an awful public humiliation with the flat wooden framework stating his wrong-doings locked around his neck; on the other hand, the emergence of typical Macanese neighbourhoods built around Portuguese churches: popular food stalls in St. Dominic Church square; locals chatting under laundry lines suspended between low-rise buildings, or strolling on the waterfront; a barber offering his service at a simple bench.

Macau Museum of ArtMacau Museum of Art

In love with this ‘holy land,’ as it had been named by the Portuguese, Borget returned and began a trading activity, before meeting English painter and long-time Macau expat George Chinnery. By 1839, he was “obliged to leave the Celestial Kingdom in which I had planned to stay much longer, as a result of the war that has broken out between England and China.” In subsequent years, he would continue working on the subject of China and her people in the forms of letters, lithographs, illustrations and more – some of which have been painstakingly gathered in this wonderful exhibition.

Macau Museum of Art

Avenida Xian Xing Hai, Macau