In downtown Macau stands a stone statue of a Portuguese explorer. Its size and prominent positioning give the impression that Jorge Álvares is a major figure in the history of this city-state known as the “Vegas of Asia.”
In reality, Álvares is such a riddle that his likeness here is based on guesswork and, 500 years after his death, no one can yet pinpoint the location of his greatest achievement—the first European settlement in China. Historians aren’t even sure how he died. What they do believe is his death occurred at an important but elusive place called Tamão.
Pausing at the base of this statue, in a small green space named Jorge Álvares Plaza, I realize it’s being ignored. Locals and tourists are instead posing for photos backdropped by gleaming skyscrapers or a Christian cross monument underlining the European influence on Macau, which was a Portuguese colony from 1557 to 1999.
In his 1955 book, China Landfall 1513: Jorge Álvares’ Voyage to China, author José Maria Braga, a Portuguese-Chinese teacher, wrote that until this statue was erected in the 1950s Álvares had been forgotten for hundreds of years.
Even now, with a plaza named after him, Álvares would be unknown to most people in Macau, according to Wu Zhiliang, president of the Macao Foundation, a government entity that safeguards Macau’s history and culture. “For the younger generation, he may be identified as a Portuguese navigator who made his way to China,” Wu says.
Those students learn that, under Portuguese rule, Macau grew into a rich, multicultural city. It fused European and Chinese cultures and, eventually, swelled with casino revenue. Yet this prosperous, diverse Macau may never have existed if not for Tamão.
That enigmatic Portuguese settlement, which lasted for eight years, was the forerunner of Macau, according to Jorge Flores of the European University Institute, a Portuguese expert on this period in history. “There is no direct link [between Tamão and Macau],” says Flores, “but Tamão contributed to teach the Portuguese how China, the Pearl River Delta, and the South China Sea worked.”
Hiding in plain sight
But where exactly was Tamão? Álvares marked the birth of Tamão in 1513 by planting a padrao somewhere between Hong Kong and Macau. These stone pillars, topped with a Christian cross, were erected by Portuguese maritime explorers to claim discovered land.
Historians from China, Macau, and Portugal have long disagreed about the location of that marker. Some have argued Tamão was at present-day Tuen Mun, in Hong Kong’s far west. Others have suggested Lantau Island or Chek Lap Kok Island.
The truth may lurk beneath one of the busiest places on the planet. Álvares probably planted that elusive padrao on land now occupied by Hong Kong International Airport. That is the opinion of one of the few experts on Tamão, Jin Guo Ping of the Center for Macaology at Jinan University in China.
“Chek Lap Kok is the most possible reference [for Tamão] because of its small size and relative ease to observe objects from afar,” Jin says. “Given its advantage in defense, it is a relatively ideal location for anchorage of vessels.”
The author Braga, meanwhile, thought Tamão was on Lingding Island eight miles northwest of Hong Kong airport. Flores is less specific, saying only it was “probably located at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, to the north of Lantau Island.”
Part of what makes Tamão so intriguing is the way this lost city is not concealed by remote jungle, or buried beneath avalanche rubble on a mountainside. Every year, millions of tourists fly above Tamão or cruise past it on the passenger ferries that connect Macau, Hong Kong, and China. Yet it is no closer to being found.
Flores and Jin have both said they’re not aware of any new evidence on Tamão’s location, or of any recent archaeological searches. Instead, the hunt for Tamão was being conducted by historians. They dig not through dirt in pursuit of proof, but through ancient manuscripts, maps, and diaries.
“It consists of minutely collating and interpreting the available written and visual materials of the period to try to reach some conclusions,” Flores says of this academic exploration for Tamão. “Yet, historical evidence is often scant and fragmentary in these cases. Scholars are usually left with a few signs and hints to decode, hence the lack of consensus.”
The voyage begins
Álvares faced a similar paucity of information when he set sail for China. The Portuguese had only been in Asia for 15 years, beginning with Vasco de Gama’s landfall in India in 1498. While they’d explored swathes of Asia’s south—gathering spices in Indonesia, silk in Thailand, and ivory in Myanmar—the continent’s north remained largely blank on their maps and in their notebooks.
The Portuguese had no idea what to expect of China. They could not know it was among the world’s most advanced civilizations, supporting modern cities, sophisticated art, thriving commerce, and vast infrastructure. The Portuguese did sense, however, that China was a place of great trading opportunity. So after Portuguese explorers seized the Malaysian city of Malacca in 1511, their King Manuel I tasked them with prying from the locals everything they knew about China.
When first I walked the weathered streets of Malacca, past Malay mosques, Portuguese churches, and Chinese temples, I was unaware of the power this port city once wielded. The Portuguese turned Malacca into southeast Asia’s key trading port. It also became the departure point for Álvares’ historic first voyage to China in 1513.
After Álvares’ junk boat arrived in Chinese waters, near Macau, he learned visitors were not permitted on the Chinese mainland without the permission of Ming Emperor Zhengde. Foreign merchants could trade with the Chinese. But they had to operate from one of the islands at the mouth of the Pearl River, which flowed through Canton, now known as Guangzhou, and out into the South China Sea, between Macau and Hong Kong.
So Álvares set up base at Tamão. Trade with the Chinese became brisk and lucrative. The Portuguese sold wine and spices, while buying delights like porcelain, pearls, rhubarb, and brocade.
Álvares reaped not only goods from these exchanges, but also valuable intelligence. In conversation with merchants from Canton, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, Álvares learned about China’s culture, religion, finances, and military, according to Braga’s book. To King Manuel I, fact finding was as important as establishing commercial agreements with the Chinese. Crucial, too, was maintaining the peace. Portugal did not want war with the mighty Ming Empire.
Tamão ends in blood
In August each year, a palette of bright colors reflects off the South China Sea. That spectacle is created by one of Macau’s tourism draws, the annual Macao International Fireworks Display Contest. Exactly 500 years ago this year, the waters near Macau witnessed an exhibit of explosives intended not to entertain but to maim. This was the Battle of Tamão.
While Álvares was mostly cautious and courteous in his dealings with the Chinese, some of his countrymen tread more treacherous paths. Six years after Tamao was established, with Portuguese–Chinese relations in good stead, Portuguese captain Simao de Andrade swept into the South China Sea like a typhoon.
De Andrade quickly angered the Chinese. First, he refused to pay taxes, then he assaulted a Chinese official and, finally, he created what Flores described as a “disruptive, militarized presence” at Tamão. It was there he began to build a fortress. In doing so, De Andrade gave China the impression the Portuguese were morphing from friendly traders into aggressive occupiers.
That disrespect was reinforced in 1521, by a Portuguese fleet’s refusal to pause trading in Chinese territory despite the death of Emperor Zhengde. Chinese naval vessels soon swarmed this settlement and, following a deadly battle, the remaining Portuguese fled. Tamão was abandoned. China suspended maritime trade. The Portuguese were forced to regroup in Malacca. It would take them decades to rebuild trust with China and earn permission to build a new settlement at Macau.
Following the ghostly trail of Álvares
Should a tourist want to trace this remarkable tale, their options are limited. They can see Álvares’ statue or go to the Macau Museum, where he is mentioned briefly. What visitors earn at that latter site, based in the 400-year-old Portuguese fort of Monte, is a sprawling view of Álvares’ legacy.
From that fort’s hilltop perch, I was able to spot the hulking casinos of Macau’s Taipa Island. Directly below me, on the Macau Peninsula, were the many ancient Portuguese structures which, collectively, help make up the UNESCO World Heritage site called the Historic Centre of Macau.
Clustered here are pretty Portuguese plazas, a 19th-century European theater, two Portuguese forts, many grand colonial mansions, and several timeworn Catholic churches. The neat manner in which they blend with Chinese temples and shophouses makes Macau’s old town a joy to traverse on foot.
Álvares didn’t live to see these fruits of his labor. He didn’t get to witness the birth of Macau, or the blossoming of a centuries-long relationship between Portugal and China. As generations expired, and Macau expanded, Álvares’ role was reduced to a footnote. He became little more than the subject of a Macau statue most people ignore. Even for the 500th anniversary of his death this year, I found no planned commemorative events, either in Portugal or Macau.
Yet one thing has never been stripped from Álvares. He remains in possession of an extraordinary secret. That prized information is buried alongside him. In 1521, Álvares was laid to rest next to the Portuguese signpost he erected on Tamão eight years earlier.
The mystery of that settlement, where the Portuguese first engaged China, is not close to being unravelled. What is clear is that Tamão, and the man who founded it, kickstarted a chain of events that ultimately spawned Macau, the European–Chinese hybrid that is one of the world’s most intriguing cities.
Ronan O’Connell is an Australian journalist and photographer. Follow him on Twitter.