Down a narrow street in one of the oldest districts of Macao is a new museum that celebrates a profession that was common in the city but has died out and almost disappeared from the public memory – the watchman.
The Patane Night Watch House opened in December last year, thanks to a painstaking three-year restoration undertaken by the Cultural Affairs Bureau (IC). It was the last remaining such house in Macao but had not been used as such for several decades and fallen into disrepair.
In a speech at the opening of the new museum on 18 December, Ung Vai Meng, president of the IC, said: “we hope that, through the opening of this museum and bringing to life this old building, more people will be able to understand the history and culture of Macao.”
The small museum, with two exhibition halls, vividly brings back to life the watchmen who patrolled the streets of the city for more than three centuries and rang a gong to mark each two hours of the night until they were replaced by policemen, the widespread use of clocks and watches and other forms of modernisation.
“In the 19th century, there used to be more than 90 of these watch houses in districts of the city inhabited by Chinese,” said a guide from the IC. “This was a historical tradition that also existed in cities in mainland China. In the 1960s, there were about 14 left – but the profession had vanished by the 1970s.”
The houses were an important part of the community. The watchmen kept guard day and night against fires, floods and thefts; the houses were centres of information and assistance to the residents in an era before radio, television and newspapers. It was a profession that was respected, if not well paid.
“The watchmen enjoyed a high social status in their area,” the guide said. “They had to be trusted and respected by the community. They were people of responsibility, who warned residents of dangers, like fire, floods, and caught thieves. They were community-based and performed social services.
“Some started young and had the job for their entire life, until retirement. In those days, people did not often switch job. Their retirement depended on their health and their own wishes. There was no legally fixed date,” she said.
The IC decided to do the restoration, together with the Patane Mutual Aid Association, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the “Historic Centre of Macao” becoming a World Heritage site.
It began the restoration work in November 2012. It was no easy task. The site had not been a watch house for many years; it had been used as a shop and a sports club and then fell into disrepair. The original items that were there were lost.
The principle of the IC is to restore a building to its original state, using the same materials and techniques as those when it was built. It commissioned a survey of the site and investigated how to restore the structure and façade. The original layout of the house was restored, including a reproduction of its unique features like a large retaining stone and a fresco inside the house.
In addition, it commissioned detailed historical research on such night watch houses and the network of them throughout the city in order to provide the material needed for the exhibition and work out how the space should be used.
“There were many difficulties in the restoration,” the guide said. “The craftsmen with the skills needed came from Hong Kong and Guangdong. They were people with 20-30 years’ experience who were very skillful and had worked on similar houses in Guangdong. It was difficult to find the appropriate people. They worked with the IC conservation team.”
Another difficulty was to find the raw materials, like the blue bricks, that had been used in the original structure.
To find the raw materials they needed, the conservationists had to go to demolished sites to talk to those who wanted to salvage useful materials before they were taken away as trash to dumps or given to other people to re-use. The project involved both conservation and many other kinds of works, which is why it took three years.
Two local historians, Chan Shu-weng and Albert H.K. Lai, played an important role in collecting many items that they donated to the museum, including a water cannon, receipts and silver whistles.
In addition, the IC commissioned Poon Kam Ling, a local painter, to draw images of the daily life of a watchman. They hang on the walls of the museum, giving the visitor a vivid picture of his routine. There is also a video with interviews about the lives of the watchmen.
After three years of hard work, the official opening was held on 18th December last year. In attendance were Ung Vai Meng, President of the IC; Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes, Director of the Macao Government Tourist Office; Shao Bin, Representative and Assistant of the Chief of the Department of Education and Culture of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the SAR; Ho Ion Sang, Vice-President of the General Union of Associations of Macao Residents; Vong Su Sam, Chairman of the Tou Tei Mio Patane Mercy and Charity Association; and Wong Wa Keong, Chairman of the Patane Mutual Aid Association.
The museum is a joint project with the Patane Mutual Aid Association, which manages the Tou Tei Temple next door, which is Taoist. The museum and the temple are the two historical buildings left in the neighbourhood. The other structures have been demolished to make way for apartment buildings, shops and offices.
STARTED IN MING AND QING DYNASTIES
The one-storey museum sits in Rua da Palmeira, in the Patane district.
“Our records show that there were watchmen houses in the Ming and Qing Dynasties,” the guide said. “We cannot say exactly when this one was built. We do not have a record of that.”
The first is said to have been built in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). In the 17th century, the Portuguese government started to send policemen to patrol the streets and keep order. But it allowed the houses to continue, regarding them as an important part of the system of public order. The houses were concentrated in the Sankiu, Patane, Mongha and Taipa districts where the Chinese lived. Patane was outside the Portuguese city.
“Originally, the Portuguese only occupied a small piece of land, the southern part of what is now Macao,” the guide said. “This district, Patane, was not part of Macao. The houses were created at the demand of the community. The watchmen did not receive pay from the government.”
“Life was simpler and poorer. There were no police and no clocks. The modern police system was introduced at the end of the 19th century. Everyone was poor, there was nothing to steal,” she said. The watchman was responsible for patrolling a designated area.
The many items on display in the museum include a chart that divided the night into five segments of two hours, starting at 19:00. That is when the watchman began his shift; he walked around his district, striking a metal gong to mark each two hours, with a different sound for each two hours. People did not have clocks or watches and relied on him to know the time and when they should get up and leave for work.
Each patrol lasted two hours. At 05:00, at the end of his shift, the watchman went to the local police station and gave a report of the night, using a book in which he made a record of what he saw and did. Then he went back to sleep in the watch house.
He watched out for fires, rising water and floods and burglaries; if he caught a thief – in later periods – he handed him over to the police, because he did not have the power to make an arrest. He played an important security role in the neighbourhood.
Among the items on display in the museum were a flat piece of wood and a brass gong. The watchman would strike both. He rang the gong to announce major events, like a fire or rising waters that were likely to cause flooding; to alert people, he also used whistles, of which several are on display.
He was also a fireman – on pictorial display were a water cart, water barrel and the tube used to pour the water onto the fire.
The museum contains the receipts the watchman provided when he was given money – he had no regular salary but had to rely on donations from shopkeepers and local residents for his income.
In a later period of history, he worked under the authority of the police. He handed malefactors to the police for investigation and punishment. He wore a uniform, with an armband indicating his job.
“The work was not so dangerous,” the guide said. “People then were very poor. There was very little to steal and there were no guns. The watchman also had a social role, dealing with problems in the lives of the residents, such as disputes within a family or a son who had run away.”
PAINTINGS BRING JOB TO LIFE
The museum has six paintings by Poon Kam Ling, to illustrate the work of the watchman. One shows him on a small boat as he is doing his rounds among the fishermen who parked their vessels close to the shore. This was the job of the watchmen in Taipa; their areas included stretches of the sea where fishermen lived.
Another painting shows the watchman as fireman. A row of buildings is on fire. He pushes his water cart close to the scene and pours water onto the flames with his water cannon. A third shows him finding a burglar running away with his booty; he is holding a torchlight and blowing a whistle, to attract attention from residents.
A fourth shows him presenting a report to a policeman. The watchmen worked under the authority of the local police.
Two notices in the museum show government regulations, issued in 1936 and 1965, that set out in detail the duties of the watchmen.
In a video shown at the museum, Chung Man, 88, chairman of the Macao Patane Residents Association, remembers seeing the watchmen during his childhood. “It was an old profession. Those who took it on did it for their whole lives. It was a very hard job, so only men did it. I remember during my childhood, in the 1940s, there were still such people but the number was diminishing.”
It was a hard job that had to be done every day of the year, whatever the weather, with no fixed wage. In the video, Chung said: “the wages of the watchman came from shops and residents but there was no fixed salary. When I was small, I saw the watchman carry a bag and invite people in the streets to put in money. That was his income.”
Many people mistakenly think that the watchman only worked at night. But he was like a policeman or security guard who was on duty at night, patrolling and keeping order. It was an important job at a time when there were few policemen; he had to solve problems of the residents and spread information. For example, when the water levels were rising, he would tell residents to prepare to move to safer places.
The watch house was a centre for information and a place where residents would meet to help each other. Chong said: “Macao is a place where there is a strong feeling among people. When a resident had a problem, he would go to the watchman for help. When there was a fire, the watchman would ring his gong to inform people and bring them together to fight the fire.”
To be qualified, a watchman had to have the trust of the residents and be a moral person. He had to stay at his post and not go absent, not take bribes and be clean and well-mannered.
But now this profession has passed into the museums and the history books. It has been replaced by a larger and more efficient police force, patrol cars, mobile telephones and close-circuit security cameras. Gone with it was the bond of trust and friendship between the watchmen and the communities they served.
The museum can teach Macao residents and visitors about this profession that was an important part of the social fabric of the city but now has been largely forgotten.
Text Mark O’Neill
Photos Eric Tam and Courtesy of The Cultural Affairs Bureau