Filmmaker Lei Cheok Mei creates deeply personal movie vignettes of her family’s life in Macau. She traces her grandfather’s forgotten achievements as an engineer, her aunt’s battle with depression, and the impact of her mother’s job as a casino worker on their relationship.

While there is nothing overtly political about her award-winning work, it nevertheless takes a quiet stand in a city where the space for dissent is shrinking rapidly.

YouTube video
A film by Lei Cheok Mei.

“Family is a universal concept and a small unit of society. So, if there’s a problem in a family it’s a reflection of something wider,” Lei, 28, told HKFP. She wants her films to encourage audiences to think more about life in the gambling hub and to question how the government could better help residents.

“Although people in Macau don’t like to talk about political topics, they’re still sensitive and emotional–that’s why I want to engage them in this softer way,” she explained. “I want them to see that the government is not perfect.”

Even such an oblique challenge to the status quo in Macau is rare. The semi-autonomous city has prospered since it was handed back to China by Portugal in 1999 and critical voices are few.

Filmmaker Lei Cheok-mei
Filmmaker Lei Cheok Mei.

The economy was transformed after foreign investors snapped up gaming concessions in the early 2000s, developing mega-casinos and luxury hotels. Unemployment is low and the pro-Beijing government gives annual cash handouts to residents.

China’s President Xi Jinping has lauded the compliant city as a successful example of “one country, two systems”. Whereas Beijing has unilaterally imposed a national security law on Hong Kong as a response to anti-government protests there, Macau introduced the legislation on its own in 2009. The vast majority of lawmakers in its partially elected parliament are pro-establishment.

There are historical as well as economic reasons for Macau’s political conformity. Long before the official handover of the territory to China, pro-Beijing associations were already largely running the city.

macau flag
A flag-raising ceremony in Macau. File photo: Macau Gov’t.

Portugal effectively ceded control to them following an anti-colonial uprising in Macau in 1966. More than half the population was born in mainland China, which has also fostered a sense of integration.

Anger Growing

However, discontent is rising among younger generations as authorities crack down on even small-scale digressions from Beijing’s script and seek to prevent unrest spreading from Hong Kong.

The increased repression reflects the Chinese government’s growing intolerance for any trace of opposition or criticism in its territories, even though, as in Hong Kong, Macau’s mini-constitution protects rights unseen on the mainland, such as freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Academics in Macau have spoken in recent years of losing their jobs for expressing their political views. Journalists are also under increasing pressure to toe the government line. Fears over the erosion of liberties ramped up last year when local demonstrations against police brutality in Hong Kong were denied permission in a rare move by the police, who cited security concerns.

macau 2020 annual tiananmen massacre vigil june 4
On June 4, 2020, Macau police dispersed crowds who remained at Senado Square where the annual Tiananmen vigil takes place annually. Photo: Chan Sai-mei, Choi Chi-chio/United Social Press.

There was further resentment last month after officials banned Macau’s annual vigil to commemorate victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre for the first time in 30 years, citing coronavirus risks.

Two young women who went to the Senado Square where the memorial is usually held on the night of the cancelled event were arrested. They were the daughters of one of Macau’s few pro-democracy legislators.

Meanwhile, a bus parade in support of Hong Kong’s national security law took place a day later without restrictions, sparking anger over the authorities’ double standards.

“These events have aroused a lot of attention in society here,” said filmmaker Lei. “People are making more noise than usual.”

Cinema battle

A new Macau-based Facebook page whose name translates as “Freedom of the Pen” is one example of that pushback. Set up in early June in response to the banning of the Tiananmen vigil, it is a citizen news platform critical of the way Macau is run. It calls on people to unite to defend Macau’s freedoms and has more than 3,100 followers.

Macau Freedom of the pen
Freedom of the Pen. Photo: via Facebook.

Lei and a group of filmmakers have also seen a strong community response to a new Facebook campaign they have launched. They are demanding answers from the government about its decision to hand a popular arts cinema–Cinematheque Passion–to a new management company. The incoming firm has offered to run the government-funded venue at a lower cost. Campaigners say little is known about the company and fear it will water down the previously eclectic programme of international and local films.

Hundreds have signed the group’s Facebook petition and more than 1,600 people have liked its “Macau Cinematheque Matters” Facebook page. 

“It may not sound like much, but in Macau that’s a lot,” said Lei. “Macau citizens don’t usually take an interest in politics, so it was very surprising that this many people cared – they even gave their real names.”

These new shoots of resistance are tiny compared with the millions who have taken to the streets in Hong Kong to protest disappearing freedoms. But they are an indicator of simmering frustrations in a city where self-expression is increasingly difficult.

outgoing cinema management company CUT
Supporters of outgoing cinema management company CUT gather outside Cinematheque Passion on June 30. Photo: Macau Cinematheque Matters.

As a documentary maker, Lei believes she has a “social responsibility” to voice her views, despite having first-hand experience of the risks. Last year she was detained near one of the banned demonstrations in support of Hong Kong and was held by police for hours after they found a Hong Kong protest sticker in her bag. She was eventually released without charge.

Like many artists in Macau, she is in a particularly tough position as she relies on government funding for her work, which has earned high-profile recognition. Her poignant film “Melancholy of the Gods”, about her aunt’s depression, won the jury prize at Macau’s international film festival in 2018. Her next movie will look at drug addiction in the city.

However, while she expects the challenges to increase, she remains determined to shed light on what she sees as the reality of life in Macau. “I’m very worried about the situation, but that doesn’t mean I won’t express and make noise about things that are an injustice,” she said.

“There may be no way to confront the government or influence their decisions but as long as we do what we think is right we can affect the people around us, including our next generations.”

Café debate

Other Macau residents unhappy with what is happening in the city are finding different ways to share their discontent and subtly push for change.

Office of the Macau Special Administrative Region in Beijing
Office of the Macau Special Administrative Region in Beijing Photo: Wikicommons.

Macau businessman Craig, who asked to use a pseudonym, does not voice his opinions on social media for fear of repercussions. Instead he opts to have face-to-face informal political discussions with visitors to the café that he jointly owns.

Craig, in his 30s, is critical of what he sees as the government’s attempt to control the population and fears that systems like mobile phone payments and facial recognition CCTV will be used to track citizens. He acknowledges that the majority of Macau residents disagree with him.

“Eighty percent of people think the other 20 percent are destroying the Macau atmosphere and phenomenon. They see Hong Kong people throwing petrol bombs and they don’t want people like that here,” he explained.

Through conversation and debate he hopes to inform the views of Macau residents who might be politically on the fence, or know little about political issues. “It’s about communicating and encouraging people to think about their lives. I’m not a guy who will influence many people, I just do what I can,” he said.

“When people come into the café, I might share my opinions a little bit. Sometimes my opinion isn’t right. But I think the only way to improve our knowledge is to share our opinions with each other. If we don’t, society and people won’t progress,” he added.

macau colonial
Photo: Wikicommons

Such discussions also provide a counterpoint to the limited views represented by Macau media, which are largely uncritical of the government.  Concerns over press freedom grew earlier this year when China extended its ban on journalists from three US media organisations to Hong Kong and Macau. Some journalists from Hong Kong have also been denied entry to Macau.

A local newspaper reporter, who requested anonymity, told HKFP that quotes from interviewees citing opinions contrary to the official line from Beijing or the Macau authorities are routinely cut from articles by editors at the publication and that such censorship has worsened. “I’ve stopped fighting back because they don’t listen to me. I just avoid doing political stories now,” the reporter said.

Jokes as rebellion

But although voicing criticism is hard, residents in even the most sensitive positions have found creative ways to express their dissatisfaction with the authorities.

Government worker Michael, who is in his 30s and asked to use a pseudonym, said that he and a trusted group of work colleagues express their political opinions through a kind of coded joke-telling in the office.  

“We say the opposite of what we really mean, so we will say how great Beijing is, for example, and how we want to go back to the mainland. But we still have to be really careful about who is listening,” he explained.

Chinese Macau flag
Chinese and Macau flag raising ceremony in Macau. Photo: Macau Government.

Michael says Macau’s crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression is fanning indignation among his peers, who he describes as angry at the government’s “pro-Beijing style”.

“I think older generations are OK if the mainland makes Macau another Chinese city, as long as they are rich. But my generation grew up with the internet, we’re influenced by Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Japanese culture. We know what’s going on in the world,” he added.

Michael wants a “free future” for his family and despite the limitations of his position feels strongly about raising awareness of his concerns however he can, before the city he loves becomes somewhere he no longer wants to live. Some of his friends have already opted to move abroad. As China tightens its grip on Hong Kong, he fears repression in Macau will also worsen.

“Even though we still have more freedoms than other cities in mainland China we feel like we’re losing them,” he said. “We’re losing our Macau identity.”

Laura Mannering has 20 years of experience as a journalist. She was previously AFP’s bureau chief for Hong Kong and Taiwan where she covered major international stories including the Umbrella Movement. She is now based in Europe focusing on politics, human rights and social issues.