Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Customs Officials Through the Ages

I am currently in transit from Singapore to Macau, booked on the ferry service offered by Shun Tak Turbojet that leaves at 1530 directly from the Hong Kong International Airport to the Macau ferry terminal. Now, to take this ferry, one must remain in transit - if you go through Hong Kong customs, then you are no longer eligible for the service and must go all the way to Central to take the ferry there. As I had a bag checked on my flight from Singapore to Hong Kong, I feared that I would have to go outside and retrieve my bag, making myself ineligible to take the ferry. There's really no arguing with Hong Kong customs officials, and thankfully, bribery with them is not an option. But I was gratified to find out that all I had to do was to give the Turbojet people my baggage claim ticket, and they would retrieve the bag for me and put it on the boat as I whiled away my hour in an airport lounge.

So, it seemed appropriate in the short time I have to blog today that I share a story from four centuries ago involving Jesuits and a Chinese customs official. Not just any Jesuits, mind you, but an important Jesuit indeed - Matteo Ricci. He is a figure that features prominently in our Macau walk, as we recollect how he, too, spent time at the College of St. Paul in Macau, then the greatest university of Western learning in the East.

According to the excellent writer and historian, Andrew Ross (who wrote a book entitled: A Vision Betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542-1742) relates the story of a imperial Chinese customs official named Ma Tang. Now Ricci, after many trials and travails and the display of many amazing feats of memory, erudition and scholarly virtue, had gotten permission to visit Peking (Beijing) and to be honored by an audience with the Emperor. However, he, his companion Ruggieri (also an eminent Jesuit) and all of their belongings first had to be inspected by Ma Tang to ensure that they passed muster and would not include dangerous articles. Writes Ross:

"During repeated searches of their luggage and his insistence on taking into his keeping some of the presents 'for safety's sake,' [some of which were undoubtedly never seen again - Ed.] caused the Jesuits to fear he would steal their belongings and they would never see Beijing. There was an even worse moment when during yet another search of their baggage, Ma Tang came across a vivdly realistic crucifix and screamed aloud that it was a magic fetish for bringing harm to the Ming Emperor. Fortunately he calmed down and accepted the Fathers' assurance that it was no such thing."

I shall hope that the Macau customs people also find no such thing in MY luggage. But then in Macau they never seem to check...


Madame Chiang said...

I never knew you could catch the ferry from the airport....not that I would ever need to do it...but still useful to know.

Dave and Stefan said...

Bonjour Madame,

It was surprisingly hassle free. It was a short trip, only 45 minutes because Lantau is significantly closer to Macau than Central. It was HK$180 instead of the usual HK$140, but given that the service has a gate at the expensive Chek Lap Kok airport, provides a bus to the airport ferry terminal (the lane is guarded on both sides with barbed wire) and that they sent someone to the luggage carousel to pick up my bag for me, it was definitely worth it.

And no, I wasn't searched by Macau customs, and they certainly wouldn't have been terrified by a crucifix (nor would the customs officials of your new homeland). I wonder what these jaded officials would be surprised by?