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Multi-ethnic Macao: from global village to migrant metropolis

Cathryn H. Clayton (Asian Studies Program, UH Manoa School of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA)

Social Transformations in Chinese Societies

ISSN: 1871-2673

Article publication date: 1 October 2019

Issue publication date: 29 November 2019




In the past 20 years, Macao has experienced phenomenal economic growth driven by the liberalization of its casino sector. This growth has been enabled by massive influxes of foreign capital and migrant labor that have dramatically altered the city’s ethnic landscape. In this paper, the author examines the demographic changes Macao has experienced as a result of the casino boom, and situates the city’s current economic growth and ethnic diversification within its long history as a multi-ethnic city.


Building on Nancy Foner’s notion of “contexts of settlement,” the study draws on census materials, policy statements, newspaper articles and ethnographic materials to examine how changing ideologies of globalization help shape the categories through which ethnic diversity itself is conceptualized.


The paper has three main findings. First, despite the Macao government’s multicultural rhetoric, its labor and residency policies that prevent migrant workers from settling in Macao may paradoxically serve to maintain the ethnic status quo ante. Second, the new contexts of settlement engendered by Macao’s casino globalization may be amplifying fissures within the ethnic category “Chinese.” And third, discourses of globalization, regulations on immigration, and classificatory systems governing ethnic diversity that were instituted under Portuguese rule have both helped shape these new contexts and been reworked in the process.


As the processes of urbanization, economic integration and transnational migration continue to accelerate throughout East Asia, the goal of creating inclusive, equitable multi-ethnic urban societies will require closer examination of the relationship between particular modes and ideologies of “global” engagement, patterns of and policies toward migration and the concepts and categories through which diversity is measured. This approach to understanding multi-ethnic Macao may serve as an example.



The author would like to thank the Academy for Hong Kong Studies for organizing, sponsoring and hosting the conference that gave rise to this paper: the 2018 Global City Roundtable on “Multiethnicity in Global Cities,” held at the Education University of Hong Kong on November 16, 2018. The author would also like to thank Dr Lui Tai-lok, editor of STICS, for his support, and the two anonymous reviewers whose valuable comments have greatly improved the manuscript.


Clayton, C.H. (2019), "Multi-ethnic Macao: from global village to migrant metropolis", Social Transformations in Chinese Societies, Vol. 15 No. 2, pp. 145-160.



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