A man

Guilherme Ung Vai Meng is stepping down from his position as President of the Macau Cultural Affairs Bureau this week. The artist-turned-bureaucrat spearheaded the cultural bureau for nearly seven years – though he joined the institution much earlier, over 30 years ago. He may have allied with the government, as he should, but on that side of affairs, he led a silent rebellion too. He, as other well-intentioned highly-positioned men and women in the administrative and political jobs of this town, got a taste of how hard it can be to get anything of worth accomplished, to pursue a vision – lest they have one to follow.
Ung chose his fights. And he fought many, taking risks as well. Consider the Iec Long Fireworks Factory in Taipa. He made a U-turn on the case when the chances for renovating the site were seemingly a dead deal. Focusing on this and other sites outside World Heritage and local protection lists, he broadened Macau’s heritage fabric, restoring some of the missing links with Chinese history the city should also epitomize. Making amends with those previous heritage classifications in which Portuguese monuments and sites are overrepresented, he was aligning with the same “East meets West” rhetoric that has travelled from the times of the Portuguese administration to date. Nevertheless, he was stamping his mark.
Though critics of his positioning and choices during his administrator career have lately labeled some of his preferences as strategic mistakes – seen as somewhat “downgrading” the distinction that Portuguese legacies confer to the city – his struggle to rehabilitate the old courthouse as the site for the new Central Library says otherwise.
Undeniably, heritage was his main cause. He worked diligently to expand original notions tied to monumentality and materiality to an idea of heritage as living matter. Buildings should be renovated and lent back to the people, as libraries, museums, community centres. They should be revived and “inhabited” by the population – not only by tourists. Though Ung also had to comply with the latter, he demanded Macau residents be granted history and culture; more often than not, their own. Surely, a few people made business out of this – construction companies and owners of properties targeted for safeguarding actions. Now, name one sector in which business is not an underlying force in Macau.
Beyond that, Ung Vai Meng is a man and an artist. His legacy should also be assessed along those lines.