While most Macanese people can trace their family back hundreds of years and dozens of generations, Qiang Zhang doesn’t even know who his biological parents are. Adopted at the age of two by a mainland Chinese couple who had recently moved to Macau, he has dedicated the last four decades of his life to learning about his roots—without much success.
Macau has a population of more than 650,000 people and only 2 percent of its residents are Macanese. The ethnic group, which originated in the 16th century, consists of people of mixed Chinese and Portuguese ancestry. And, although there are fewer than 14,000 citizens of Macau who fall under this category, Zhang—who is part of that minority—is still trying to figure out whether his parents are alive.
“This whole journey started when I was 19 and my adoptive father, Qi, died,” Zhang, who is now 64, said. “My mother had already died when I was in high school, so he was the only person I had left. After he died, it was the first time I decided to find out about my past.”
Zhang had a wonderful childhood, he said. His adoptive parents weren’t wealthy, but worked hard to provide him with what was needed. His mom Li Yan tried to get pregnant for years. Lack of money hindered her from pursuing medical assistance, especially at a time when the Chinese population growth was rising to dangerous levels—overpopulation began to cause a shortage of basic resources, such as food and water—and the government began debating preventive measures. The move to Macau offered Yan and Qi the chance to restart and adopt a child.
“My adoptive parents had gone through a lot of difficulties in order to have a kid, so once they adopted me they did all they could to make me happy,” he said.
His constant referral to Li Yan and Li Qi as adoptive, however, makes clear Zhang’s need to state the difference. Not due to ungratefulness, he says, but because the only way to learn about his past is to acknowledge that Yan and Qi “borrowed him from his other family.”
In order to support himself after his father passed away, Zhang got a job at a local Portuguese market. It was there he decided what his life goal was: to figure out who his parents were and then track down other family members. He wanted to learn the truth about his past and the only way to do so, in Zhang’s mind, was to dedicate all of his time to it.
“That’s when I decided to get the job at the cemetery,” he said. “That was a place where a portion of the prominent Macanese people were buried, and maybe I could somehow make sense of things there.”
Unfortunately for him, it was hard to make progress. Record keeping wasn’t thorough at the time, and many documents hadn’t been well taken care of. It was also difficult to know where to start. After all, Zhang didn’t possess any information about his parents. To add to the list of obstacles, he didn’t speak any Portuguese. Growing up, Cantonese was the language of choice in his household.
Thirteen years later, at the age of 32, Zhang thought about quitting. Giving up seemed like the reasonable decision to make. He had tried everything, from meetings with historians at the University of Macau, to late-night sessions at the public libraries reviewing documents and publications. There was no registration of his adoption, at least none that included his biological parents’ names.
Instead of quitting, he found a different calling.
“After 13 years of trying, I realized I could do something else,” he said. “If I couldn’t learn more about my past, I could help others do so by taking meticulous care of one the Macanese cemeteries.”
That cemetery was Cemiterio de Sao Miguel do Arcanjo, a Catholic burial ground located in one of the most traditional areas of Macau. Many Macanese and Portuguese people are buried there, including Clementina Leitao, the first wife of casino mogul Stanley Ho—who owns 19 of the region’s casinos.
For Zhang, being the groundskeeper is now an opportunity to keep intact information that could have helped him find his truth.
“If someone had taken better care of this place, or another place like this, maybe I’d know more about my family,” he said.
But even if his goals in life have changed, Zhang is not ready to fully give up on the original plan. He has continued to search for news about his biological parents, although less intensively and consistently than before. At 64, he doesn’t know how much longer he can keep mowing the grass, cleaning the tombs, and watering the flowers. However, if he is physically capable, he will do it until he dies.
“I was so consumed with finding my family that I never thought about starting one of my own—maybe I should’ve done that,” he said. “Well, this is what I have now, and as long as I can stand here and fix what needs to be fixed, I will be doing exactly that.”