Co-founder of The Macao Lawyers Association, first to open a group law firm and head of Macao’s Casa de Portugal for more than a decade, Amélia António has remained unwavering in all the causes she’s fought for.
She was born in January 1945 in Lisbon and the first hurdle she had to face in life was the death of her mother when she was seven, which left her in the care of her aunts. When her Aunt Julia died, then 17-year-old Amélia was forced to abandon her dreams of higher education and go to work.
She moved from one job to another, working in an embroidery shop, at the post office, in a clinical analysis laboratory, as well as in offices. She took whatever came her way because, as she tells it, jobs were hard to come by. “Much less for someone my age who’d just finished school.” At 16 years old, Amélia started working at the Igreja de São Domingos’ youth centre by Rossio Square in Lisbon, an experience she credits for her change in perspective. “I came into contact with a very violent social situation,” she says, referring to her work with underprivileged children.
During these two years, she was once again confronted with injustice, a feeling that she was already familiar with having lost her mother to epilepsy. “When I grew up, I realised it was a disease that could be controlled and treated. I became totally disgusted with the system we were living in, and that made me take an interest in social issues,” she explains, adding that “people don’t become politicised because ideas are sold to them, they gain political awareness because of what they see and experience [around them].”
“People don’t become politicised because ideas are sold to them, they gain political awareness because of what they see and experience [around them].”
Amélia’s own growing awareness led her to join the struggle against the authoritarian ‘Estado Novo’ regime, which first came to power in 1933, more than a decade before she was born. Cooperativa DEVIR, a literary association where she worked, was associated with the democratic movement that arose after the 1969 legislative elections. The position made her a target: she was imprisoned twice – first, for a few days in 1970, then for three months in 1971. The association was forcibly shut down in December 1972, with riot police arresting dozens.On 25 April 1974, she stood in central Lisbon’s Carmo Square when Marcelo Caeteano, Portugal’s then-prime minister and last leader of the Estado Novo, surrendered. “We urged civilians to crowd into the square to prevent authorities from firing at the soldiers leading the popular revolt,” she explains.
After the revolution, she was able to continue her studies while working at the South and Islands Bankers Union (SBSI) as an administrative officer, where she remained from 1971 until 1982.
She decided to study law, something completely different from her teenage dream of becoming a teacher of Romance languages, driven by her passion for literature. “With the political ups and downs, I realised my future would be difficult as a teacher. Also, the contact with reality made me feel that the law could be useful in a much more immediate manner,” stresses the lawyer, who is fluent in English and French, as well as Portuguese.
She finished law school at the University of Lisbon in 1980 and after a two-year internship headed to Macao with her husband, who had accepted an invitation to work as a jurist at the Issuing Institute of Macau (Instituto Emissor de Macau), now the Monetary Authority of Macao.
Amélia arrived in 1982 and began at the Macao Business Centre, where she provided legal support for setting up businesses and companies. A year later, she decided to join three other lawyers, including her husband, to open the city’s first group law firm in 1984. “It was considered a joke. They said things would go very badly, but it was time to break new ground,” she recalls. “It was tough. Some months, there wasn’t enough money to go round, but things gradually got better. We began to earn people’s trust. Everyone said that it would be horrible, that no other women were lawyers and that they’d never take me seriously. But I never had problems.”
Even as she faced that challenge, another loomed in the distance. The upcoming transfer of administration in Macao meant there was an urgent need to set up a regulatory body for lawyers and Amélia once again rolled up her sleeves. She co-founded The Macao Lawyers Association in 1989 with Carlos Assumpção, Francisco Gonçalves Pereira, among others, which later became a public institution in 1991. She was its secretary-general until 1995 and a member of the High Advocacy Council from 2001 to 2003. She also represented the profession in the Judiciary Council of Macao, from 1993 until its disbandment during the transition process in 1999.
Macao is home
Despite widespread apprehension about changing times due to the transition, Amélia never considered leaving. Two years beforehand, in 1997, she had adopted her children, Clara and Noel. “My life and my home were here. I’ve never regretted it,” she assures.
Her visits to mainland China – at the invitation of the authorities – as a lawyer and member of the association, helped her decide to remain in Macao despite fears of what could potentially happen after 1999. “The system that would stay had to play a support role, besides the legal aspects,” she says. “If all the lawyers decided to leave, the system would collapse. There was a lot of concern on the Chinese side about making sure that the lawyers stayed.”
She says that some things in Macao post-transition have changed for the better, while others have not. “Like everything in life, nothing is perfect,” she concludes. The city would end up placing yet another challenge in the path of Amélia – Casa de Portugal (House of Portugal). She accepted her place on the board of its General Assembly in 2003, and later joined the management board, which she has headed since 2005.
“We’re responsible for upholding a certain difference and helping Macao continue to be seen as a place with a specific identity. That’s why there has to be acknowledgement and respect for the Portuguese community, which can only happen if a structure whose work is recognised is in place,” she stresses. “There’s no nostalgia here, but rather history. Macao is only Macao because it had that experience. Otherwise, it would be just another district of China.”
She spends most of her free time with her family, even though her responsibilities with Casa de Portugal, which “have grown a lot,” occupy her a great deal and leave her with no hobbies. Her dedication has not gone unnoticed: Casa de Portugal received the Medal for Cultural Merit from the Macao government in 2011, while Amélia herself was distinguished with the Community Services Medal in 2013 and the Order of Merit from the Portuguese government the following year.