Crossing Continents – New book details dramatic odyssey of Macao people

19 February 2016

In the early 18th century, a young man left the city of Braga, in northern Portugal, for Goa. There his descendants married into a family well established in Macao. A new book tells the dramatic story of this family, in Macao, then Hong Kong and in countries around the Pacific Rim.

“Making Impressions” was published in October this year by Instituto Internacional de Macau (IIM) by Stuart Braga, a member of this family, the Bragas. He was born in Hong Kong in 1939 and emigrated to Australia with his family in 1951.

He completed his education there, and has four university degrees, including a PhD degree from the highly-regarded Australian National University. After spending 40 years in education, he turned to writing history; this is his ninth book.

“It took 27 months of full-time work,” he said in an interview. “The family wanted me, a professional historian, to write the book. It tells the story of the Portuguese in Hong Kong, always an underclass with a few exceptions, and their emigration in the 1960s to the U.S., Canada and other Pacific Rim countries, which were more egalitarian and gave them more opportunities.”

Running to more than 700 pages with notes and appendices, the book is a meticulous account of two families, the Bragas and the Noronhas, whose ancestors arrived in Macao nearly three centuries ago. It is richly illustrated with photographs, maps and family trees which capture their dramatic life.

Braga returned to Macao for the launch of the book on 22nd October 2015, at a function at the Portuguese Consulate in Macao, where it was launched by Dr  José  Luis Sales Marques, President of the Institute of European Studies and former President of Leal Senado.

At the event, Braga presented to the people of Macao a unique map. It was originally drawn in 1779 by a famous British naval officer William Bligh, one of the greatest navigators of his time. It is called “Sketch of the Typa and Macao” and is one of very few early maps to show the depths of the waters in the approaches to Macao.

Bligh was an officer on the third voyage of exploration in the Pacific Ocean led by Captain James Cook. After Cook was killed in Hawaii on 14th February 1779, his ship ‘Resolution’ returned to England; it stopped at Macao in December that year. It stayed there for several weeks until January while the crew rested and supplies were replenished in readiness for the long voyage back to England.

“Now is the right time and this is the right opportunity for this map to come to Macao,” said Braga. “The original map on which it is based was drawn here in Macao by a British officer who in later years became a famous figure in naval history.”

Move to Hong Kong

The foundation of Hong Kong in 1842 dealt a severe blow to the economy of Macao. The new British colony replaced the long-standing Portuguese settlement as the centre of foreign trade in the Far East.

Companies, British and non-British, moved to the better legal and military security of Hong Kong. With them moved many of the Portuguese inhabitants of Macao who saw better economic opportunity.

Among them was João Vicente Braga, who was born in Macao in 1803 and had eight children. He took his family to Hong Kong. His eldest son, João Joaquim, was a pharmacist who started work in a city pharmacy and then opened his own. He married the daughter of a well-connected family and bought property in good neighbourhoods of Hong Kong.

He did so well that he was one of the few Macanese of his generation to emigrate to England, in November 1872, with his wife and children. His son John Francis had obtained British citizenship in March that year.

João Joaquim died in May 1876, aged only 48, but John Francis became a successful doctor in Britain.

The family lived comfortably from the property investments their father had made in Hong Kong.

In the mid-19th century, the Portuguese were the second largest non-Chinese community in Hong Kong. In 1865, they established Club Lusitano, 20 years after the Hong Kong Club, from which they were excluded. Stuart Braga’s great-great-grandfather, Delfino Noronha, the Government printer, was one of its founders.

A few, like João Joaquim, developed suc-cessful businesses and held senior position in government departments. But the majority held modest positions as clerks and employees in private British companies; they spoke English and Cantonese as well as Portuguese.

They took their place in an inferior role in the rigid class system which the British established in Hong Kong, as they did in other colonies. Historian Austin Coates summarised well the situation of the Portuguese there. “They could not rise. They were not Protestants; they were not freemasons; and they were not really Europeans. As clerks they came and as clerks they stayed, except for a small handful of professional men who were the natural leaders of the Portuguese community.”

Stuart Braga said that, until after World War II, the Portuguese looked up to the British: “they came to admire their calm if arrogant control, their firm and usually incorrupt insistence on the rule of law, their business skill, their excellent education system and the liberalism and common humanity that were always present to a degree.” However, they came to resent the arrogance of the British, who tended to treat the Portuguese with contempt.

Natural leader

One of the most remarkable was José Pedro Braga, appointed the first Portuguese member of the HK Legislative Council in 1929. In 1935, he was the first member of his community to become an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

He was born in August 1871 in Hong Kong and was educated in English at St Joseph’s College, a Catholic school. At 16, he went to boarding school at St Xavier’s College in Calcutta, the leading Jesuit school in India. He excelled and won a First Class pass and the only scholarship available to a European in Bengal.

In May 1889, following the tragic death of three of his brothers from smallpox, he courageously returned to Hong Kong and worked as a junior compositor in his grandfather’s printing office. In May 1895, he married the Australian daughter of English parents. They had 13 children; they and his wife were devout Protestants, while he remained a Catholic. He was unable to attend the weddings of his children that were held in Protestant churches.

He had a distinguished career in business and was Reuter’s correspondent in Hong Kong for 25 years. He was chairman of two thriving public companies and was a board member of China Light and Power.

He took a great interest in public life. He was appointed a member of the Sanitary Board and served two full terms in the Legislative Council, during which he helped to organise two Empire Trade Fairs, in 1932 and 1933, to redress a decline in commerce.

He died in Macao on 14th February 1944 and is buried in San Miguel Cemetery, with a bronze bust over his grave by Italian sculptor Oseo Acconci. His example paved the way for other Portuguese to follow him into public life and the Legislative Council.

Nightmare of the war

In December 1941, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese military. Suddenly, the 10,000 Portuguese, descendants of those who had emigrated from Macao now wanted to go back there, the only European colony in East Asia not occupied by the Japanese.

Macao Governor Gabriel Teixeira generously opened the door and welcomed refugees, including many people of Portuguese origin who had lived in Hong Kong for generations and no longer spoke the language. They were issued identity papers which enabled them to escape.

They included José Pedro Braga and most members of his large family. One of his sons, Jack, joined the British Special Operations Executive and, in Macao, served as liaison officer between the Chinese government and the British army; he organised a clandestine courier service which carried vital messages between Hong Kong, Macao, Chongqing and Allied radio stations behind the Japanese lines in China.

Although life in Macao was difficult and many people were close to starvation, it was much better than if they had stayed in Hong Kong. There was a wide gap between the Macanese and these ‘returnees’. “The Braga family, with an Australian mother and having become Protestant, were far more anglicised than the rest. Many from Hong Kong spoke no Portuguese and, though many Macao residents spoke some English, the gap was always there.”

The ‘returnees’ were indeed fortunate. Austin Coates summarised the situation in this way. “The patient endurance of the Macanese during these fateful years and the sagacity and foresight of their Governor can hardly be overestimated… no-one who experienced Macao’s hospitality during these years would ever forget it. The entire episode ranks as one of the city’s finest moments.”

Return and exile

After the end of the war, the Portuguese were able to return to their lives in Hong Kong. But, in the 1960s, the spillover of the Cultural Revolution in Hong Kong and Macao persuaded most of them to leave; they believed that left-wing militants wanted them and the British to go. They feared that they were more vulnerable to arrest or seizure of their property than the British, who had a colonial power and membership of the U.N. Security Council behind them.

Of the 13 children of JP Braga, seven emi-grated, to Britain, the U.S., Canada and Australia.  The others remained in Hong Kong; the last surviving one, Carolina, a piano teacher, died in November 1998, a year after the handover and a year before Macao reverted to Chinese sovereignty.

The Portuguese community in Hong Kong declined. In the early 1960s, it was about 10,000. By the time of the handover in 1997, the number had fallen to 1,000 and has continued to decline. They went to Portugal and Brazil as well as North America and Commonwealth countries. Unlike their temporary exile to Macao during World War Two, this exile was permanent; they did not expect to return.

Priceless library

Among those who left was Jack Braga, one of Stuart’s uncles, who had over many years built up a library of 7,000 historical books, 500 maps and 300 paintings. “He had seen his father’s library destroyed during World War Two and only four books left. He was terrified the same thing would happen to his collection.”

So Jack Braga sold the library for a firesale price of 10,000 pounds to the National Library of Australia in Canberra, which invited him to move there as a consultant. He and his family emigrated there.

It was his uncle’s library that was the main raw material for Stuart Braga’s book; it is an edited version of a thesis awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by the Australian National University in 2013. The university provided travel grants for two field trips to Hong Kong and Macao which greatly enriched the study.

“During World War Two, Uncle Jack knew it was a special time and collected all he could about the cultural life in Macao – musical and theatre performances, church services of thanksgiving. It was amazing,” he said.

Asked how the Hong Kong Portuguese should be remembered, one of those who emigrated in the 1960s said: “they should be remembered as a people who share a strong communal bond, who worked hard and played well, who were good cooks and enjoyed their food, who were committed to family and, most important, who had the courage to surrender their comfortable lives to seek a better life for their families in countries where they could be fully fledged citizens.” (Macao Magazine, by Mark O’Neill, photos Leong Sio Po and Courtesy of John Braga, Stuart Braga and National Library of Australia)