Portuguese-Macanese Settlers

In a previous blog posting I explored the history of Hong Kong’s Indian communities. This week I turn my attention to the Portuguese, a community whose presence in Asia since the 16th century helped shape both Macau and Hong Kong as we know them today. 

For a comprehensive reading list on Macau’s history, check out this bibliography.

In 1557 the Ming government allowed the Portuguese to establish a settlement and trading post in Macau. Although overseas trade was banned, Macau soon became the centre of a ‘hemispheric exchange of commodities’ and a base for the introduction of Christianity and Western learning to China due to the efforts of European missionaries. The Portuguese began to arrive in Hong Kong following its cession to the British and an economic downturn in Macau. More would follow in light of the murder of the Governor of Macau, Joao Maria Ferreira do Amaral in 1849 and the destruction wrought by the devastating typhoon of 1874. Portuguese migration was such that eventually they numbered second only to the British among Westerners in the territory.

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Jose Pedro (J.P.) Braga, the first Portuguese on the Legislative Council, speaks at the inauguration of ‘Kadoorie Hill’

With education in the English language provided mainly by Catholic mission schools, many Portuguese in Hong Kong worked as clerks, accountants and interpreters for large trading firms such as Jardine, Matheson & Co. or merchant banks such as the The Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation. Others set up on their own account, starting businesses in printing, the mercantile goods trade or as stock brokers. Catholicism played a major role in the everyday lives of many Portuguese families and for a time the Catholic population of Hong Kong exceeded the number of Protestants. Macanese children almost always went to Portuguese schools in Kowloon or Hong Kong, mainly organised by Catholic missionary orders such as the French Lasallian Brothers and the Italian Canossian Sisters. Later, the Jesuits were to make their mark. By the 1860s, the Portuguese were numerous and wealthy enough to open the Club Lusitano (December 1866) with a grand ball. The club boasted the best theatre in the territory and was used by drama groups and touring opera companies for many years to come. Other Portuguese clubs were to follow including the Club de Recreio, established as a recreation and sports centre, and the Little Flower Club which focused on charitable initiatives. The Kowloon location of many of these early clubs reflects the early Portuguese settlement of Kowloon following the launch of the Star Ferry service, with many living in the peninsula’s picturesque villas and garden cities developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Especially popular was Soares Avenue in Ho Man Tin, developed by a Portuguese businessman named Francisco Paulo Vasconcelos Soares.

The Braga Family were amongst the earliest and most prominent of the old Portuguese families to settle in Hong Kong. Perhaps most renowned amongst them was Jose Pedro Braga (J.P. Braga), born in Hong Kong in 1871. His forefathers included Manuel Vicente Rosa who came to Macau from Portugal as a judge in 1708, later establishing himself as a merchant known in local mythology as the richest and most hated man in Macau, and Delfino Noronha, the Government Printer for Hong Kong. Working within the context of a deeply stratified colonial society, J.P. Braga was an early advocate of Portuguese rights and championed the development of the Kowloon peninsula and New Territories via his business interests, notably CLP and the Hongkong Engineering and Construction Company (HKECC), on which he worked closely with the Kadoorie family. Seen by his family as a promising young man, Braga was sent to Calcutta for his education. He then worked for some years in his grandfather’s printing firm and later as a teacher and manager of the Hongkong Telegraph, steadily gaining prominence in the Hong Kong Portuguese community. Arguably his greatest achievement for himself and the wider community came later, with his appointment as the first Portuguese member of the Legislative Council in 1929. He took an active interest in the problems of New Territories farmers and spoke out on behalf of junior civil servants and rickshaw drivers. During his time on the Legislative Council Braga also established the British Empire Trade Fair in a bid to boost local commerce following the Great Depression. These fairs were held in the early 1930s on Empire Day (24 May) and were hosted in the lobby of the newly opened Peninsula Hotel, the only venue large enough to house them. Although commerce in Hong Kong remained depressed in the years to come, the fairs were successful in boosting morale in Hong Kong during an economically bleak period.

As a close associate and friend of Robert Shewan, the Scottish founder of CLP, Braga was invited onto the Board of CLP in 1928 (the same year as Elly Kadoorie) and appointed Chairman in 1934 and again in 1938. It was Braga who helped persuade Kadoorie of the limitless possibilities of the New Territories. In the year following their appointment to the Board and despite fierce opposition, Kadoorie and Braga worked together to win the contract for the supply of electricity to the New Territories. They submitted CLP’s plan to Governor Sir Cecil Clementi and the historic agreement was signed on 30 November 1929 with the Director of Public Works. Braga was also a keen supporter of agriculture in the New Territories, an area of land that had been newly leased to the British in 1898. Working alongside Sir Robert Ho Tung, the Eurasian businessman, Braga supported the establishment of a New Territories Agricultural Association. He opened the inaugural show in 1934 and remarked: ‘the day will come when the inhabitants of Hong Kong will look upon the farmers of the New Territories as a very important asset of the Colony’.

In the early 1930s Braga was instrumental in turning around the fortunes of HKECC, a once struggling construction company that went on to acquire one of the last remaining plots for development within Boundary Street (the dependency of old Kowloon as distinct from new Kowloon). Acting as the company’s new Chairman in 1930, Braga persuaded Elly Kadoorie to step in to provide financial backing for a proposed HKECC housing project in Kowloon Tsai. In due course the housing project was successfully completed and recognised as one of the largest property undertakings in the history of Hong Kong. The two principal movers behind the scheme were rewarded with the commemorative street names ‘Kadoorie Avenue’ and ‘Braga Circuit’ in the prestigious development today known as The Kadoorie Estate.


The Sassoon Family

The Sassoons pioneered Baghdadi Jewish migration to the Far East. Hailing from Baghdad, Iraq, the Sassoons were Chief Bankers to the Pashas. Following increasing persecution of the Jewish community in Baghdad, the Sassoons fled to Bombay where patriarch David Sassoon opened his modest trading house (which later became David Sassoon & Sons) in 1832. In 1844 David’s son Elias Sassoon arrived in Canton as the first Jewish merchant to work in the factories, and in 1850 made Shanghai his personal base. Within five years the Sassoons had a solid footing along the whole China coast. E.D. Sassoon & Co., Elias Sassoon’s business, was opened in Hong Kong in 1867. The Sassoon family set up institutions in China and Hong Kong to preserve Baghdadi Jewish traditions.

Sir Victor Sassoon

Victor Sassoon (1881 – 1961) was the grandson of Elias Sassoon, and known as the ‘J.P. Morgan of the Orient’. During Victor’s tenure, E.D. Sassoon & Co. was primarily involved in banking and property and owned some of the best property sites in Shanghai. Sir Victor was heavily involved in philanthropy, notably helping Jewish refugees who had escaped Nazi persecution in Shanghai.

For more information on the Sassoon Family and other Baghdadis in Shanghai, I highly recommend Maisie Meyer’s latest book ‘Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews, A Collection of Biographical Reflections’, which can be purchased here. You can also check out her website which has extracts of select biographies here.

Hong Kong’s Indian Communities

Readers of this blog will know that ‘A Borrowed Place’ is dedicated to the history of Jewish refugees in Hong Kong. My posts have so far examined Hong Kong’s refugee history and historiography, its historic Jewish community and the lives of refugees. Today’s post casts an eye on another so-called ‘foreign’ community in Hong Kong; Indians and their arrival in the former British colony.

Since Hong Kong’s earliest days, Parsee and Bohra Muslim traders from India were engaged in the region, opening offices and taking advantage of the economic opportunities and political stability afforded in the territory. In the mid-1840s approximately one-quarter of the foreign businesses in Hong Kong were Indian, and many Indian Muslim firms had been active in Canton since the late 1700s. The Parsee community originally came from Persia but after being expelled in the seventh century built up businesses in the booming ports of Bombay and Calcutta. They were engaged as middlemen with foreign traders and became successful bankers and financiers. Parsees arrived in Hong Kong in the second half of the nineteenth century. Mithaiwala Dorabjee Naorojee was a Parsee entrepreneur and hotelier who arrived in Hong Kong from Bombay in 1852 as a stowaway on a ship bound for China. He began the first regular cross-harbour ferry services between Hong Kong and Kowloon, a business which was sold in 1898 to the Hongkong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Co. marking the beginning of the Star Ferry Company (later a Kadoorie business interest during the twentieth century).

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Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody

The Star Ferry played a significant role in helping Naorojee’s Parsee compatriot, Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody, develop Kowloon. Mody came to Hong Kong from Bombay in the early 1860s as an experienced printing press manager. He formed a brokerage firm with close friend Sir Paul Chater (an Armenian Christian born in Calcutta) and together they invested in underdeveloped Kowloon. He was commemorated for his efforts with the street name ‘Mody Road’; one of the major thoroughfares in Kowloon. The Ruttonjees were another important Parsee family who made their mark on Hong Kong’s early history. In 1886 Hormusjee Ruttonjee arrived in Hong Kong from India to start business as a wine merchant, and later established the Hong Kong Brewery with the help of his son. As a noted philanthropist, one of his major donations to the Hong Kong community was the Ruttonjee Tuberculosis Sanitorium. The Ruttonjee family were honoured guests along with the Kadoories at the opening ceremony of the newly renovated Sir Ellis Kadoorie School for Indians in 1955.

The Ellis Kadoorie School for Indians group photograph, 1920s

By the mid-twentieth century, Hong Kong’s Indian population rose dramatically with the arrival of migrants from the Sindh and Gujarat provinces. Hindus soon became the largest group of Indians in Hong Kong and they specialised in importing and exporting a wide variety of goods. Amongst them were the Sindhis, who traded through their widespread diasporic links. One of the most distinguished Sindhi families in Hong Kong today is the Harilela family. Hari Harilela (1922 – 2014) was born in Hyderabad, Sindh (now part of Pakistan). He came to Hong Kong with his father Naroomal Mirchandani in the early 1930s and helped provide for his family by hawking goods to the British armed forces. Eventually, the Harilelas established their own tailoring firm which became one of the best clothing houses in the city. The family diversified with the establishment of the Harilela Group in 1959 and soon acquired the Imperial Hotel in 1961, which marked their entry into the hospitality industry. Today the Harilelas are leading members of the wider Indian community in Hong Kong, with many of the family members living together under one roof.



Decolonising Refugee History?

Does Hong Kong’s refugee history need to be ‘decolonised’?

A special post-war issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies laid down a challenge for historians: ‘when it comes to refugees, then, the project of decolonising history still remains to be completed’. The decolonisation project is particularly pertinent in the case of Hong Kong, a former British Crown colony whose history, population and identity is tied to waves of refugees from China who sought (often temporary) refuge during the upheaval of the Tai Ping Rebellion (1851-1864), the republican revolution of 1911, the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese revolution of the 1940s. Despite the journal’s rallying call, Hong Kong historians have already successfully tackled Euro-centric histories by looking to the plight of Chinese refugees, the emergence of a regional (rather than international) refugee regime and the colonial discourse of the ‘Problem of People’ in the 1940s – 1960s. Such research raises important questions about the nature of colonial rule and can help trace the fault lines of Hong Kong’s political schisms between former refugees and the so-called ‘post-80s’ generation in the SAR today. These historians include Glen Peterson, Agnes Ku and Laura Madokoro, whose pioneering research seeks to question the role of empirical surveys in shaping westernised categories of Chinese refugees.