The Macanese at War-Refugees in Macau

April 29th, 2014 5 Comments

Japanese-Troops-HK-1(Author’s Note: This is the third part of a longer article called “The Macanese at War: Experiences in Hong Kong and Macau during World War II”, which will appear in a collection to be published by the Hong Kong University Press later this year. The source citations were removed to save space. The completed article can be found at:

Those who survived the attack on Hong Kong lingered on, unsure of their fate. Despite the dangers, some Macanese continued to live in damaged homes and offices, barricading themselves against marauding gangs of looters, thieves, collaborators, and drunken soldiers, many who sought food and other valuables, while threatening women with rape. Others who wished to evacuate waited on the Kowloon docks for several days for ships to ferry them across the harbor, some separated from their loved ones at the last minute because of citizenship papers.

The Acting Consul for Portugal, F.P. Soares, a prominent long-time resident, offered his home in Kowloon to serve the large Macanese community there, and interceded with the Japanese authorities to provide food, temporary shelter, and travel documents to many refugees who were stranded. Many more were held in prisoner of war camps set aside for Eurasian, British and American prisoners, while others preferred to remain outside rather than subject themselves to the will of the occupying army. Others took more direct action by helping those interned to escape by working covertly with British and Chinese espionage units.

Since the Portuguese government had declared neutrality before the war, in early 1942 multi-racial refugees who could demonstrate Portuguese ancestry as “Third Nationals” were allowed transport from Hong Kong to Macau. The classification was used by the Japanese “Civil Administration Bureau” in January 1942 as it identified 8,834 third nationals left in the occupied colony, of which 2,646 were Portuguese. This number did not include a few thousand more Macanese who had received British citizenship before the war, and had already escaped to Macau through China or those incarcerated in the Shamsuipo prisoner camp in Hong Kong among 10,000 British and Scottish soldiers.

Refugees in Macau

Resettlement was a difficult experience for most Macanese. Many had relatives in Macau or were descendants of those who remained in the Portuguese colony a century before. Among the estimated four thousand Macanese with Portuguese citizenship who traveled to Macau from Hong Kong, and according to a Macanese historian, possibly up to ten thousand more with British citizenship who managed to escape, it is estimated that one-half stayed with grandparents, elderly aunts, distant cousins, and friends, who generously opened their homes to those displaced by the war. Those remaining, many who left all their property and valuables behind, were housed in refugee centers set up by the Macau government and the Catholic Church in requisitioned clubs, hotels, schools, military barracks, and even on an abandoned ship in the harbour.

Refugee operations were organized through the Santa Casa da Misericordia (The Holy House of Mercy), an institution founded by the Church and local elites in 1569. But essential services for the entire colony, including the provision of food and shelter, were provided by a private company under contract with the government called the “Macau Cooperative Company Limited”. The MCC was the largest company in Macau, but in the midst of the conflict it took on a more complicated role, which began with its ownership by three partners: Pedro Jose’ Lobo, a leading Macau businessman with connections to the black market, a group representing the colony’s wealthiest families, and the Japanese army.

As MCC’s secretary, Stanley Ho explained the partnership in this way:

“The Portuguese government supplied us with all the surplus they could afford to give away – tug boats, launches, telephone equipment, anything they could part with – and I exchanged all that with the Japanese authorities, in the name of the company, for food from the Mainland. We supplied flour and rice, beans, oil, sugar, all the necessities to support Macao because the Portuguese government wasn’t very wealthy and they had to get all these supplies from the Mainland.”

Such relationships were not unusual for the “neutral” Portuguese regime, and extended to unoccupied Macau. According to U.S. government sources, during the war Portugal bargained with the Japanese for rice, supplied Tungsten and gasoline to the Japanese army in exchange for allowing Macau to remain unoccupied, was permitted to allow Allied use of the Azores, and was involved in the laundering of German gold through Lisbon and Macau. The conflicted interests those associations reveal suggest not only Portugal’s pragmatic policies, but also the trade-offs made in light of the conditions that were about to unfold in Macau.

The services offered by the MCC apparently had little effect on the mass of people who were now seeking asylum. The migration actually began a few years before the war. Following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937, Hong Kong’s population swelled from about 400,000 to an estimated 1.6 million by 1941. In those years, it is estimated that 650,000 refugees fled the mainland. The great majority were Chinese escaping the Japanese army, many fearing atrocities that had occurred earlier in Nanking and then in Hong Kong during the occupation. As a result, Macau’s pre-war population of about 150,000 increased to over 500,000 during the war, which included many refugees who arrived from Hong Kong, Shanghai, and other regions of China.

Chinese refugees who managed to leave Hong Kong, largely unsupported by the Allies and forced to live in the close confines of Macau, were met with a series of calamities. A Japanese embargo in early 1942 created a flourishing black market, especially for rice and other scare resources. Under these conditions, the MCC in partnership with the Japanese army was delegated the authority to distribute most commodities. The arrangement was ripe for abuse. Chan Tai-pak, a journalist working in Macau at the time, observed:

“In this period of shortages of grain and other necessities, a small number of collaborators seized the opportunity to buy up and hoard food, making the situation even worse. This caused a scenario unprecedented in Macao – famine: an uncountable number of people crying piteously for food.”

There are some accounts of people selling their children to survive, and even cannibalism. Macau’s streets were reported to be littered with bodies during the early years of the war, and regularly sprayed with chemicals in an attempt to control the spread of disease. Soon food shortages, cold weather, inadequate shelter, and a lack of medicine overwhelmed the colony, leading to mounting death tolls. Reports of mass burials on Taipa, a neighboring island, of up to 400 bodies a day began to surface, leading to post-war estimates of 50,000 deaths during the war years.

The Macau police sequestered many of the survivors in camps, which Chan described as “… like prisons – poorly equipped, with low-quality food and stern discipline.” Many more died there. By the summer of 1942, thanks to funds donated by overseas Chinese, 17,000 refugees were repatriated to Free China.

The Routines of Life during the War

Despite the tragic circumstances, the Macanese refugee centers proved to be havens from the war, offering simple, and at times tedious, routines. But everything had a price. The government of Macau provided a meager $25,000 pitacas ($3,130 USD) for the resettlement.  All Macanese refugees also were given a line of credit equaling $4,500 pitacas ($563) while in Macau, which they could use for food and other living expenses. Britain gave stipends directly to their respective refugees ranging from $30 to $120 pitacas ($3.76 to $15. USD) monthly. Many American companies based in Hong Kong provided additional funds to maintain their employees in Macau. Most Macanese pooled their rations, handing over the monthly allotments to center chiefs who organized menus to supplement their meager diets of rice, and occasionally vegetables, fruit, and powered milk.

The Bela Vista Hotel, with about 300 refugees, became the leading center because of its well equipped kitchen facilities. As a young refugee, Armando da Silva recalled that many meals were distributed from the Bela Vista to the smaller centers, including Armacao and the Escola Luso Chinesa. Arnaldo de Oliveira Sales noted that “Once a month, each of the families went along to the collection point and was given a ration of so much flour, so much rice, so many catties of sugar, and so forth, according to the size of the family. …” Each refugee facility elected a “Center Chief”, the majority of which were men, with the exception of Mrs. Alzira Alvares Xavier, chief of the Tung Hui ship. Each center was in charge of organizing meals and resolving disputes, and collectively decided where and when to allocate the scarce resources, often of poor quality, provided by the MCC.

Besides food and shelter, a major priority was the education of young people, which had been cut short by the invasion. In late 1942, the Macau government, with the support of businessman Pedro Lobo, requested the transport of several Irish Jesuits from Wah Yan College in Hong Kong to establish the St. Luis Gonzaga College for Boys in Macau. Soon after Italian Canossian nuns from St. Rosa de Lima high school arrived to teach the girls. The Japanese approved both requests because of Ireland’s neutral status and Italy’s membership in the Axis troika. The first classes began in January 1943, housed in two large buildings set aside by Lobo, and were open to Macanese, Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian students, as well as adults. The curriculum included mathematics, science, and the classics, as well as instruction in accounting, bookkeeping, and Chinese language. Each year through June 1945 about 200 boys and girls attended classes, and many adults attended to learn new skills.

The Jesuits and Canossians were also instrumental in creating diversions for Macanese refugees. Several members of the religious communities organized one act plays, musical comedies, and more elaborate theatrical productions. One of the largest, called “The Path of the King”, involved several acts and a large choir singing in Latin. Several other plays were written by individuals with professional training, and performed by dozens of performers. Playbills were produced on rough paper, printed on materials “liberated” from public toilets. Musical performances, dances and sporting events were also attractions, especially field hockey and softball among the Macanese. Many activities provided opportunities to distract refugees from the war, and often allowed young men and women, who were usually segregated, to mix under the “communal” environment in Macau.

Such conditions led to romances among refugees and with resident Macanese, who had not had much contact with those outside Macau. According to Armando da Silva, several refugee women married local men during the war. Since the Macanese from Hong Kong spoke little Portuguese, many courtships relied on a common knowledge of “Maquista”, the Macanese patois, which was banned in Macau’s schools but had flourished in Hong Kong for one hundred years among the Portuguese community. Two of da Silva’s older sisters, Elsa and Delia, married local Macanese men, communicating during their courtships in Maquista. Da Silva, considered a “curator” of the patois, suggests that the language may have been preserved and enhanced by the blending of Hong Kong and Macau “Maquista” during this period.

For most Macanese, life during the war seemed almost normal. Restaurants, cafes, casinos, brothels, and opium dens remained open, in many cases flourishing because of the cash being spent by Japanese soldiers, gangsters, government officials, and opportunists who were involved in black market trade. Local radio stations offered daily news, and newspapers in Portuguese, Chinese, English and Japanese continued to print. Journalists and reporters, themselves refugees from Hong Kong and China, published stories that were heavily censored by the military police. Even the international cable, the only link to Europe and America, continued to operate. Despite the obvious dangers, the close of proximity of ethnic communities inside Macau required that they would have to work together as a matter of survival. As an observer wrote later:

“… We lived pretty much in isolation from the outside world. Life went on, the civil service worked, and the machinery of government went on under beneficent leadership in difficult conditions. But we never forgot that the Japanese were just outside Macao, occupying China.”

War-Time Relations

The war sometimes intruded in unexpected ways. In January 1945, Allied intelligence received word from local contacts that the Japanese were storing fuel and other supplies at Macau’s airport. During the first raid, Roger Lobo, the twenty-one year old son of Pedro Lobo, who was a partner in the MCC, hurried to the facility to check on a large stockpile of surplus goods he and his father had accumulated for sale on the black market. After the planes made their first pass, Lobo recounted:

“I rushed down to see what was going on and the planes turned round and came back. I had my motorbike right at the door of the hangar and my father zoomed up behind me in his car. They (the planes) didn’t just shoot at the hangar, they shot at the cars, the motorbike, everything. We started running all over the place, we hadn’t bargained on that happening. Then the whole thing went up in flames. I saw my father running away … but his car was shot out. Amazingly, neither of us was wounded.”

Along with other Macanese, the Lobos had extensive relations with both Allied and Axis sources, often negotiating to trade goods for rice, the most coveted and rationed commodity in Macau. They first devised their scheme by obtaining the raw grain from China, then processing it using an old generator and a diesel engine the younger Lobo had found in the naval dockyard. Everything they could find, trade, barter, or obtain by other means was secured in the large hangars at the air field. The goods included gasoline, church bells, metal frames, wire, nails … “anything we could get our hands on”, the younger Lobo would explain to an interviewer years later.

The Lobos’ tangled relationship with the Allies was not out of the ordinary for the Macanese in Macau. The younger Lobo and other members of the family were involved with British intelligence. The senior Lobo, even while profiting from surplus goods, was heavily involved in Macanese education, including as noted earlier, helping to set up refugee schools. Several other Macanese had similar relations, a historical legacy as colonial “intermediaries”. Stanley Ho, a well-known operator of casinos in present day Macau, described how through his job as an English instructor to a Japanese Colonel he was able to barter brass shells and old Portuguese cannons for three ship loads of rice. As the war was coming to a close, Ho exploited his contacts to start a trading company that earned him over a million dollars, which he used to purchase a Macau casino after hostilities ended. During the greatest conflict of the twentieth century, the opportunities seemed too good to pass up. As Ho recounted:

“In those days, if you had money, you could enjoy the best kind of cigarettes, American, British, right up to the end of the war. If you had money, you could carry on using motorcars and motorbikes all through the war – gasoline was available. And you could have excellent food – if you had the money. I had big parties almost every night. …”

The demands of survival led others to improvise as best as they could. Numerous refugees recounted selling family jewelry and furniture for food. Felicia Yap writes that some Macanese who remained in Hong Kong during the occupation collected scrap iron and other metals that they sold to the Japanese to make ends meet. Others were more seriously involved, helping the Japanese purchase ships from the Dutch, or working directly with the Japanese secret service or the Chief Censor in Macau.

The majority of Macanese, however, played important roles in support of the Allied war effort. Several young Hong Kong refugees, including Guido Sequeira, worked as bodyguards for British Consul John Reeves and his family in Macau during a period when assassinations of Japanese, Portuguese, and Macanese officials were frequent. Other Macanese belonged to a clandestine group called the “East River Column” (ERC) that was led by Chinese Communists. The ERC operated radio stations in Hong Kong’s New Territories, on Lantau Island, and at the Salesian School in Macau, relaying messages to British Intelligence (M19) and the Nationalist Chinese.  M19 was shorthand for the “British Army Aid Group” (BAAG), a group started by Professor Lindsay Ride, an Australian physiologist who taught at the University of Hong Kong before the war. Ride’s group, which included A. V. Ozorio and Dr. Eddie Gosano, was instrumental in collecting information from sources in China, Hong Kong, and inside Macau. Macanese operatives also organized prisoner escapes from Japanese camps and rescued British and American flyers shot down in China. Others worked with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) gathering intelligence in Macau.

As the war came to a close, the unique character displayed by the Macanese seemed to overcome some pre-war prejudices, especially those existing in Hong Kong. Ethnic divisions, for example, did not prevent Macanese collaboration with other national groups that worked closely with the Allies. Questions of loyalty to the British and Allied cause were also diminished by the large numbers of Macanese who fought and died during the invasion, and many more who were interned. To some extent, Winston Churchill signaled these changes by appointing Leonardo D’Almada y Castro, the only Macanese on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, to a post-war planning committee following his escape to London in June 1945. After the war many BAAG operatives returned to Hong Kong and Macau to rebuild, some appointed to positions in government, and others who moved almost seamlessly into medicine, banking, trade, and the casino business. But the war resulted in some changes that cannot be easily attributed to the Allied victory. For it is clear from personal accounts that the end of the war brought about a shift in social attitudes and racial identities that would largely define the future of the Macanese community in the post-war years.



  1. Fernanda Paraiso says:

    “This is the third part of a longer article called “The Macanese at War: Experiences in Hong Kong and Macau during World War II”, which will appear in a collection to be published by the Hong Kong University Press later this year.”

    Dear Sir, Can you tell me if this longer paper is currently available ?
    Many thanks

  2. Ambrosio Tang says:

    Both articles are very interesting and I’d learn things that were news to me, although I lived all my life in Macau during WWII though I was then a kid of 10 years old, but I saw what happens then on a every day life in the city and the community, of course through the eyes of a kid no wonder. I think I was among those who can say that the WWII did little harm to my life style. My father was then a Macau public servant, as so, he and all others are entitled to buy his share of basic foods at normal price at the government Food Stock (Comisao Reguladora de Importacao e Exportacao) headed by Dr. P. J. Lobo, then Chief of the Macau Economy Department. 3 big ware houses were build at a site near Rua do Brandao, to house all kind of basic foods , fuel, charcoal, woods, querosene, and LARD then the principal cooking oil, besides of the classic peanuts oil used by the locals, that Macau can get from all saurces. Regarding the article from “Far East Currents” about this subject I notice an error that should be corrected: MCC’s partner should be Pedro Jose Lobo, since Pedro Hyndman Lobo was then 10 years old …

    • Director says:

      Dear Ambrosio,

      Thank you for your comments about your time in Macau during the war. I would be interested in hearing more about your family and the circumstances that you experienced as child during this period: i.e. where you lived, where your father or mother worked, and any contacts you had with the refugees.

      Also, thank you for the correction. I made the change in the article on Far East Currents. Fortunately, the print version also reflects the change.

      Best regards,

  3. Reggie Pires says:

    Thank you Roy. Very interesting article.

    It brought back memories of my life as a refugee in Macau. My perception of life then was not as glum but of course I was only twelve years of age and life was an adventure. I am sure my parents saw things differently and did all the worrying.

    My father was placed in charge of one of centers, Caixa Escolar by Tenente Cunha, the Macau government liaison with the refugees. I remember his words to my dad when he came to the Center to talk to the residents of the Center. Since he did not speak English, he asked if anyone spoke Portuguese. My father who was born and raised in Macau was the only one who replied in the affirmative. After talking for a while, he pointed to my Dad and told everyone present “Encaregado”. Caixa Escolar was one of the smaller centers and we got our meals by sending the bigger boys of the center to the Salesian Brothers to pick up tubs of rice, fish or meat, etc and carry them back to the center where they were distributed to everyone.

    Your article did not include a school which was established for Classes 8 to 4 at the Escola Central, right across the street from Caixa Escolar. The head mistrees was Mrs. Deolinda Alves and assistant was Alicia Salvado. I remember the first day at school when we were asked “Who, here, does not speak Portuguese”. I was the only one in my class who raised his hand. Mrs. Alves looked at me and said “I don’t believe it. Your father is my cousin, and I know he speaks Portuguese. She gave me an order in Portuguese which I interpreted as Go and open the door to the classroom, and I did so. She then said something in Portuguese which I interpreted as close the door and go back to your seat and I did. She said you see, you understood what I said. From today onwards all classes will be in Portuguese.

    The following year, I graduated to Class 3 which was run by the Jesuits you mentioned in your article, who offered classes from 3 to Senior Matric. I consider this chapter in my life – contact with these Irish Jesuits, as being the turning point in my life. I am sure that most of us who were taught my them, would say the same. After I left school, Fr. Henry O’Brien, S.J., the headmaster of the school would come to visit with me to try to persuade me to return.

    I remember his words to this day. “You Portuguese Boys have the best of both worlds. You have the minds of the Asian and the stamina of the Europeans. The problem with you is that you have accepted your place in this world. You are happy to spend your lives subservient to the British in Hong Kong”. I told him that my family could not afford to send me to Hong Kong University. His reply was “we have contacts”. I did not believe him and stayed at my job. But, his words stayed in my mind. I left Hong Kong and emigrated to Canada where I earned two professional accounting degrees, Certified General Accountant (CGA) and Registered Industrial and Cost Accountant (RIA). Later, your dad persuaded me to come to the United States and was instrumental in helping me to find a job with one of the “then Big 8” CPA firms where got my CPA degree.

    Strangely enough, my first job with this CPA firm was a trip to Phoenix, Arizona. Fr. Henry O’ Brien, S.J. had been transferred to St. Francis Parish in Phoenix. I contacted him and we had lunch together where I thanked him for giving me courage to leave the security of life as a Macaense in Hong Kong. Life had come full circle.

    (A personal note was redacted from the letter for the public version.)

    With best regards and keep up the good work. Reggie

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