How Hong Kong’s Once-Thriving Portuguese Community Nearly Vanished

It’s a question that comes only after you begin to dig into Hong Kong’s history: what happened to the Portuguese? Take this 1872 map of the neighbourhood around Graham Street for example. It divides the households in the area by ethnicity, with separate categories for Chinese, Indians, Europeans – and Portuguese. 18 of the roughly 100 homes on the map are marked as Portuguese. 

Other signs keep cropping up. In an oral history collected by HK Memory, a native Kowloon villager named Ng Sai-ming recalls how, as a boy in the 1920s, he fought with the Portuguese children who lived in nearby Kowloon Tong. The caption of a photo taken in Tsim Sha Tsui in 1910 notes that, “until the Second World War, residents in the area were mostly Portuguese.”

Remnants of this mysterious Portuguese community begin appearing in everyday life. On Hoi Ting Road, you’ll find the oddly named Po Leung Kuk Camões Tan Siu Lin Primary School, which pays homage to Luís de Camões, the 16th century poet who is to Portuguese what William Shakespeare is to English. If you take a cross-harbour bus from Kowloon, you might pass the Club de Recreio on Gascoigne Road. You increasingly notice streets with Portuguese names: Soares Avenue, Rozario Street, Braga Circuit. Then, one day, passing through Central, you look up and see the Club Lusitano’s distinctly Portuguese cross overlooking the most expensive real estate in the city.

Despite all of these traces, there doesn’t seem to be much of a Portuguese community left in present-day Hong Kong. Most people who want a fix of Portuguese culture hop on a ferry to Macau, the former Portuguese colony about 60 kilometres away. “There aren’t many of my people left here,” says Francisco Da Roza. “Two, three hundred at the most.”

Tsim Sha Tsui in 1910

Tsim Sha Tsui in 1910

I meet Da Roza in the 26th floor dining room of the Club Lusitano, the city’s oldest Portuguese social club. Da Roza is the club’s former president, and I find him sitting in a prime corner table, next to a window overlooking Government House, the HSBC Building and the Cheung Kong Center. “The club is closed – you have to be of Portuguese descent or nationality to be a member,” he explains. He summons a waiter and orders a three-course lunch of cod fritters, pickled salad and tacho. “That’s a very Macanese dish – after Christmas or the feast days, they would make it with leftovers,” he says.

I look around. There are a couple of dozen people eating lunch. Two men in business suits sit at a table behind us, chatting in English. A younger couple sits nearby, speaking in Cantonese. The sound of Portuguese drifts from across the room. “In the old days, if you came to the dining room, it would be full of Hong Kong bank workers who would have a meal, play a game of billiards and return to work,” says Da Roza. “Now our people are spread all over. I know some who work across the border, others who work in Kowloon, so our club is not as well patronised.”

Da Roza keeps referring to “our people,” and strictly speaking, he is not talking about the Portuguese. Da Roza’s own family is an example. “We can trace our ancestors all the way back to a small village near Lisbon, but I have been here in Hong Kong for more than 50 years, and my family has been in Macau for more than 300 years,” he says. Like most of Hong Kong’s Portuguese, Da Roza’s heritage is mixed; if you passed him on the street, you wouldn’t think he was anything other than a Chinese Hongkonger.

That’s a clue as to why, back in the 19th century, the British insisted on making a distinction between Europeans and Portuguese. “What the British identified as Portuguese were half-caste, racially mixed Luso-Asians who identified themselves as from Macau and therefore Macanese,” says Roy Eric Xavier, the director of the Portuguese and Macanese Studies Project and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. “They weren’t European, they weren’t Asian or Chinese. They were a hybrid.”

The story of Hong Kong’s Portuguese community goes back hundreds of years, to the early days of Portuguese exploration and trade. In the 16th century, Portugal set up trading posts and religious missions in Goa, Malacca, Macau and Nagasaki. “There was a series of migrations,” says Xavier. Along the way, male Portuguese settlers married local women, creating a mixed population with roots in India, Malaya, China and Japan.

Despite this diversity, a cohesive community emerged. “They maintained a tie to Portugal and they were religious – Catholicism was a big touchpoint,” says Xavier. They began to speak a creole language known as Patuá, which mixed Portuguese with Asian languages like Malay, Sinhalese and Cantonese. “Food also became a hallmark of their community,” with dishes that layered Asian spices and cooking techniques on a Portuguese base.

After the Japanese expelled all foreigners and sealed itself off from the world in 1639, and the Dutch blockaded Goa and conquered Malacca in the mid-1600s, Macau became Portugal’s base in East Asia. When the British took over Hong Kong, many Macanese took advantage of the economic opportunities across the water. The 1853 census recorded the number of “Portuguese (Goa and Macau)” in Hong Kong as 459, compared to 476 “Europeans and Americans,” 352 “Indians, Malays, and natives of Manila” and 37,536 Chinese, including mainland migrants, indigenous villagers, boat people and “emigrants waiting passage to California, etc.”

Xavier’s own family migrated from Macau to Hong Kong in late 19th century. “My grandfather was Lisbelo Xavier, who founded the Hong Kong Printing Press in 1888,” he says. His son, Pedro d’Alcantara Xavier, grew up to become a clerk in various Hong Kong institutions, including the Kowloon-Canton Railway – a typical career path for many of Hong Kong’s Portuguese.

Some members of the community achieved prominence in the early decades of colonial rule, like Januario Antonio de Carvalho, who arrived in 1842 and later became Chief Cashier to the Colonial Treasurer, and José Pedro Braga, who was born in Hong Kong in 1872 and became a journalist with the Hong Kong Telegraph and Reuters before he was appointed as chairman of the China Light and Power Company (better known today by its acronym, CLP) in 1934.

“They were in a unique position – they were literally political and social buffers between the British and the Chinese,” says Xavier. “Many of the Portuguese spoke several dialects of Chinese as well as English. The government departments had chief clerks and they were always Portuguese from Macau. They managed several hundred Portuguese clerks under them and reported directly to the British managers, who only stayed a few years because they had come from England.”

The lower-level Portuguese clerks managed the compradors – “the Chinese supervisors who handled the labourers and the shroffs, the money handlers.” This government hierarchy was mirrored by Hong Kong’s private trading firms, including Jardine Matheson and Butterfield Swire, whose middle management was mostly Portuguese.

“We were middle class in every sense of the word,” says Da Roza. In the early days, most Portuguese families lived in the area now known as Soho; the Club Lusitano’s first home was located at the corner of Shelley and Elgin streets. As the Portuguese community expanded, many families crossed the harbour to Kowloon. Many of Kowloon’s first property developers were Portuguese, including Francisco “Frank” Paulo Vasconcelos Soares, who developed a parcel of land just east of Mongkok in the 1920s, naming one street after his family, two after his daughters, Julia and Emma, and three more in honour of World War I – Peace Avenue, Victory Avenue and Liberty Avenue.

Though they sat in the middle of Hong Kong’s social and economic hierarchy, the Portuguese mostly kept to themselves. “The churches were different, the social clubs were different,” says Xavier. But the community did evolve. Young generations became more anglophone, especially after many of them spent time in Shanghai, which was a thriving cosmopolitan hub in the early 20th century. Da Roza’s family is an example of this: originally from Macau, they moved to Shanghai, but returned home after the Japanese invasion. They moved to Hong Kong after World War II. “At the time there were three distinct Macanese communities – Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau,” says Da Roza.

Xavier’s family followed a similar trajectory. “My own grandfather was the 11th son of a family of 13 or 14,” he says. “He and his old brother were sent to Shanghai because my great-grandfather wanted them to learn different languages, not just Portuguese and English. He ended up going to a Catholic school there and eventually coming back to secondary school in Hong Kong. It was quite common to do that.”

Lusitano Club sitting on Ice House street - End of 19th century

Club Lusitano at its original 19th century location on Shelley Street

World War II changed everything. Many Portuguese fled to Macau, which was a neutral port spared the kind of bloody Japanese occupation endured by Hong Kong. Others stayed in Hong Kong and fought alongside the Allies. Either way, the war was a traumatic experience, and it was compounded by the upheaval of the postwar years, when hundreds of thousands of refugees flooded into Hong Kong from China. The Portuguese community continued to thrive – the 1961 census recorded 9,388 Portuguese speakers in Hong Kong – but decline was on the horizon.

Xavier’s parents met in 1948. His mother was from Shanghai, his father from Hong Kong. “They decided after I was born that we should emigrate,” he says. They ended up moving to the United States; others went to Canada, Australia, Portugal, Brazil and other countries. (Most of Da Roza’s family moved to Venezuela, where they still live today.) “I think it was a sense that Hong Kong really did not have as many opportunities as the West,” says Xavier.

Many of those that remained have assimilated into the broader Cantonese-speaking community. A number of local celebrities have Portuguese ancestry, including Cantopop star Isabella Leong (birth name: Luísa Isabella Nolasco da Silva), Miss Hong Kong 1988 Michelle Reis and actress Maria Cordeiro. Da Roza married a local Chinese Hongkonger and, though their children have “very traditional Portuguese names,” they went to international schools and speak more English and Cantonese than Portuguese. (“My son can certainly swear in Portuguese,” jokes Da Roza. “And he’s a very strong supporter of the Portuguese football team.”)

Xavier has been trying to document the full extent of the Macanese diaspora. Previous estimates pegged its number at just 30,000, but Xavier’s research has shown the global community may number as many as 1.5 million, spread across 35 countries. “Macau is the cultural homeland,” he says. Over the past few decades, the Macau government has helped establish Macanese community groups around the world, which has helped them maintain a connection to the former Portuguese colony.

But the once prominent Hong Kong Portuguese community has been consigned to obscurity. Still, traces survive. Back at the Club Lusitano, Da Roza tucks into his dish of tacho – a stew of cabbage, Chinese sausage, pig trotter and tripe, served with a side of fish sauce. It’s a homely dish, its flavours equally familiar and foreign, with centuries of history layered between its ingredients.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that Goa was conquered by the Dutch. In fact, the Dutch blockaded Goa in 1603 and 1639, but the colony was never captured. 

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