Making Impressions: The adaptation of a Portuguese family to Hong Kong, 1700-1950

Abstract

Many Portuguese families who left Macau in the mid-nineteenth century attempted to establish a new identity in the nearby and far more successful British colony of Hong Kong. They succeeded in doing this to a limited degree, the limitations being imposed on them chiefly by the constraints of British colonial policy and its social outworkings. Well before the occupation of Hong Kong in 1841, British merchants in Macau had developed contempt for the Portuguese administration of Macau which was transferred to the Portuguese community which established itself in Hong Kong between 1841 and the end of the nineteenth century. As these attitudes hardened, opportunities were denied to people whose abilities were well-recognised in their own community. Conspicuous among them were the Noronha and Braga families, some of whom did well, especially as printers and chemists. Other members of the Portuguese community in Hong Kong found themselves in a position of permanent inferiority in a British-dominated administrative and commercial system with rigid social and racial barriers. The prosperity of Hong Kong could not have developed and been maintained without the sustained reliability of a large group of people who came to be termed ‘the Portuguese clerk class’. Between 1900 and 1941, J.P. Braga, the scion of his family, built on his forebears’ attainments, becoming the leading member of the Portuguese community in Hong Kong, with a significant public career, despite the difficulties he encountered. Most of his children established themselves successfully in the 1920s and 1930s in a rapidly diversifying economy until the catastrophe of the Japanese Occupation forced them to flee to Macau as refugees. The resumption of British rule in 1945 brought about a rapid recovery in the fortunes of the colony and of the generation which succeeded J.P. Braga, who had died during the war. The long-term prospects of the Portuguese community continued to be bound up with those of British rule, which by the 1960s was being challenged. By the end of the twentieth century, the British had departed. So too had most of the Portuguese community, including the Braga family. Between the 1950s and 1970s, most emigrated to the Pacific Rim countries or Portugal and Brazil. Their presence in the Far East had proved to be transitory. Nevertheless they had a major presence in the region for well over a century. This thesis sets out to show how the Portuguese community in Hong Kong, having emigrated from Macau in search of better opportunities, struggled to find a foothold in a British-dominated community that placed it in a position of permanent inferiority. It posits that the role played by a few key families over several generations gradually began to make inroads into, but could never overcome this unstated but firmly maintained policy of racial superiority. It also compares the Portuguese community with several other non-Chinese groups, the Indians, Jews and Americans, during a period of rapid change after World War II which transformed the social and political landscape of Hong Kong.

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10.25911/5d78d77601cbc

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