Portuguese mission likely to close

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 December, 2002, 12:00am

Portugal's 106-year diplomatic presence in Hong Kong looks set to end as Lisbon moves to trim the cost of running its overseas missions.

The move - which diplomats expect to be confirmed soon - will almost certainly see the role of Portugal's Macau consulate boosted, making it Lisbon's diplomatic nerve centre in the Pearl River Delta.

Closure would effectively mean that Hong Kong's Portuguese residents would need to seek consular help from Macau if they were in difficulty.

As well as Hong Kong, officials in Lisbon have plans to close missions in Osnabruk in Germany, Porto Alegre in Brasil and those in Nancy, Rouen, Reims and Bayonne in France, according to reports from the Portuguese news agency Lusa.

As of February this year there were 8,000 Portuguese nationals resident in Hong Kong, according to the Immigration Department.

Portugal's consul-general in Hong Kong, Joao Paulo Matos Sequeira, said: 'So far we have had no official declaration from Lisbon.' However, in private, diplomats say it is almost certain the Hong Kong mission will close as soon as Lisbon finalises its plans. It is understood some staff could be offered positions in Macau.

Ironically, the consulate was closed for one day this week due to a strike by administrative staff in Portugal over working conditions.

Henrique Souza, the chairman of the 137-year-old Club Lusitano in Ice House Street, Central, said: 'It would be a damn shame if the consulate goes. Although the Portuguese community is not as big as it was in the past it is still significant.

'I feel this is unfair to Hong Kong's Portuguese. It would be a real hassle if we have to go to Macau if we find ourselves in difficulty and need assistance.'

Portugal first established a diplomatic presence in Hong Kong in 1897. The consulate remained active until 1937 when its role was suspended because of the Second World War. It reopened in 1947 and has been at its present location, in the Harbour Centre, Wan Chai, for several years.

The Portuguese were among Hong Kong's first permanent settlers in the 19th century. Most of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank's clerical staff at that time were local Portuguese.

As Kowloon opened up as a residential area, a substantial Portuguese community made Tsim Sha Tsui their home and by the 1920s most Portuguese families had moved there. However, declining employment opportunities in the post-Second World War era led many to seek a new life overseas and the community's presence began dwindling.

At present, Macau is without a sitting consul-general but there is speculation that Lisbon's former top diplomat in East Timor and a member of the Portuguese pre-handover Joint Liaison Group for Macau, Pedro Moitinho De Almeida, will take up the post next year.