A doctor, lawmaker and community campaigner

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 February, 2006, 12:00am

When Albert Rodrigues was a boy in Happy Valley, he saw a hapless cripple lying in the street, arms and legs covered with open, weeping sores. He vowed to become a doctor.

He never knew his mother, who died shortly after he was born. So when a rare scholarship gained him entry to the University of Hong Kong, he opted to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology.

'I wanted to look after other mothers,' he reflected at the age of 94. 'I didn't want them to die like my mother.'

But his contribution to Hong Kong was not confined to medicine. Voted onto the Urban Council in 1940, he spent more than three decades as an active lawmaker and valued adviser to governors, sitting on the legislative and executive councils.

He was pro-chancellor of his alma mater for 26 years, helped found the Anti-Tuberculosis Society and became the first Portuguese to be knighted in Hong Kong, recognising his lifelong drive to combat narcotics.

As a young doctor, he saw active duty with a Royal Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force ambulance unit during savage fighting at Wan Chai Gap in the second world war.

When other officers were interned in a separate camp, Rodrigues opted to remain with the enlisted men at their prisoner-of-war camp at Shamshuipo. During the occupation, he treated the ill and dying with patient devotion.

Rodrigues' long life was rich and rewarding, but began with tragedy.

His mother's death occurred a week after he was born, and his father died when he was aged nine.

The boy was brought up by an uncle, one member of an extensive family. His grandfather, a mariner in the long tradition of Portuguese seafarers, had arrived in Chinese waters in the 19th century.

He did well at school, starting at a convent run by Italian nuns and then at St Joseph's College. He got his high-school matriculation at 14 and had to wait two years before he could enter university.

He was able to study at what was then an elite preserve for the wealthy because of generous financial help from a Chinese benefactor. That same aid allowed him to continue his studies in London.

Rodrigues began his practice in Hong Kong in 1937, specialising in obstetrics.

By 1940, aged just 29, he had entered the Urban Council. He was also a lieutenant in the volunteer force, which led to his inevitable imprisonment during the war.

His faithful attendance to his fellow prisoners of war saved the lives of many who endured hard toil on a meagre diet. It also led to the award of a military MBE when liberation came in 1945.

He was later awarded a civil MBE, and was knighted in 1966 while senior unofficial member of the Executive Council.

He was a devoted father to a daughter and two sons.

'It's funny how life moves along,' he said last February, looking at family pictures dating back to the 1870s. 'If I had not got that scholarship I couldn't have gone to university. I don't know what I would have done for a living.'

He chuckled as he looked at a 1941 photograph of himself and other young doctors in uniform.

'During the fighting for Hong Kong Island, I was resting on the steps of an ambulance and a Japanese bomb landed a metre away,' he said. 'It didn't explode.'

He brushed over the grim years as a prisoner of war, mentioning only the constant preoccupation with 'rice, rice, rice', and how he encouraged prisoners to plant tomatoes over the camp grounds.

'Japanese didn't like eating tomatoes,' he explained dryly.

A walking skeleton when freedom came in 1945, Rodrigues went straight to work on the gigantic task of rebuilding the devastated, depopulated and shattered city.

A keen sportsman in his youth, he captained the Hong Kong hockey side and played cricket for the University of Hong Kong.

The man he most admired was Sir David Trench, the last of the colonial civil servants who served as governor of Hong Kong.

He said Sir David was a conscientious, hard-working and effective servant of the people who had never been given the recognition he deserved. The same could be said of Rodrigues.