Italian connections are everywhere in Hong Kong, from culinary influences such as spaghetti and pizza to ubiquitous high-fashion stores.
Educational and charitable endeavours go back to the 1850s but the influence of the Italian state, and fascist-financed links to the Roman Catholic Church's substantial local property empire, are less well known.
Recent newspaper investigations in Europe have exposed the extent to which the Catholic Church's secular property empire was expanded in the early 1930s. Sizeable Italian state cash injections provided by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini enabled, for example, the acquisition of a large and extremely valuable central London property portfolio. But for decades, unsurprisingly, a thick veil of secrecy surrounded these commercial holdings and how they were secured.
In 1929, Mussolini concluded a concordat, or "peace treaty", with the Catholic Church. Internationally known as the Treaty of the Lateran, this agreement regularised relations between the church and the Italian state after nearly six tense decades following the unification of Italy, in 1871. As is often the case in religious affairs, underlying economic and political realities were more significant than any spiritual explanation would suggest. After unification, the church had lost control of the central Italian regions hitherto known as the Papal States - and the significant revenue that those territories generated.
As a direct result of the Treaty of the Lateran, the Vatican City was created as an independent sovereign state, with the pope as head of state, and the church financially compensated for its economic losses. In effect, the Roman Catholic Church owes its internationally recognised political legitimacy to a defeated and excoriated political ideology.
But London was not the only city to benefit from Mussolini's largesse. Hong Kong - and other places in China - also received Italian state money to finance church property purchases. These were brokered by the dictator's daughter, Edda, and son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian consul in Shanghai.
Italian economic activity in China greatly expanded during this period; like Mussolini's Black Shirts, the Nationalist government was extremely right-wing, and happily purchased arms, aircraft and other strategic items from Italian suppliers and intermediaries. One of these, a shadowy businessman and bullion broker named P.G. Calcina, lived in Hong Kong for decades and eventually died here in the 1970s.
Edda's marriage was, by all accounts, an unhappy one. She drank and gambled heavily, and indulged in numerous extra-marital affairs. Her lengthiest liaison was with Chang Hsueh-liang, the "Young Marshal" of Manchuria. A handsome, game-for-anything playboy (and former heroin addict), "Peter" Chang - as he was known within his wide circle of foreign friends - and the vivacious, free-wheeling Edda hit it off very well. So well, in fact, that the latter spent months at a time in Hong Kong, discreetly and apparently ecstatically ensconced at the Repulse Bay Hotel with Chang and his entourage.
After the couple left China, Galeazzo Ciano served as Italian minister for foreign affairs and was eventually executed, in 1944, on his father-in-law's orders. Edda died in 1995, and their son later wrote a memoir entitled (in loose translation) When Grandpa had Daddy Shot - a messed up family chronicle if ever there was one.