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Then & now: Fit to print

Entrepreneurial Portuguese-language newspaper publishers dodged Macanese censors with Hong Kong presses, writes Jason Wordie

 

The Pearl River estuary contains three (more or less) separate jurisdictions within a small geographical area. This curious state of affairs – even more curious now given that Hong Kong and Macau have politically been part of China since 1997 and 1999, respectively – has often led to creative circumvention of each jurisdiction’s laws.

Publishing in general, and the newspaper industry in particular, offers interesting perspectives on how this worked in the past.

Material legally publishable in one jurisdiction could be – and often was – immediately suppressed in another.

Even possession of banned materials could result in fines and – at least – confiscation of the offending article. But contrary to what might seem probable today, Hong Kong’s main source of contention in terms of censorship was not China but tiny Macau.

Hong Kong once supported a wide range of Portuguese language newspapers. This may seem surprising today, given that the local Portuguese community has declined into numerical nearinsignificance in recent decades.

But up until the 1930s, it was the second-largest permanently domiciled ethnic group in Hong Kong, after the Chinese.

The Portuguese population declined steadily in the post-war era due to emigration, mostly to Australia, Canada and the United States. The wry joke now about the membership of Central’s Club Lusitano (which has maintained its presence on Ice House Street since 1866 – the oldest continuous habitation of any club in Hong Kong) is that half the membership are overseas and the other half are over 80.

A glance around the club on any weekday lunchtime bears out that observation.

The reason for the large number of Portuguese titles in Hong Kong was not directly connected to the size of the local Portuguese population, however.

Newspapers published here were not subject to suppression by Macau’s Portuguese authorities.

Produced in Hong Kong, in relatively small print runs, and sold here, the papers, or at least the news they contained, would subsequently reach Macau and circulate there.

The Portuguese communities domiciled in both places – and in Shanghai – were very small-town in outlook. Relations tended to be governed by personal jealousies, business rivalries and a consequent wish for revenge over real or imagined slights. Every so often, a newspaper would appear in Hong Kong with the clear editorial intention of pursuing some kind of localised agenda.

As soon as that objective had been achieved – or enough venom had been expelled – the newspaper in question ceased circulation. More than 20 newspapers appeared in the course of a few decades.

Macau’s most prolific newspaper baron was prominent business figure Pedro Nolasco da Silva. The late 19th-century’s leading Macanese, da Silva owned a number of titles, three of the longer-lived of which were Echo do Povo, Echo Macaense and O Macaense. All were published and printed in Hong Kong to avoid legal complications.

Swift legal footwork remains customary in Hong Kong’s publishing world; “inventive” and “entrepreneurial” legal expertise abounds. A colourful, intermittently incendiary business rag published here in the 1970s avoided prosecution by having every edition produced as its own separate limited company with no assets.

Like the various Portugueselanguage titles a century ago, this paper was subject to substantial behind-the-scenes interference by a prominent business tycoon with several axes of his own to grind.

Nothing really changes much in Hong Kong.

 

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