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The Lone Flag: Macau's WWII British consul

An extract from The Lone Flag, the memoir of Britain's wartime consul in Macau

 

When Hong Kong fell in 1941, the Portuguese colony of Macau was left as a neutral enclave surrounded by Japanese-held territory. Nonetheless, John Pownall Reeves, the British consul there, remained and continued his work, which was to include the provision of relief to 9,000 British subjects who had become refugees from occupied Hong Kong. Reeves' posting in Macau came to an end in 1946, and he was then assigned to a job in Rome, where he wrote a memoir of his war years. In 1949, Reeves sought permission to publish his writing but Britain's Foreign Office refused to grant it. Now, finally, Reeves' wartime memoir has been released to the public, in the book The Lone Flag.

Here we present the chapter titled "The Situation", wherein Reeves describes the situation in Macau ahead of an influx of refugees that would swell the enclave's population from 130,000 to more than 450,000.

 

The situation was now not a little interesting. My flag, floating next door to the Japanese Consul's, was the only Allied flag, apart from Chinese, for some distance, west to Yunnan and Chungking over 700 miles, north to Vladivostok 1,800, east into the Pacific some 4,000(?) miles, southeast to Port Moresby over 3,000 and south to Australia 2,700. It was to remain the only one constantly floating until the end of the war when it was described by the press as "The Lone Flag". It is possible that no other British flag has ever been so alone from the point of view of distance to the next.

Some play was made later in the press as regards my proximity to the Japanese Consulate. There simply was no other house available at the moment, in 1941, when I had to find an office and residence. I have already referred to the crowded conditions in Macao but where there were a few empty houses, these were mostly pre-empted by rich Chinese of Hongkong who, astutely seeing trouble coming, had prepared for themselves a bolt-hole in Macao; indeed I secured the Consulate only just ahead of one of these gentlemen, who in the end remained in Hongkong throughout the war to his own enrichment. My Japanese colleague before hostilities broke out, was evidently well imbued with the typical espionage complex of his race. Hearing that I liked Japanese food he asked me to dinner while offering his regrets that there were no geisha in Macao. "But", he said, "you will have seen that pretty Chinese girls come to my house". The dinner never occurred owing to the events of 8th December but it is obvious that he thought I was following his plan of noting all visitors to the Consulate.

Mr Fukui, my Japanese colleague, was a fine man. The Governor [Gabriel Teixeira] once remarked of him that he ought to be promoted to another nationality. Even after hostilities had started he did all he could to assist, from a humane point of view, activities which could not hurt his country. He was known to have put all his weight into the return of my wife from Hongkong [Rhoda Reeves had been trapped in Hong Kong when the Japanese attacked, and lived for a time with other refugees in St Stephen's College, on Lyttelton Road]; he was known to have facilitated the dispatch of food parcels to prisoners in Hongkong and he was known to have personally brought letters from prisoners to their families in Macao. He was killed by an assassin hired by the Japanese Gendarmerie.

The other members of the Consular Corps, in so far as there was such a body, were the honorary Consuls for Holland and Thailand or Siam. Neither Mr Nolasco nor Mr Fernandes would expect me to say they were overworked with Consular business. The former worked in cooperation with me; even if he had not desired to do so he would have been obliged to since he had no code with which to communicate with his Government. I still remember with horror the coding of such names as Vanlidtegude (or an approximation thereto). Mr Fernandes' commission was almost unique; he held it not from the Siamese but from the Portuguese Government, a situation which arose when Siam, wishing to have representatives in Portuguese territory, asked the Portuguese Government to choose them. Mr Nolasco had Dutch interests to protect in the form of the plant, property and ships of the Netherlands Harbour Works Company; these amounted to a very considerable monetary responsibility and to an even greater value in an area where the Japanese were desperate for ships and metals. One dredger indeed was forced from his hands by considerations too complex to discuss here.

For so small a Colony this appears to be fairly strong Consular representation. But it must not be forgotten that up to the nineteenth century virtually all trade with China had passed through Macao. Here had been the headquarters of John Company and of the Dutch East India Company. The former English factor's house still stands, now a museum, and the Dutch Company's tenure is commemorated by the Rua Horta da Compania (Road of the Company Garden). The factor's house, on historical and traditional grounds should have been my Consulate and Residence, my Consulate because the East India Company's factor had been the real forerunner of the Consul, and residence on the flimsy grounds that having been educated at Haileybury, the old training school for John Company's officers, I was the traditionally lineal descendant of the many Haileybury men who had occupied the house; but a museum it remained.

I have no knowledge of the origins of our own Consular representation in Macao. The Consulate-General at Canton was established in 1843 and was presumably in control and in charge of British Interests in Macao. At some point, I believe in the 1930s, Mr. F.J. Gellion, Managing Director of the Macao Electric Company, the senior British firm in Macao, became Honorary Vice-Consul, under the control of H.M. Consul-General at Canton. In 1940 the post became an independent Consulate in the charge of Mr. H.D. Bryan, a career officer, whom I replaced in June 1941 to, perhaps, Derek Bryan's later relief.

British Interests in Macao consisted chiefly of the Macao Electric Company, which controlled also the Macao Water Company, the latter being a Portuguese registered company entirely financed by the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. At the outbreak of the Pacific War we had a fleet consisting of the SS Saion, which I have already mentioned, an Asiatic Petroleum Company lighter and a small sailing boat belonging to the Malayan [Civil Service] cadets. Another British interest was the general store of Mr Cassim Moosa; an Indian gentleman whose firm dated back into the middle of the nineteenth century. Apart from this some Hongkong firms, chiefly dealing in petrol, insurance or tobacco, had agencies in the Colony. Of all these the only one which was to cause head-and-heartache was Melco, the Electric Company, particularly as Mr Gellion was away in America. This is no insult to my very good friend Mr Fletcher who took over the affairs of the Company in the absence of Mr Gellion. There were also a number of Indian stores but the majority of these became involved in the Indian Independence League movement [which organised Indians living overseas to seek the removal of British colonial rule from India] and would hardly have had the impertinence to appeal to the Consulate if they had been threatened; it is noteworthy that none appealed against the threats against them by the I.I.L., which they alleged in their own defence after the end of the War.

British Subjects were few; Mr and Mrs Fletcher, Mrs Wilson, the Mitchell family, the three Malayan cadets, Mr Borras of the Chinese Maritime Customs, Mr and Mrs Lammert, Mr and Mrs Galloway and Pat Heenan of the Royal Insurance Company were those of whom one saw the most. The Indian community consisted chiefly of the merchants I have mentioned and of police, both Mohammedan and Sikh in the employ of the Macao Government. There was also a handful of British Subjects of Portuguese race. Needless to say when relief appeared available many others claimed British nationality but their claims could usually be denied either on "dual national" grounds or under a special regulation introduced by which those who were resident before June 1941 but had failed to register were not entitled to relief. It is and probably always will be a sad reflection to Consular Officers that most British Subjects abroad are aware or prefer to be conscious more of the rights than of the obligations of British nationality. In general Consular Officers only see British Subjects who are in trouble; when they are not they have no need to see a Consul: this state of affairs is enough to make Consular Officers feel that there is no British Subject but a British Subject in trouble. Ordinary tourists and businessmen without worries hardly impinge though any Consul would like to know more of them.

The attitude of the Portuguese to the War was interesting. Some were completely in favour of Germany, though not of the Japanese. I remember one in particular, whose moustaches had earned him the soubriquet of "Handlebars" though it might as well have been "Kaiser Bill", had been pro-German in 1914, pro-German in 1918 and was still pro-German; he probably still is. For a person with such unwavering views one had genuine respect. Some were genuinely pro-Allied or pro-British; amongst these I number unhesitatingly the Governor, the then Secretary for Chinese Affairs who on VE [Victory in Europe] day disclosed beneath his waistcoat a portrait of Churchill, most of the naval officers and one in particular, and a certain genial surgeon who only lost his temper with the British when they displayed, in moments of temporary defeat, what was to him an infuriating stoicism. Mr Lobo [director of economic services Dr Pedro Jose Lobo] may certainly be mentioned as a friend of Britain, all the more valuable a friend for the appearance of strict neutrality he managed to maintain vis-à-vis the Japanese who also regarded him as friendly. Perhaps the finest compliment ever paid to him was by a Japanese; "Lobo is a very good friend of ours but nothing could buy his loyalty to Portugal". I could have said the same but I would have been justified in using far warmer terms. Other Portuguese had a rather petty-minded attitude arising from jealousy but usually attributed to our having allegedly stolen territory (was it Rhodesia?) from Portugal. This group wanted to see Britain victorious but wished to see the lion's tail well tweaked first. One very senior official indeed was reported to me as having said, during the Blitz [on British cities], "I want the British to win but first I want them to suffer and suffer". Others again were anxious for personal reasons to keep in with both sides and indeed as neutrals they had every right to do so; it was only distressing to know that some citizens of our oldest ally went out of their way to be friendly to Japanese to secure some personal advantage, such as the dear lady who went out of her way to launch a Japanese Family in Macao society and expected us to remain as friendly as ever. Of some others we saw little until D day but their friendship ripened successively as VE and VJ [Victory over Japan] days came along.

Somewhat similar activities led to my resigning from one of the few centres of recreation, the Melco Club; or, to give it its full title the Watco and Melco Staff Club. This was situated on the race-course and consisted of a large hall with a stage, a small bar, changing rooms, two tennis-courts, and a football ground. It had been the centre of social activity but had fallen off as cost of living increased and transport decreased. However, the Golf Section of the Civilian Tennis Club requested Melco to allow its members, who played on a course in the middle of the race-track to use the Club "between rounds", a delightful temporal definition which included evening dances. The Club could hardly refuse this request from another Club with the result that the Japanese, who were the principal golf players, became regular frequenters of Melco Club. I reluctantly resigned, and pointed out to the President my displeasure that a Club run on British money should be opened to the Japanese. He replied, correctly, that in view of the tactics used, he had been helpless.

Before the war the race-course, also, now that I remember, a British concern, had been the scene of very cheerful friendly little race-meetings. There was one arranged for January 8th 1942 but of course it was cancelled. Not to be beaten by a mere war, and in the spirit I have mentioned, George McCaskie, one of the Malayan cadets, and I organized a bicycle gymkhana, which was really successful in entertainment value. At least it kept people's minds from brooding for a short while. Later the actual race-course became a series of Chinese market-gardens; the Chinese are a practical people and presumably argued that where there had been horses there must have been manure and what could be better for vegetables; and it is a fact that they flourished.

George, by the way, was one of the most universal characters I have ever met. So far as I remember he was a licensed preacher in the Church of Scotland, had passed examinations in law and medicine and had acted as third engineer on a Merchant ship. It gave me more than a single pang when I heard that he had died in Free China after surviving all the risks of getting through the Japanese patrols. Charles Knaggs, the other Malayan cadet still in Macao in January also later died of fever in Southeast Asia after escaping from the Colony. They were both fine men and were a great loss.

This matter of escaping was naturally very much in the air. Four people actually escaped from Stanley internment camp and arrived by sampan. These four included Pam Harrap, who has written of her experiences, and an American by the name of O'Neill. My memory fails me as to how Miss Harrap escaped from Macao but she made a success of it without my help; at this time I was not yet in touch with the organizers of the later escape routes and could, in fact, help very little. In these early days people made their own arrangements and all got through owing to their nerve and initiative. The only one I really helped at all was Pat Heenan to whom I gave a falsified Immigration Office Permit, describing him as born in Spain, which enabled him, speaking perfect Spanish, to go by a Portuguese vessel to Kwangchowan [Guangzhou Bay], a French colony partially controlled by the Japanese, and into Free China.

George McCaskie and Charles Knaggs also made their own arrangements but I still remember Charles doing training walks to fit himself for the journey, most of which was bound to be done on foot. I believe they were confronted many times with the equivalent of a "Trip Cancelled" notice before they got through but they made it in the end by a somewhat harrowing journey. The other escapees from Stanley and Miss Cholmondeley of Hongkong, later also a Mr Stott, got away by means of their own Chinese connections but the trade had not yet become wholesale as it did later.

O'Neill deserves a paragraph to himself. I have never seen a man so continuously drunk. He was far from lacking in resource, managing on one occasion to smuggle the blankets out of his boarding-house at two in the morning in order to pawn them; in this he succeeded and, by a further stroke of genius, purchased a bottle or two of Chinese wine, fiery and intoxicating stuff. After he had nearly caused various incidents with the Japanese, on one occasion standing outside their Consulate and shouting insults, on another sinking into a drunken stupor in the Japanese Consul's car, I asked the Governor to have him removed to one of the islands where he could cause less trouble. Later the State Department asked me how many American citizens I had who desired repatriation. I gave the number and concluded my telegram with the words "and one under detention at my request". The mild humour of this lies in the fact that I was not then in charge of American Interests.

American Interests in Macao consisted chiefly of the Pan-American Airways property and some agencies of which a later chapter will tell more. There were just a few American citizens, employees of Pan-American, teachers and missionaries some of whom, including Bishop Paschang and other Maryknoll fathers, were allowed by the Japanese to come into Macao from their station. The Americans also had a "fleet", one Pan-American launch in which I spent a blistering afternoon tearing the engine to pieces to make it work. She was something of a menace to navigate, since she was fairly heavy and could never be persuaded to go astern.

Earl Redden, the Pan-American Manager, and Pat Heenan lived a weird existence of their own at the passenger-station. Their experiments were magnificent and ranged from Pan-American stew, through tobacco manufacture to Pat Heenan's beard. The stew was their staple dish; it consisted of all the vegetables and perhaps a bit of meat that they could buy in the market on their very small living allowance put firmly in a pot of boiling water and allowed to simmer till Pat would prod a potato and decide everything was well-enough cooked. Pan-American poison was a threat to civilization but went well with the stew; into one bottle went every variety of firewater available; bath-tub gin paled into impotent insignificance compared with the result. For some time too canvas rolls appeared, redolent of tobacco and molasses, Pan-American plug. A further activity was fishing in the reservoir with patent traps which opened all at the wrong time but caught various interesting weeds. I hasten to add that Pat's beard, dense as it grew, was never used as a fish net. Pictures of the girls from Esquire by Petty decorated the walls more than brightly and altogether "Angel's Roost" was a place to visit. Its visitors' book signed by such dignitaries as Marjorie Duchess of Macao, remains a great record of that small band who lived those anxious days together.

On the visitors' book, rather than in it, since it consisted of a board on the wall, the signature of the Commodore of the Allied fleet in Macao, Trygve Jorgensen, master of the SS Masbate, 790 tons, Panamanian flag. "Trigger" was Norwegian and his English was doubtful and remained so, though it improved as time went on. He also had a drink of his own aboard of genus akin to Pan-American poison. A cheerful soul was Trigger, worried about one thing only, the fate of his wife, as he called his ship. He was fortunate in having a really loyal Chinese beneficiary owner, Mr. Chang; who consistently refused tempting Japanese offers, sale or charter, for the ship. He was to have his adventures later, as was the ship, but for the moment he lay peacefully at anchor in the outer harbour awaiting what the war would bring and concocting Norwegian hors d'oeuvres from the limited supplies available.

Such, roughly, was the Allied Community, though I must not fail to mention Jean Fay the Commissioner of Chinese Maritime Customs, his wife and his charming family. They were all most definitely Free French and never wavered. They had a hard time throughout financially, but always put a brave face on things.

We were cut off, we were to get on very well, and we were to get to know each other very well. In spite of the nerve and other strain we were to undergo I doubt if one of us really regrets Macao 1941-46.

 

The Lone Flag: Memoir of the British Consul in Macao during World War II (HKU Press), edited by Colin Day and Richard Garrett, is available now.

 

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