Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 June, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong's links to modern Italy are apparent everywhere; high-end fashion labels, Italianate names - how many palazzo-esque real-estate developments are there in the city? - and all the usual bella figura pretensions of a hyper-consumerist society. Less apparent are the links that existed between fascist Italy and Hong Kong in the early 1930s.

St Teresa's Church in Kowloon Tong contains one of the most fascinatingly unlikely connections to this turbulent time. Emphatically Italian in architectural style, right down to the towering campanile modelled on the church of San Marco in Venice, St Teresa's has been a prominent north Kowloon landmark ever since Bishop Enrico Valtorta - an Italian - laid the foundation stone in 1934. Inside the church's main entrance, an inlaid donor list records the generosity - along with several prominent local Portuguese names - of one Benito Mussolini. Now how did this little-known Italy-Hong Kong connection come about?

Vatican City, the independent sovereign state formed in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty, concluded between the Catholic Church and totalitarian dictator Mussolini, is the sole surviving physical relic of the political infrastructure of the pre-war fascist world. Under the terms by which the Vatican was formed, the Papacy formally relinquished claims to the defunct Papal States (unilaterally absorbed into a unified Italy in 1871) in return for substantial Italian state contributions to Roman Catholic funds. These were subsequently used for construction purposes worldwide, as well as in Italy. St Teresa's Church is one striking example of fascist Italy's financial benevolence.

There were closer personal links. Mussolini's eldest daughter, Edda, who was married to Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian consul-general stationed in Shanghai in the early 30s, was a frequent visitor to Hong Kong. She wintered at Repulse Bay and - according to various reports - amused herself with romantic dalliances, high-stakes poker games and plenty of gin. The count subsequently turned against Mussolini and was executed on his father-in-law's orders in 1944. Their son later wrote a memoir titled When Grandpa Had Daddy Shot - a dysfunctional family story by any standards.

St Teresa's donor plaque mutely reminds us that the Catholic Church's open support of the fascist dictator- ships in pre-war Europe - Spain's Franco, Portugal's Salazar and (yes) Hitler, too - is - like the recent top- level, highly orchestrated cover up of worldwide clerical paedophile rings - an integral part of a shame- ful recent past.