Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 October, 2010, 12:00am

Legendary businessman Pedro Jose Lobo was one of south China's most influential - and enigmatic - public figures.

Of mixed Chinese-Malay descent, Lobo was born in Portuguese Timor in 1891. Educated in Portugal, where he obtained a doctorate in economics, he moved to Macau, where he became the government's director of economic services. Macau's first commercial radio station, Radio Vilaverde, was named for his holiday compound in the northern part of Macau, and Lobo himself composed music that was used for broadcasts. Rua Do Dr Pedro Jose Lobo, a street near the Lisboa hotel, was named in his honour.

A tremendous public benefactor, Lobo paid for the subsistence of hundreds of penniless refugees who sought safety in neutral, unoccupied, Macau during the Pacific war. In 1945, when the conflict was over, Lobo's son, later Hong Kong executive councillor Roger Lobo, personally took confirmation of the Japanese surrender to imprisoned colonial secretary F.C. Gimson, at Stanley Camp, and thus helped re-establish British rule in Hong Kong.

For more than 20 years, sensational stories about Macau's now mostly forgotten gold trade were a regional journalistic staple. Following the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement, which aimed, among other things, to stabilise currencies in a post-war world, the international price of gold was fixed at US$35 an ounce. Portugal and its overseas territories, such as Macau, were non-signatories and thus not bound by its conventions. Lobo and a number of Chinese associates formed a syndicate to facilitate gold importation and sold gold at US$70 to anyone who wished to buy.

Gold was legally imported under a customs bond into Macau mostly from the Bank of England through Hong Kong brokers. A shadowy Italian named P.G. Calcina, who lived for years with his mistress at the Repulse Bay Hotel, frequently brokered international bullion purchases through a Wheelock, Marden and Co subsidiary.

As China descended into civil war in the late 1940s, and Indonesia and Vietnam experienced prolonged, violent independence movements, many ethnic Chinese sought financial security in gold. Gold purchased in Macau was - in theory at least - not meant for export. But a lot went overseas by various means.

Perennially alert for interesting stories, novelist Ian Fleming - the 'father' of James Bond - sought an interview with Pedro Jose Lobo for The Times when he visited Hong Kong and Macau in the late 50s. He later cruelly caricatured Lobo into Goldfinger, the malign genius who controlled a worldwide smuggling empire from a tiny, remote outpost. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Lobo died in Hong Kong in 1965 - the year after Goldfinger, starring Sean Connery, premiered worldwide - and was buried in Happy Valley.