It’s hard to imagine now, but there were once three mountainous, verdant islands between Macau and mainland China. The Portuguese named them Dom João, Montanha and Lapa. Later the islands became known in Chinese as Xiao (Little) Hengqin, Da (Big) Hengqin and Wanzai, respectively. The two Hengqins, which faced Coloane and Taipa, were eventually joined by land reclamation to form a single island while Wanzai, a mere few hundred metres from Macau’s Inner Harbour ( Porto Interior ), saw its inclines levelled enough to become a peninsula. You may have crossed them all if you have ever used the Wanzai border crossing, or have driven over the Lotus Bridge from Cotai to Zhuhai. Hengqin today is a bleak Special Economic Zone, and the Wanzai industrial suburbs belie their lush, mountainous history. But these absent hills may soon rise to the sky once again – with skyscrapers. Reports are circulating that the central government may hand over Hengqin to Macau . The idea is that perhaps Macau can diversify away from its reliance on gaming and tourism with some light industry. There is also talk of a massive housing project to accommodate Macau citizens in the Greater Bay Area – the 4,000-household “Macau New Neighbourhood”. What many do not realise is that before the warehouses and factories, the highways and housing units, the old Dom João, Montanha and Lapa were home to stories of great storms, gunfights, pirates, and global conflicts played out among the hills and mountains of this island delta. And this had been the case for centuries. 1644 For a time Lapa had been known as the Ilha dos Padres (Island of Priests), or often simply referred to as Patera, a Japanese corruption of padre . And the island’s early Christian associations are strong. Dutch mariners in the 17th century noted a fortified battery and a dock at Lapa built by Portuguese missionaries. The great historian of Macau, Carlos Augusto Montalto de Jesus, writing in the 1920s, noted that in 1644 the Chinese government in Canton (Guangzhou) had granted a tract on Lapa as a burial ground for a Jesuit, João Rodrigues (known in China as Lu Ruohan), who had been influential at the court in Peking. In 1645, the tract of land was enlarged by a further imperial grant. An Englishman who lived for many years in Japan, Walter Dickson, writing in 1869, maintained that a group of Japanese Christian refugees had also once lived on Lapa with the Portuguese Jesuits, and that they built a large structure known as the yat-pon-lao , or Japanese hall. 1762 The Portuguese representatives in Macau reported to the viceroy of Portuguese India, the grandly named Manuel de Saldanha e Albuquerque, the Count of Ega (in Goa), that all Portuguese properties in Lapa and nearby islands had been abandoned. It seems that a combination of exposure to typhoons and storms made habitation near impossible. Additionally, due to the anti-Jesuit campaigns in Portugal, all Jesuits were expelled from Macau and the surrounding islands in 1762. Yet Lapa remained an important source of drinking water for Macau, with Chinese sampans constantly bringing freshwater supplies across to the Portuguese colony. 1874 Lapa features in many accounts of the great and destructive typhoon that hit Hong Kong and Macau in September 1874 – the third worst in recorded history to hit Hong Kong and, of course, at a time when there were significantly fewer defences against typhoons than today. Much of Macau was annihilated, entire streets destroyed, an estimated 5,000 people died and 2,000 ships were sunk. A certain Mr Ybele, apparently a Dutch trader, had single-handedly built a house on Lapa. He was shocked to find that a junk moored in the Porto Interior had been lifted up by the ferocious winds and flung through his front window. Surveying the surrounding island Ybele recorded that “the hills of Lapa were strewn with upended junks”. 1887 Lisbon and Peking signed a treaty in 1887 guaranteeing Portugal’s rights over Macau (a mere 300 years after Macau’s occupation by Portugal). It is generally agreed that Macau, Taipa and Coloane were included in the treaty’s notion of Portugal’s “perpetual occupation and government” of Macau, but the border with mainland China was never mutually agreed in terms of a fixed boundary. And nobody specifically mentioned Dom João, Montanha and Lapa. They remained unoccupied by either Chinese or Portuguese troops. Rumours circulated that the Chinese were willing to lease a portion of Lapa, “[…] and some other uninhabited islands in the vicinity” (presumably Dom João and Montanha) to the Portuguese, but if it were discussed it never officially happened. Lisbon seems to have assumed that the islands were part of its domain, although the Chinese Customs constantly maintained a station on Lapa and claimed it as a treaty right. 1890 For a while it seems that the islands enjoyed some calm. Montalto de Jesus writes that Lapa became quite the destination, with several Portuguese building themselves summer homes as well as Europeans in Macau regularly visiting for weekend picnic parties. Lapa was also still supplying a good deal of fresh drinking water to Macau. 1897 The historic lack of clarity over the islands – who controlled them and had the right to be there – led to something of a free-for-all in the late 1890s. The Chinese guard house and troops on Dom João were reported to be “causing annoyance to Portuguese residents”, and so Portugal dispatched troops to the island. Lisbon wanted China to vacate the territory and for Portugal to incorporate Dom João, Montanha and Lapa into a greater “Província de Macau”. A tense stand-off ensued. In May 1897 New York-based newspaper The Sun reported, “The two battalions stood waiting to fly at each other’s throats.” The viceroy of Canton and the Portuguese plenipotentiary met, and both agreed to remove their battalions. It was, by all accounts, a showy retreat with both sides blowing whistles, firing cannons and playing martial music. Noisy perhaps, but at least it seemed that a conflict had been avoided. But then things took another turn. It was reported in the Berlin newspaper Vossische Zeitung that China had ceded the island of Lapa to Germany. The Times newspaper in London reported that, “[…] 40 or 50 German Marines are surveying the harbour and the roads of the island”, and that the German Imperial Navy cruiser SMS Irene, under the command of Rear Admiral Paul Hoffmann, had sailed from Hong Kong for Lapa. The Germans were seeking a location for a coaling station for their newly formed East Asia Squadron. Hoffmann appeared to favour Lapa, or perhaps Quemoy (Kinmen and now part of Taiwan), but he was replaced as squadron commander by Rear Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who favoured northern China, and the Germans leased Kiautschou (Jiaozhou) Bay, in Shandong province, with its administrative centre at Qingdao. Lapa was once again largely deserted. What China’s Evergrande crisis means for its property market and the world 1903 Suggestions that Chinese pirates had established bases on Lapa began circulating around 1903, though sea bandits had long called at the island and often used it to slip into and out of Macau for smuggling purposes. But it seemed a build-up was occurring. Portuguese anti-pirate patrols engaged a force of an estimated 300 pirates close to Lapa, with the Portuguese being fired on by cannons mounted in the sterns of the pirate junks moored up and pointing back towards the Porto Interior from Lapa. The Portuguese also came under fire from a rain of “stinkpots”, locally made grenades with bamboo fuses filled with sulphur, gunpowder, nails and shot. The ferocity of the pirate defence was such that Lisbon decided to send two battlecruisers, República and Adamastor, permanently to Macau to boost the naval presence, and construct a naval air station at Taipa. The Portuguese also used the excuse of a leprosarium established on Dom João to send troops to the island, claiming that the leper colony needed to be protected from pirates. Macau had a number of leprosaria – the King of Portugal, Dom João V, had ordered serious steps be taken to study and contain leprosy in the empire’s colonies in the 1740s – but China did not fail to notice that the one on Dom João and another on Montanha were institutions that often acted as extensions of Portuguese colonialism to the islands, allowing the Macau authorities also to claim limited sovereignty and build garrisons. 1926 Another ferocious typhoon swept through Macau, destroying buildings and tossing junks about. It brought some of the heaviest and most prolonged torrential rainfall in the history of the Hong Kong Observatory’s records. The Portuguese Navy’s 1,200-tonne battle cruiser República was driven ashore onto Lapa as if it were a wooden sampan. After quite some effort the República was eventually refloated. 1938 Throughout the early 20th century, China had not forgotten the islands – Portuguese-language newspapers in Macau reported that Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek had proposed reclaiming land to unite Dom João and Montanha. Perhaps to head this interest off, taking advantage of China’s war with Japan, while also claiming to be protecting the lepers, missionaries and residents of the islands, then-governor Artur Tamagnini de Sousa Barbosa saw a chance to extend the boundaries of Macau. De Sousa Barbosa was a man of many parts. Governor of Macau between 1918 and 1919, then from 1926 to 1931, and finally reappointed in 1937, he was quite the character, somewhat of a diplomat-scholar and with a noted poet for a wife – Maria Anna Acciaioli Tamagnini – as well as one of the best moustache-beard combos ever seen in Macau. Extending colonial territory, furthering the Império Colonial Português, was likely, at the time, to go down well with the relatively new Second Portuguese Republic, more commonly known as the Estado Novo, in Lisbon. Headed by Portugal’s strongman António de Oliveira Salazar, it was to be a “corporatist authoritarian” government that championed imperialism while also asserting Portugal’s neutrality in World War II. But protestations of neutrality were not going to stop the Japanese, who had already bombed Montanha while attacking southern China. With troops infesting Guangdong province up to the Hong Kong border, 600 Imperial Japanese Army soldiers were moved to Montanha while others seized control of the Chinese Customs House on Lapa. This was all achieved by orchestrating a “provocation” next to the border gate area between Macau and the islands. Many in Macau thought a full-scale invasion was imminent and the Portuguese sent an emissary to the Japanese military authorities in Shanghai, who initially agreed to withdraw from Montanha and Lapa. Several months later, however, the Japanese reoccupied, citing supposed Free China guerilla activity on Montanha. 1940 The Japanese reoccupation of Lapa was an arduous one. Their reconquest came only after a hard-fought battle with the Portuguese side, led by Police Captain Alberto Carlos Rodrigues Ribeiro da Cunha, who was hailed as a genuine hero of Macau at the time. According to the Portuguese-language press, “numerous” Japanese were killed by Ribeiro da Cunha’s men, while the Portuguese saw two soldiers shot. 1945 The defeated Japanese surrendered and left the islands. Portugal had hoped, back in 1938, that any post-war settlement in Asia would award the islands to them in perpetuity. But this was not to be; there were no widespread post-war territorial agreements in Asia similar to those in Europe. Nationalist China regained control of southern China and the islands returned to the Republic. 1949 The tide of history swept across the islands of Dom João, Montanha and Lapa once more as China became a People’s Republic, and the names eventually became Xiao Hengqin, Da Hengqin and Wanzai. The New Zealand foreign correspondent Quentin Pope visited Macau in 1951 for the Chicago Tribune . He found a detachment of Portuguese troops, mostly grumpy teenage draftees, alongside two battalions of rather more impressive soldiers from Portuguese Mozambique. Pope maintained that the Portuguese East African battalions had occupied Big and Small Hengqin, but that on Wanzai, so close to Portuguese Macau, he could see People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops across the channel, who could, the correspondent wrote, “smash all of Macau flat with artillery fire”. 1952 In July, shots were traded between Wanzai and Macau’s Porto Interior after a Portuguese soldier allegedly, and seemingly accidentally, slightly overstepped the Macau-China border during a flag-lowering ceremony. Things quickly escalated and the PLA began rushing troops to Wanzai. Two Portuguese soldiers were killed and seven wounded. The border between Macau and China was closed and the Guia Lighthouse in Macau switched off its beam to prevent ships from landing. Eventually calmer heads prevailed, shipping resumed and the soldiers kept to their respective sides of the border. 1960 The proximity of Wanzai to Macau meant it was possible for swimmers to cross the channel to freedom from the People’s Republic. A Canadian journalist wrote in 1960 of watching from the Porto Interior as refugees slid down the grassy banks of Wanzai and slipped into the water for the short swim. As the numbers making the crossing grew, the Chinese side stationed a speedboat mid-channel to intercept swimmers. By the 1960s, the islands saw some agricultural development and the creation of several “model farms” by China, which began the process of flattening the once majestic mountains of Lapa. 1980 These years saw fruitful cooperation between China and Portugal as the handover began to be discussed, as well as the start of construction of the new international airport (built on reclaimed land off Taipa). The role of the islands as a staging post between Macau and Zhuhai became crucial as a way for Macau to expand and to connect to the Chinese mainland. Nowadays, standing in Macau and looking across at Zhuhai, you are looking at what was once Wanzai. When the British bungled relations with China, did the Dutch take advantage? Today, when you travel across the Ponte Flor de Lótus (Lotus Bridge) from the reclaimed land of Cotai, switching from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right, you arrive in what were once the hills of Hengqin Island. But aside from switching sides of the road, it is unlikely that many will be reminded of all else about this place that has changed sides, or how many times, over the past half a millennia.