“Strangers on the Praia: A Tale of Refugees and Resistance in Wartime Macao” by Paul French


While the Second World War may have concluded more than seventy years ago, new stories from that era continue to pop up, even now. Paul French’s new book, Strangers on the Praia: A Tale of Refugees and Resistance in Wartime Macao, tells the little-known history of Jewish refugees in Shanghai that fled to the neutral Portuguese enclave.

Strangers on the Praia began life as a piece in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, followed by a four-part podcast on Hong Kong radio and, then finally, in this relatively short print volume. Featuring French’s trademark research, and based on an amalgam of actual people, it might be characterized as “might have happened” history, albeit incomplete, as French admits:


It is, as they say, based on a number of true stories, but history has chosen not to reveal all the details to us. This is as frustrating for the reader as it is for the author. However, the story of those few European Jewish refugees from fascism who arrived in Macao remains worth telling.


Yet so much in the book does seem complete, giving the reader a vivid idea of how some Jewish refugees left the relative safety of Shanghai for Macau[1]Macau is now conventionally spelled with a “u”. “Macao” was the original spelling, and is maintained is mostly English-speaking countries. in order to find better living conditions. French estimates that a couple hundred Jews left Shanghai for Macau, while perhaps some more were able to leave Hong Kong after the British colony fell to the Japanese in December 1941. Macau saw a deluge of refugees reach its shores during the war, increasing its population from less than 200,000 to 700,000.


Strangers on the Praia: A Tale of Refugees and Resistance in Wartime Macao, Paul French (Blacksmith Books, May 2020)
Strangers on the Praia: A Tale of Refugees and Resistance in Wartime Macao, Paul French (Blacksmith Books, June 2020)

French was drawn to this story, not just because he’s written about Jews in Shanghai before 1949 and this story is a continuation of that one, but also because he’s always been fascinated by the uniqueness of the Portuguese colony.


Macao sat there in the South China Sea, fanning itself in the heat, accentuating the exotic, a combination of sleepy backwater and nest of criminality. It was also, for a few crucial years, a refuge.


French tells the story of one—apparently at least to some extent fictionalized—Jewish woman from Berlin who makes her way to Shanghai where she meets a kind-hearted Spaniard who offers a faux marriage to give her a Spanish passport. Instead of staying in Shanghai like most Jewish refugees, she lost her parents there in a tuberculosis epidemic the summer of 1941 and was left without family.


America, Britain beckoned as potential places of freedom and a new beginning, but this was 1941. The only way there was via Lisbon; the way to Lisbon was via Macao. With no family left in Shanghai and nothing back in Berlin to return to, she took a chance on Macao.


In Macau, this woman finds abode at the Aurora Portuguesa, a boarding house largely occupied by refugees, vividly described as readers have come to expect from French.


The Macanese rickshaw man had assumed she would want that address anyway. The girls who look like her, dress like her, arrive like her, all go there. It is a simple pensão in the old town, a converted house with a popular billiards shall on the ground floor, slow-turning fans, and a small yard at the rear where the young Jewish girls and boys staying at the Aurora Portuguesa gather to smoke and kibbitz when the crowded rooms become too hot and airless.


The residents live four to a room in bunk beds and trade stories of ways to leave Macau for somewhere more stable, worried that the safety of Macau won’t last long. The Japanese make inroads into southern China and finally occupy Hong Kong in 1941.

John Reeves, the British Consul in Macau, does not have the ability to issue visas for the United Kingdom since the route to the UK or any of the Commonwealth countries is ridden with enemy warships. He can, however, secure passage for the never named Jewish woman to the French outpost at Kwangchowan, along the coast of Guangdong province. From there, perhaps she can find a way to Free China.

Kwangchowan, or Kouang-Tchéou-Wan in French, is another of those colonial cul-de-sacs that rarely make it into stories of wartime Asia or, indeed, at all.


The territory of Kwangchowan, with a port and small town called Fort Bayard. A forgotten backwater of France’s Far Eastern possessions. On the border of China and French Indo-China. A ferry ride of a day or so around Hainan Island. There’s a lot of trade between Fort Bayard and Macao. Smuggling, the black market. Everything from cigarettes to vegetables, but the Portuguese don’t much mind as it helps the situation here, which would be much worse without the mercado negro. The French turn a blind eye too. Others have used the route—neutrals, anti-Nazi Germans, Filipinos moving one. It has worked.


It was occupied by the Japanese in 1943.

While survivors of the War are fewer and fewer now, perhaps there are still people who remember these stories or have heard them. This is what French hopes for as writes at the conclusion of his introduction:


Strangers on the Praia is ultimately only a partial tale, a frustratingly limited glimpse at the stories, lives and adventures of those Jewish refugees who spent time in Macao. There is still more to be uncovered; but it is hoped that this short story is perhaps a start.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Macau is now conventionally spelled with a “u”. “Macao” was the original spelling, and is maintained is mostly English-speaking countries.