“The Macanese Diaspora in British Hong Kong: A Century of Transimperial Drifting” by Catherine S Chan


The ubiquity of Portuguese surnames in Hong Kong, including as they do quite a few people who don’t look particularly European, can come as something of a surprise. Some of these, as Catherine S Chan points out in her new book Macanese Diaspora in British Hong Kong: A Century of Transimperial Drifting, date literally from Hong Kong’s earliest days as the Macanese were some of the city’s first immigrants.

Chan details—were this not a work of scholarship, one might say celebrates—the history of the Macanese in Hong Kong from the founding of the city through the Second World War. Although an academic text and fully sourced, Chan is a fluent writer; the book is rigorous yet readable. She manages the tightrope between anecdote and data, between vignette and analysis: her examples always seem to illustrate a broader point.


The Macanese Diaspora in British Hong Kong: A Century of Transimperial Drifting, Catherine S Chan (Amsterdam University Press, September 2021)
The Macanese Diaspora in British Hong Kong: A Century of Transimperial Drifting, Catherine S Chan (Amsterdam University Press, September 2021)

As identity groups go, the Macanese seem peculiar if not downright unique. Chan settles on a definition of “Luso-descendentes with Macau-roots”. While mostly of mixed ethnicity (and mixed with just about anything), some were European albeit hailing from places like Brazil. They might or might not consider themselves Portuguese; they might or might not speak Portuguese or the Portuguese-based creole patuá (cf “patois”), the romance language having been replaced by English and/or Cantonese. Yet regardless of ethnic mix, linguistic preference, allegiance, there was still a distinct Macanese identity.

The Macanese were some of Hong Kong’s earliest settlers: some accompanied the British with whom they were already employed while others they saw free-wheeling, liberal Hong Kong as offering a chance for a better life. Macau, whose upper echelons were monopolized by elite Macanese, had a relatively rigid social and economic structure—as well as censorship and other regulations that could be circumvented in the new colony. Hong Kong became, surprisingly, something of a hotbed of Portuguese-language press.

One could be Portuguese and Macanese at the same time, or (depending on one’s politics) identify with one at the expense of the other, or even become entirely British. Eduardo Pereira came to Hong Kong with Dent & Co, whereupon he became known as Edward and was “completely Anglicised”. But after moving to Britain in around 1860, Pereira rediscovered his Portuguese identity, reestablished his Brazilian ancestors’ coats-of-arms and went by Eduardo. His children, though, were raised as completely English, and Macau dropped from the narrative. Carlos Augusto Montalto de Jesus was born in Hong Kong, fêted for his book (in English) Historic Macao published in the first decade of the 20th century. In a  second edition in 1926, however, Montalto “turned from praising the Portuguese Empire in the Far East to lambasting Portugal’s long inertia.”


For Montalto, being Macanese was less a problem of being Portuguese, but more a question of how to safeguard Macau’s interests, even if it meant castigating Portugal for its incompetent rule of the city. For Montalto’s critics, however, a good Macanese was someone who remained loyal to Portugal regardless of its actions.


The links with language were similarly ambiguous:


By the early twentieth century, Macau’s Macanese perceived patuá as a marker of the lower classes while those in Hong Kong saw those who spoke the creole language were [sic] “socially pretentious”.


One of the more serious issues in the book is the discussion of British discrimination against Macanese in the Civil Service and employment generally. Discrepancies in pay were obvious as was an implicit if not explicit glass ceiling. A case in point was Leonardo d’Almada e Castro who came to Hong Kong in 1842 as “a leading clerk of the new colonial government”. He made rapid progress and was even made Acting Colonial Secretary twice in 1851. But there he stalled. Chan here goes somewhat against the current grain in that, while acknowledging prejudice, she also notes that the British claimants for various posts might actually have been betters suited (better educated and with fewer local attachments). More generally, Macanese were known as good workers who would accept salaries far lower than those of the British brought out from Britain. This might be unfair, but it is also competition: Chan doesn’t word it this way, but expats in Hong Kong have always been paid (considerably) more than local hires. The Macanese may have complained, at least among themselves, but the opportunities in Hong Kong were still better than those in Macau.

Some of the anecdotes are more interesting than portentous. The Club Lusitano was founded in 1866 and wasn’t even the first Portuguese club in Hong Kong. But it was the one that survived and still does. It also established the Lusitano Theatre which hosted a performance of La Traviata in 1868. Who’d have thought?


Chan ends her study with the aftermath of WW2, but Macanese are still central to Hong Kong, as “Uncle” Ray Cordeiro’s multitude of fans will attest.

Some typos aside (a few obviously 19th-century dates have a “19” rather than an “18”), Macanese Diaspora in British Hong Kong may well be of interest to those with an academic interest in diasporic studies. For those with a less scholarly interest in Hong Kong or the Portuguese in Asia, it is likely to prove a fascinating and very readable little book (it is only about 200 pages). One might even—in her description of fluid and malleable identities, the “drifting” of the subtitle—discern some interesting parallels with Hong Kong’s own, later diaspora.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.