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A Lone Defender

Tue, 17th Mar 2015
British consul describes dramatic World War Two in Macao. (March 2015)

The Japanese ordered three attempts on his life, but none succeeded. He carried a gun on a shoulder holster every waking minute for three and a half years and went everywhere with an armed bodyguard. His neighbour, the Japanese consulate, was assassinated, probably by his own secret police.

This was war-time Macao and the life of John Pownall Reeves, British consul there between June 1941 and August 1946. It was the most extraordinary period in the city’s history, when it was the only place in East Asia not under Japanese military occupation.

Refugees from Hong Kong and neighbouring areas increased the population from 157,000 in 1927 to 245,000 in 1939 and nearly 500,000 in 1942; it was a territory of only 14.47 square kilometres. Everything was in short supply; no-one knew if or when the Japanese would take it over, as they could have done at any moment.

Precious first-hand account

Hong Kong University Press has just published “The Lone Flag”, the memoir of Reeves during this dramatic period, as part of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Study Series. He began writing it immediately after the war and completed the manuscript in January 1949, when he was posted to Rome.

In October that year, the Foreign Office refused him permission to publish it, citing government policy over “official experiences” of members of the Foreign Service. So the world has had to wait for more than 60 years for this invaluable first-hand account of life in wartime Macao. Reeves died in South Africa in 1978.

During and after the war, Reeves realised that the experience was the highlight of his life. “We had an exciting time; I loved it. When I got back, someone in the Foreign Office said they were expecting me to look tired and ill. There was only one reply and it was truthful and spontaneous – ‘but I kept my sense of humour’”.

His greatest achievement was to look after the health, welfare and well-being of more than 9,000 British refugees; many survived thanks to him. This is the tribute which the British Consular Service wrote to him in September 1945: “Sympathy for his fellows, farsightedness in planning for dark and difficult days, dynamic in encouraging others to do their little bit for the community as well as for the common cause, resourceful in meeting ticklish situations, a good sportsman in every sense of the word, cut off from his fellow-countrymen and standing alone as it were in the midst of a disintegrating world, he held the British flag to the mast in this little neutral Portuguese colony, a symbol of courage and fortitude for all men to see.”

Feeding the hungry, caring for the sick

Reeves, his wife and daughter arrived in Macao in 1939 after six years in China. He had been posted in 1933 to the British legation in Beijing, where he spent two years studying Chinese. He was posted to Hankou for three years and then as acting consul-general in Shenyang. He was a gifted linguist, having studied French, German and Spanish at Cambridge University; he does not say it in so many words in the book, but it would seem he spoke Portuguese too.

The family was in Macao for rest and recreation when the war broke out. He stayed there and took over as acting consul on 7 June 1941; he had one assistant, a steno-typist secretary. The city was already crowded with thousands of refugees who had fled the Japanese occupation of Guangdong province and much of southeast China.

Reeves’ Calvary began after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December; Japan declared war on the US and Britain.

He became almost totally cut off from the outside world. From that day until 14 August 1945, the day Emperor Hirohito surrendered, his consulate received no mail, no private correspondence and nothing which could not be transmitted by radio. He knew very little of what was happening in the world. His only link was short-wave radio and an international cable that linked the colony to Lisbon and London.

After the fall of Hong Kong, refugees began to arrive. The fortunate ones stayed with friends and family or in homes, hospitals, schools, clubs and churches. The rest lived on the streets or in camps or centres, with no hot water and poor sanitary conditions. The death rate, which had been 3,000-4,000 in 1930, rose to a peak of 16,000, from starvation, disease and cold; there were cases of cannibalism. Everything was in shortage. In 1941, Macao had just ten doctors and three hospitals: others were later allowed in from Hong Kong.

Reeves was responsible for those with British nationality. This was often hard to establish since most refugees had no passport or nationality document and many claimed it without the proper papers.

In the end, he was responsible for 9,000 people, including thousands of Chinese who had no proof of British citizenship other than sworn statements they had been born in Hong Kong. With limited food, medicines, materials and staff, he organised relief centres and medical clinics. His final records showed that, during the war, they handled 4,118 cases and 33,000 papers, with a budget of HK$ 25 million, provided promptly by the Foreign Office through telegraphic transfer via its embassy in Lisbon.

Much of his work was to persuade and inspire people to take part in the relief effort and work beyond the call of duty. “The nurses and the rest of the administrative staff worked selflessly and magnificently in circumstances of discomfort and difficulty.”

He enjoyed an excellent personal relationship with the Governor, Gabriel Mauricio Teixeira; this greatly facilitated his work.

Death at any moment

Reeves never knew how long he would live. The Japanese Kempeitai, secret police, and the Chinese who worked for them could have arrested or killed him at any time.

“What you have in your head can be forced out of it by the delirium of torture and I was under no illusions as to the sort of treatment I could expect if the Nips laid their hands on me.” His house was next to that of the Japanese consul, Mr Fukui, who was himself assassinated, possibly by the Kempeitai, because of his neutral leanings. This meant that the Japanese knew a great deal about his activities.

“How much the Japanese really wanted me removed I have never known. I know the reward for me once went up to 4,000 pounds and one immediately asks why it was not earned. The answer is not far to seek; in this sort of job, the Japanese were working through Chinese gangsters and those somewhat low types were aware that they were unlikely to live to collect in view of the way I was armed, of the fact that my bodyguard was always with me and that I was normally shadowed by one or two Chungking gunmen (of the Nationalist government). And the Japanese could certainly not be trusted to pay a widow.”
He always carried a gun, which he removed only to take a bath and to play hockey.

In early 1945, three American airmen who had been shot down in the sea arrived in a sampan. At Reeves’ instruction, they dumped their uniforms in the harbour and took a long bath in his house. Governor Teixeira agreed not to intern them and told him to get them out of Macao as soon as possible. Taken out on a junk, they managed to evade capture by the Japanese.

Improving morale

Reeves also threw his energy into organising events to improve morale among the refugees and the residents. These included dances, parties, clubs, sports and other activities to help pass the time and raise the spirits of the people.

Reeves was a keen player of hockey, a game at which Macao excelled. He and others organised a senior league, a ladies’ league and a junior league. His team called itself Valentes (Valiants) and wore a red, white and blue V on white shirts.

“On the whole, morals and morale were good … We had our looser members, our prostitutes, our thieves, our scandal-mongers and our liars. But less than a dozen were called in by the police. None ever lost his temper with the Japanese. The Governor told me that he had heard of no incident involving Japanese and refugee. That I consider a clear sign of self-restraint and strength of morale.”

After the war, Reeves was warmly praised in public tributes by the Hong Kong Portuguese and Eurasian communities, his own government and by the newspapers. He received the Order of the British Empire for his service.


Nothing in Reeves’ life after the war matched his experience in Macao.

This is how his friend David Calthorpe expressed it in a biographical essay included in the book.

“His work on behalf of the refugees … was more than just duty to king and country. It was a deep love for China and, in particular, the city of Macao and its people. It was the crowning point of a career that was curtailed by circumstances, both personal and otherwise. He was the right man, at the right time, to perform the humanitarian task which history entrusted to him.”

After the war, he and his wife were judicially separated but did not divorce.

In September 1947, he was posted to Rome and, in 1949, was made consul for East Java, living in Surabaya. There he met Tessa Schukking, who was to be his companion for the rest of his life. At the end of his posting, he left the consular service and they moved to South Africa. He worked as a broadcaster on South African radio for nearly 20 years. In 1972, they retired to the small village of Malmesbury, north of Cape Town. Their house was full of the furniture, paintings and other artefacts he had brought from China.

He died in 1978 in Malmesbury; he never returned to his beloved Macao nor saw China again.


By Luo Xunzhi 

(Issue N. 27, March 2015)