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Macao Mansion hides story of wealth and tragedy

Sun, 17th Jan 2010
One of the best-known Chinese mansions in Macao once belonged to the city’s wealthiest man, who killed himself at the age of 59 due to financial problems. (January 2010)

The house is now a world heritage site and it tells a story of success and failure. 

Down a narrow street in central Macao is an elegant two-storey mansion with spacious reception rooms, high ceilings and stained glass - evidently the home of a man of wealth and importance. 

The Lou Kau Mansion, a UNESCO heritage site, is a popular spot for tourists. They go both to see its blend of Chinese and western architecture and attend artistic performances, such as puppet shows, musical recitals and calligraphy exhibitions. They can enjoy the art of the present in a setting that takes them back to the past. 

What most of them do not know is that the hand-carved furniture and painted eaves tell a Shakespearian story of wealth and tragedy, of success and betrayal - a family that became the wealthiest in Macao but lost its fortunes by the third generation. 

The mansion was built in 1889 by a merchant named Lou Kau, the first man in Macao to be awarded a gambling franchise. He also invested in finance, property and the pork business. He was a great philanthropist, funding hospitals, schools and charities for the poor in Macao and the mainland. 

But on November 11, 1906, he hanged himself on a beam in his spacious mansion, aged 59. The Guangdong government had suddenly reversed its policy on gambling, saddling him with debts he could not repay. He had made one enormous bet – and it failed. 

Opportunity comes knocking in the middle of 19th century. 

Lou Kau was born the third of four sons of a modest family in Xinhui, Guangdong province on October 11, 1848. In 1857, the family moved to Macao to seek its fortune. It was a pivotal moment in the former colony’s history. 

After their victory over China in the first Opium War (1839-42), the British had established a deep-water harbour in Hong Kong, just 50 kilometres away. Macao had lost its monopoly as the port for China’s foreign trade and could not compete with the deeper harbour and better facilities of Hong Kong. 

Seeking an alternative source of income to replace its losses from trading, the colonial government made gambling legal in 1847. The young Lou, a short, stocky man with a large head, was an able and ambitious businessman, eager to seize any opportunity. 

He started in finance, opening a private bank in 1867. Then he went into pork imports, buying pigs in Guangdong and selling their meat in Macao. One of the government’s principal sources of revenue was opium; it contracted the opium franchise to Lou, which made him his first fortune. In 1881, he started gambling operations in neighbouring Guangdong province. 

The next year he obtained a gambling licence in Macao. He started operations in the house of a rich man which he converted into a casino offering the game Fan Tan, one of the most popular Chinese forms of gambling. Next was a game called The White Pigeon (Pigeon Lottery), so named because the birds were used to send messages containing the names of the winners across China. 

“According to legend, the game began in the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) when the ruler of a besieged city had to find a way to raise money to support his army without raising taxes”, wrote the Reverend Lobscheid of Hong Kong, based on Chinese documents. He took 120 characters from a popular poem and made subdivisions of eight. Punters had to guess the eight characters. It was a lottery played with characters rather than numbers. 

The game became popular across China and pigeons were used to inform the happy winners. It is still played in Macao today, in a modernised format, in a crowded shop opposite the Lisboa Hotel. 

Official records show that, in 1882 and 1883, Lou paid the Macao government 8,800 silver dollars for the monopoly to sell opium and operate Fan Tan casinos in Taipa, an island that is one of the three districts of Macao. In 1885, the price had risen to 9,320 dollars. In 1885-1886, he paid 130,000 dollars for the right to run Fan Tan casinos in the peninsula of Macao, then, as now, the richest and most densely populated part of the city. From 1886 to 1895, he paid 145,000 dollars a year to continue the Fan Tan operations. 

Giving back to society 

By now a wealthy man, Lou became active in many sectors of society. He donated to charity, including Kiang Wu Hospital, first established to cater to the colony’s Chinese population. He and his eldest son, Lou Lim Ieoc, both served as its president. He donated money for schools and rice to the poor. 

He set up a relief committee to help victims of disasters in northern China and headed the committee that welcomed the crown prince of Tsarist Russia in April 1891. In April 1895, a plague swept through Macao. The community set up a large tent in Taipa for the victims; Lou Kau was the most generous donor. 

In May 1888, Lou took Portuguese nationality. In 1892, he founded Tong Shan Tang, a charitable association for Chinese. In 1890 and 1894, he received awards from the King of Portugal for his contributions to Macao society and, in 1898, an award from the Chinese emperor. 

Like other rich Chinese of his time, he took several wives. Historical accounts give different numbers; the largest is 10 wives, with 17 sons and 16 daughters. He had more than a dozen properties where the wives lived. One lived in the Mansion that visitors can visit today. His wives and their staff in the different homes did not know when he would come but had to prepare for his arrival at any moment. 

At the end of the 19th century, Lou was at his zenith – the richest man in Macao, with a large family, highly respected in society and with the ear of the colony’s governor. When he left his home in Xinhui over 40 years before, he could not have imagined such good fortune. 

Turn of fate due to new measures by the Chinese authorities in Guangdong 

But events in his native Guangdong would turn this happiness into tragedy. 

Gambling in the mainland was different to that in Macao. The colonial government regarded it, with opium, as one of its main sources of revenue and protected the operators. It was little concerned with the negative impact on the Chinese who accounted for the vast majority of the customers of both. 

The government of Guangdong, and other provinces in China, took a more ambiguous view. They knew that gambling was endemic to Chinese and, whether legal or not, people would gamble. If it was legal, the state gained revenue, which it badly needed – to equip its military to repel foreign invaders. 

But the officials knew gambling was a curse that turned wife against husband and children against their parents, destroyed families and drove businesses into financial ruin. They saw its devastating effect on the fabric of society. 

In 1897, the Guangdong government invited operators to bid for a monopoly gambling franchise. For Lou, this was a far larger market than Macao; the province then had a population of over 30 million, against less than 100,000 in the colony. He put together a company named Hong Feng, with nine investors from Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macao and registered capital of 720,000 taels of gold. 

It made a bid of one million silver dollars and, on May 18 that year, won the franchise for eight years. The government required the operator to pay the franchise fee for the full period, which amounted to three million dollars. This was an enormous sum at that time, but Lou and his partners believed it better to pay up front; future governors would then not be able to raise the annual fee arbitrarily. 

Things did not go well for Hong Feng. The government did not move against illegal operators who continued their casinos and paid no fee to the authorities. This diverted some of its business. 

More bad luck with the gaming ban by Guangdong and Guangxi 

Worse followed in 1900, when Li Hongzhang, one of the highest officials of the Qing government, came to Guangzhou and said that the franchise period of eight years was too long. 

This gave the cue to Cen Chunxuan, Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi and a bitter opponent of gambling. He said that social chaos threatened the province and gambling was the principal cause. Supported by other officials, he announced a ban – and refused to return the fee paid by Hong Feng. 

Worse, he increased the total Lou had to pay to 4.75 million silver dollars, including interest and missed payments. Facing financial ruin, Lou appealed to the Portuguese government for help, on the grounds that he was one of their citizens who deserved help in recognition of all he had done for their colony. 

Negotiations continued during the summer of 1904. At a meeting in September, Cen stunned his Portuguese counterpart by showing him documents dating from 1898 – 10 years after Lou had taken Portuguese citizenship – that showed he had given it up and returned to being a Chinese. “According to our law, Lou could not be a Portuguese again. He can only have one nationality,” Cen announced triumphantly. “This has nothing to do with you. This is an internal Chinese affair.” The Portuguese side could do nothing. 

Cen had another grudge against Lou; he had helped a corrupt official to flee to Macao. After strong pressure from Beijing, the colonial government handed him back on June 23, 1904. 

Lou now had debts greater than his considerable assets. With no help from the colonial government, he sought loans from foreign and Chinese merchants in Hong Kong and Macao. But how was he going to repay them? 

In despair at the debts and the fierce hostility of Cen and his supporters, he saw no way out. On November 11 1906, he threw a rope over a beam in his principal home – the Mansion – and took his own life. He was 59. 

In his father’s shadow 

It fell to his eldest son, Lou Lim Ieoc, then 28, to take over the family business. He followed in his father’s footsteps, running the gambling operations in Macao and branching into a theatre, silver, pharmaceuticals and pawn-broking. He was a major shareholder in the Nanyang Tobacco Company and the Bao Xiang Bank. 

In 1913, he served as the first chairman of the Macao Chamber of Commerce. He was also a major philanthropist, giving money to Kiang Wu Hospital, where he served as chairman for four years. He set up a Confucian school to provide education to the poor at primary and secondary levels and served as its chairman. Like his father, he received awards from the Chinese and Portuguese governments. 

One of his legacies is the Lou Lim Ieoc garden. This was an area of vegetable patches which his father had bought in 1870. He commissioned a well-known Hong Kong architect to turn it into the only Suzhou-style garden in Hong Kong and Macao. 

Construction began in 1929, two years after his death. The family later sold most of it. The government bought it in the early 1970s, restored it and opened it to the public in September, 1974. 

Lou Lim Ieoc died on June 17, 1927, aged 49; more than 1,000 people attended the funeral and he was buried in the White Cloud Cemetery in Guangzhou. 

In 1937, the gambling franchise of the Lou family expired and was put up for public tender. Another company obtained it and made its fortune during World War II, when Macao became a haven for the rich from Hong Kong and mainland China. Since Portugal was neutral in the war, Macao was the only major city in southern China not occupied by the Japanese military. 

The loss of franchise brought the decline of the Lou family. It had to sell some houses and rent out others, including the Mansion; at one time, it was occupied by 20 families. 

Chinese see this is an example of a popular saying – ‘fu wu san dai’ – which means ‘wealth does not last longer than three generations’; in other words, the first generation makes a fortune, the second spends it and the third starts again from nothing. 

Descendants of Lou Kau live on in Macao, with some operating sportswear shops. But they keep a low profile and avoid the media; some are uneasy about their famous ancestor, who made his fortune out of two of the biggest vices of Chinese. 

Not well maintained, the Mansion fell into disrepair, until the government bought it in the 1960s. After Macao’s return to China in 1999, the government relocated its tenants and hired specialists to carry out a painstaking restoration. 

The architecture is a mixture of East and West, like Macao itself. The western features include stained glass, like those in neighbouring churches, white ceilings and decorations above the door. Some windows are latticed in the Portuguese style. 

It contains a room where Lou honoured his ancestors; there are bird sculptures on the wall, symbols of success and longevity. 

It has become a popular venue for cultural and artistic activities.

 

By Mark O'Neill in Macao

(Issue N. 2, January 2010)