Creative non-fiction / September 2016 (Issue 33)


Strangers on the Praia

by Paul French

It was the names that intrigued me. Strange … foreign, not what you expect when searching the records of old Macao: Reuben, Lefko, Ruckenstein, Kohn, Rosenblum. Someone looking for traces of those suddenly stateless Jews who found themselves cast out of old Europe and left adrift in that great port city by China's Yangtze, Shanghai. Nansen passports in hand, they queued for visa stamps and paid bribes for laissez-passers in their search for routes to freedom. Of course, they sought out Macao—a waystation to neutral Portugal. From Macao, so rumour said, boats departed for Lourenço Marques and Lisbon. More rumours told of the possibility of obtaining visas for America, Australia, Brazil …

They crowded aboard tramp steamers or irregularly scheduled ferries—hugging the China coast down to Canton and Hong Kong, and there joined ferries bound for Macao, jostling for room with the Portuguese and Macanese fleeing the Japanese occupation of the British Crown Colony. The Praia Grande possibly a quay for freedom; temporary, but maybe possible. In Shanghai, a Portuguese visa that had been a few hundred dollars cumshaw to a corrupt official a year before the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong was now treble that, quadruple. Others got "Banana Republic" passports that allowed them to transit to Macao and on to "neutral" Portugal—Dominican, Cuban, Salvadoran … What those refugee Jews paid for those passes is rarely recorded—we can safely assume it amounted to considerable sums in cash, taels, jewellery, bullion.

What then of them in Macao? I search for them in any way I can—long forgotten consulate records, directories found in used book stores, mouldering hotel fische, discarded immigration cards … gossip and rumour; those major currencies of wartime that don't yellow and fade or crumble to dust—gossip and rumour.

I see them on the Praia Grande, the Avenida Dom João IV, wandering into the main square, the Largo do Senado, looking for lodgings, flop house accommodation, cheap pensións, while they join queues at the few open consulates seeking to take the next step. It's a roundabout route of immense proportions. They are dressed like they just stepped off the Karntnerstrasse in Vienna or the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin. Their attire is all wrong; too constricting, far too hot. They're sweating, though it's a Macao winter. They are wearing the clothes they left Central Europe in. Shanghai is a temperate city, a city of seasons—the winters freezing cold; the summers humid hot; punctuated by cool spring breezes and chill autumn rains. But here it is always humid—their wools, tweeds and thick cottons uncomfortable. The lucky ones are those who've been through a Shanghai summer, for at least they have flannels and linens, summer dresses. From Macao, they hope to find renewed passage to Lisbon—back to Europe's shores. Maybe a twenty-thousand-mile round trip of uncertainty, fear and desperation.

Word has passed along the refugee grapevine from Berlin's Scheunenviertel Jewish district, to the crowded shikumen lanes of eastern Shanghai. There are rooms to be had at the Aurora Portuguesa on the Rua do Campo, a flophouse, but welcoming, and with a billiard room that has become an informal clearinghouse for refugee news. There are few other alternatives. Even for those with money, the dominating Hotel Bela Vista off the Avenida da República is off-limits, full of Nazi officials and their supporters mingling with their Japanese allies. There are camps, hastily erected for Chinese and Portuguese refugees from China and Hong Kong, but conditions are reputedly awful. They will stay at the Aurora Portuguesa till their savings run out.

They speak in languages not commonly heard in Macao—German, Polish, Czech, Yiddish … after Shanghai they also have the common lingua franca of English. They occasionally try Chinese but theirs, hastily learnt, is Hongkew-inflected Shanghainese dialect and the Macanese bread and fish sellers of the cheap stalls around the Mercado de São Domingos close by the square don't understand them.

Indeed, local Macanese approach them only occasionally. The beggars know they have nothing to spare. The prettiest girls are offered work in the brothels of the Rua de Felicidade, but there is nothing for the men. They are not labourers, and even if they were, many are too old. There is no work for them in Macao except to join the queues at the consulates and plead their case for exit visas, try their luck for laissez-passers. They are hidebound by their Mitteleuropa conventions—formal and stiff of dress; correct. They sweat, carrying their suitcases—it is to be decades before someone thinks to add wheels to a suitcase and make life easier for refugees. They are unable to remove their jackets, they cannot loosen their collars—it is simply not in them. It was not done in Wien, Łódź or Köln; they cannot bring themselves to do it here. It would an admission of sorts that there is no way back, that they are now formally stateless, cast adrift in an unwilling forced exodus. It would be an acceptance that this situation is not temporary, that their old lives are finished. They wipe the sweat from their steel rimmed glasses with the ends of their knitted ties; they stand in line patiently.

In the afternoons, when the visa offices and the consulates close, they gravitate towards the Portuguese-run cafés and bakeries around the periphery of the Largo do Senado. Here they can communicate somewhat; they can recognise menu items; they can participate in the main pastime of the refugee—exchanging gossip:

A Swedish-registered cargo ship bound for Lisbon will arrive in a fortnight. There are no berths, but they may take on a few younger men as deckhands;

You can have money wired by telegraphic transfer to the British Consulate, and the English will not charge a fee to retrieve it in patacas;

The Japanese are going to lease Macao from Lisbon and turn it into an air force base. There will be work for us all;

Commander Teixeira and Dr. Lobo are setting up refugee camps, and we will live in tents there till the end of this war;

A Free French blockade-runner is coming and will take only those who pay their price … they will arrive at night, anchor in the Grand Praia Bay and stay only one hour. By arrangement, the Guarda de Polícia will look the other way.

Free French or Netherlands-flagged blockade-runners out of French Indo-Chinese Haiphong or Dutch Batavia; Royal Navy ships escaping the Far East and making runs for safe ports in Aden, Malta or Gibraltar; an American troop transport passing; a Chinese tramp that claims it can make Port Moresby … all false hopes. But for these people—Reuben, Lefko, Ruckenstein, Kohn and Rosenblum—there is little else but these rumours on offer.

Portuguese from Hong Kong are living in camps in their own colony. Their status now, as those who once sent back remittances, boasting of prestigious jobs in British banks and the largest European Hongs, is worthless. Their Portuguese nationality as nought while they cannot find transit to a Portugal many of them have never known, never set foot in. They are permanent residents of Macao now. Portuguese in name—Ribeiro, Rodrigo, Nuñes, Alvaro—but born within sight of the China Seas, weekend visitors only to Taipa and Coloane, living in Kowloon. None have ever visited Lisbon, Funchal, Porto; homes of distant ancestors. Many would not be so welcome anyway—mixed race Eurasians, the product of Lisbon's colonial mingling. Now they are clustered in camps, hungry, their clothing in shreds, their teeth in poor repair, numerous health complaints. The Salesian Fathers of Don Bosco help, but there is no money, no supplies. Hong Kong has fallen, Singapore, Malaya, the Philippines, too … There are no markets, except the Mercado Negro where the prices are astronomical. The Portuguese, Eurasian and Chinese refugees fall like flies in the camps—ten thousand die in the winter of 1942 alone—a mass grave is dug for them in northern Taipa.

Yet amongst the refugees waiting, listening, around the Largo do Senado are these outsiders—the Cohens, Weinbaums, Montefiores, Schlagmans. What chance for them?

I fixate on one girl; her story briefly glimpsed in faded records. She is only twenty, surely that's still a girl? I know only a little about her. I know she is German, a Berliner once resident of the Kreuzberg district. Ship records show that she came to Shanghai after Kristallnacht on the Conte Verde in 1938—a refugee ship from Trieste to Shanghai via Suez, Bombay, Colombo, Singapore and Hong Kong in twenty-four days. With her family, she followed a path that was to become increasingly well-worn—from Shanghai's Woosung docks to the Hongkew district and a crowded tenement—Chinese and refugees, German and Austrian Jews together with the bombed out of Paoshan and Chapei. She studied English, Spanish and secretarial skills. But both her mother and father died in the tuberculosis epidemic of 1940 that swept the poorer districts of the city. They were buried by the Chevra Kadisha in the Jewish Cemetery on Baikal Road in Yangtszepoo. Their records remain; their headstones long gone. She was left alone. America beckoned, but this was 1941.

"This passport now is useless," the German consular officer in Shanghai told her without even looking up at her face. She realised that she could not renew this passport—she was stateless. But she was not without luck. She worked by day as a typist in the Shanghai office of the Philippine Bank of Commerce. There she met a customer, a Spaniard who was charmed by her and with whom she shared her plight. He suggested a marriage of convenience—a "matrimonio por conveniencia"; it was not an uncommon practice in the international quarters of Shanghai. She obtained a Spanish passport and with this, and her husband's help, she managed to procure a laissez-passer to Lisbon and another to take ship to Macao. A Portuguese merchant steamer flying a Japanese flag of convenience brought her to Macao; the Spaniard waved her off on the dock—"buena suerte en Macao."

From the Porto Exterior a rickshaw took her to Rua do Campo, the Chinese puller assumed she would want that address. Now she shares a room in the Aurora Portuguesa with two other recently arrived Jewish girls, similarly washed up on the tides of history and hatred.

During the day, between rumours, between café stops, she goes to the Biblioteca Pública in the huge shimmering white building called the Leal Senado. She looks at a globe that stands on a sunlit window ledge. She finds Berlin, moves her fingertip slightly to Trieste; a half turn of the globe finds the China coast and Shanghai. Back slightly and down her finger traces the coastline—Ningpo, Amoy, Canton, Hong Kong and across to Macao. She hadn't even ever heard of the islands three months ago; hadn't known they were Portuguese, neutral, miraculous stepping stones in the China Seas to somewhere safe. She spins from Macao, almost three quarters of a full turn to Lisbon, then across the wide Atlantic to New York. Such a long journey for a young woman, so much of it still to undertake.

On Friday evenings, she lingers in the library reading—as a refugee she can read books, but does not have borrowing privileges. A few older Jewish men, European Ashkenazy and the darker Arab-looking Sephardim, meet in the reference room. Macao has no synagogue, and these are pious men, believers. If there is no temple, then a house of books seems to them the most appropriate place to congregate. She waits till they finish their prayers and mingles with them. They wander out of the library before it closes. They live in the overcrowded pensións around the main square of the Largo, on the side streets of the Rua do Campo and the Rua da Barca da Lenha in crowded garrets above the shops, paying by the day. They prefer to find a Macanese cha chaan teng that will let them sit late into the evening lingering over one cup of wartime ersatz coffee, perhaps some noodle soup for sustenance, an egg tart maybe. Food is in short supply; coffee non-existent. They say the Portuguese refugees in Dr. Lobo's government camps are starving, but these men, these refugees, still have a few patacas to spare. They are happy she joins them. They have daughters, granddaughters, nieces they miss and have no news of, whether they are now in Hongkew or still back in the old cities of Europe. They write letters and post them at the imposing grey Central Post Office, the Correios, Telégrafos e Telefones, on Largo do Senado. They apply the stamps with their saliva—a row of stamps showing Vasco da Gama's São Gabriel, his armada's flagship, across the right hand corner of the envelope. They post them—to Shanghai, in hope, telling their families to follow, if they've arrived. They can never be sure they are actually sent anywhere; no replies ever come. They are left with little but more gossip:

The Japanese Imperial Army will take Macao next week and put us in a ghetto;

The Nazis at the Bela Vista are just waiting for the Japanese to let them take us away;

A Red Cross evacuation ship may be allowed to dock at the Baia de Praia Grande and take some refugees to Australia, if they have a British visa;

Another ship may take people to Lourenço Marques … but where is that?

She has heard that rumour before and looked it up on the globe in the Biblioteca Pública—Lourenço Marques is in Portuguese East Africa. The old men say that there is a chance you can get from there to South Africa, a British territory where Jews live. South Africa might work. If the ship comes, she will try to get aboard.

She goes each day to the British Consulate. There is no American representation here, as she was told in Shanghai. Only the British. From the Aurora Portuguesa to the British Consulate's immigration office on the Praia Grande is only a short walk. She is made to wait daily, with others—Portuguese, Jews, once wealthy Shanghainese, Eurasians who clutch papers proving a British father or mother, stateless White Russians with Nansen passes, refugees from Hong Kong who proclaim themselves British Crown Subjects of the King. Eventually she does see the Consul General, she hadn't expected to but her Spanish passport, a passport for a country she has never seen, allows her to at least move ahead in the queue over the stateless. She had expected flunkies, bureaucrats, layers of protection before you got to the representative of the English Crown. But these layers were not here, the man almost alone with nothing but a trio of Macanese Eurasian typists. She likes him. His skin looks badly burnt by the sun, red raw around his collar; he wears wire-rimmed glasses, has thick lips and a schoolboy's smile. But his message is firm and clear—"There is no way out of Macao."

Each day she returns. Perhaps no way now, but when a way comes, she needs an exit visa. She stands in the queue, in the heat, amid the swirling gossip of the expectant refugees that is as predictable as mosquitos and sweat:

The American Navy will come. They have already taken the Azores from Portugal and will now take Goa and Macao;

An Italian tramp steamer will moor for one night at the Bacia Norte do Patane and take aboard people for Timor, if they can pay. But it is hot and full of cannibals and headhunters there;

The Communists can smuggle people across to Kwangtung and then into Free China. Perhaps from there you can get to French Indo-China or British Burma and then … There is a train south from Yunnan-Fu or a road that runs into the jungle all the way to Rangoon, so they say.

From there … where? She looks at the globe—Hanoi, Rangoon, Chungking, Goa—all so far. She cannot find Timor. Eventually the kind British man, Reeves, issues her an entry visa for Britain but tells her, "There is no way there from here." She smiles, not quite following. "It's too far, too many Japanese submarines, no more ships making the voyage to Europe now." She looks forlorn. "Maybe", he says, "maybe some time a ship will come to Batavia or Timor, take that ship and then try for Australia, the stamp is good for Down Under." She doesn't know what this means—"Down Under"?—the dictionary in the library does not explain. She has nothing but a useless entry visa for a country six thousand miles away, some patacas, Chinese dollars and enough credit to stay another fortnight at the Aurora Pourtuguesa. "There is no way out of Macao."

But then it seems there might be. The Consul sends a note to her at the Aurora Pourtuguesa. Will she accompany a man to the French-controlled port of Kwangchowan? From there, they may be able to enter Free China. She agrees. The Consul is honest with her—this man is not Spanish. He is English but he must leave Macao as he is wanted by the Japanese in Hong Kong. He has arrived by sampan; he can speak some Spanish. Reeves has given him a falsified Immigration Office Permit stating that he was born in Madrid. That may work, if he is accompanied by a Spanish passport holder. A woman will attract less attention. It is risky, but what other hope is there?

They board a Portuguese-flagged steamer heading for Kwangchowan. They sit together but do not talk; the man remains silent, and she respects that. It's a short crossing to French territory, skirting Hainan Island before they reach the small settlement of Fort-Bayard after nightfall and see the French tricolour flying on the barracks building of the 4e Régiment de Tirailleurs Tonkinois. The ruse works, her Shanghai Spanish passport and his forged permit pass the immigration officer. He merely glances at them, offers a Gallic shrug, stamps their papers and touches his fingertips to his blue kepi. The world is in turmoil, but this agent of the French Colonial Empire seems not to care for anything but returning to his sleep. Reeves has warned agents of Free China to expect them. They meet them at a small hotel in Fort Bayard and are led through the night into Free China. They will move across country towards Chungking and the possibility of a plane to Rangoon, maybe as far as Calcutta … so the rumours say. The records show that he made it—that he contacted the British Embassy in the wartime capital. But of her? Of this orphaned German-Jewish girl with a Spanish passport and a laissez-passer obtained in Shanghai we know nothing more. She slips from history …

In the cafés surrounding the Largo do Senado, in the cheap pensións of the Rua do Campo and the Rua da Barca da Lenha; in the government refugee camps of Dr. Lobo, the rumours persist:

Royal Navy submarines have been spotted and will take refugees to British India;

The United States Air Force flies offshore at night and has planes that can land on water to take people away;

The Swiss are arranging an evacuation ship to take us all to New Zealand and a new life;

There is a French port, not far, in China, controlled by de Gaulle's men, where you can get a boat to England.

Reuben, Lefko, Ruckenstein, Kohn, Rosenblum

Cohen, Weinbaum, Montefiore, Schlagman

They sit and sip the last of their coffee dregs into the night feeding on rumours … ever more rumours …


 Paul French is the author of the New York Times best seller Midnight in Peking(Penguin), currently being developed as a series for TV. His new book City of Devils will be published in 2017 and is centred on the dancehalls, casinos and cabarets of wartime Shanghai. Visit French's website and Twitter for more information.

 
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