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An Unlikely WWII Hero in the ‘Asian Casablanca’

Less than an hour away from Hong Kong, by either boat or bus, is Macau – a much smaller, yet equally as interesting Special Administrative Region that, unlike Hong Kong, was formerly colonized by Portugal instead of the British. The city’s streets, architecture, and cuisine still bear resemblance to its former colonizer, and Portuguese remains an official language alongside Cantonese.

Also unlike Hong Kong, Macau remained untouched by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Portugal declared neutrality, which allowed the city to become what author Peter Rose described as an “Asian Casablanca” while war raged just across the border in mainland China and in nearby Hong Kong.

Rose, while living in Hong Kong from 1997 to 2003, took frequent trips to Macau and soon thereafter found the inspiration for his newly published book – John Reeves, the British Consul of neutral Macau during World War II. Through research he conducted in libraries and archives in Asia, North America, and Europe – and even the former Consul’s personal manuscript – he was able to write The Good War of Consul Reeves, a fictional yet historically accurate account of Reeves’s life.

Rose spoke about his book at the FCC alongside First Vice President Jennifer Jett, the moderator of the talk. Joining the event were FCC members and their guests, as well as members and staff of Club Lusitano, Hong Kong’s private club exclusive to the city’s small Portuguese community.

Reeves arrived in Macau in June of 1941 to balance the recent arrival of Japan’s Consul. Thinking that Macau would be a simple role, Reeves soon found himself as the only senior Allied representative in Asia when Japan formally entered World War II the following December.

Reeves ran spy rings, developed medical services for the public and helped evacuate war refugees, accurately accounting for almost every penny of £1.7 million in British government funding at the end of the war.

Despite all his contributions to Macau, Reeves was disliked by the UK’s Foreign Office for a variety of reasons. He insisted on writing Hong Kong as one word – “Hongkong”; he ignored the Foreign Office’s requests for him to abolish his spy network; he drunkenly spilled secret codes at dinner parties. On top of all these “surprises” he gave the Foreign Office, one of his most daring efforts involved how Hong Kong should be structured after the war. He laid out his plan for everything from streets to government infrastructure – which had the British Foreign Office above all other public administration.

When World War II ended, Reeves’s wife and daughter left Macau to return to the UK – Reeves never saw them again. The former Consul was then stationed in Rome and eventually Surabaya, the latter being an “impossible assignment,” Rose said, after the Indonesian National Revolution against the Dutch which resulted in Indonesia declaring independence in 1949.

After his assignment in Surabaya, Reeves left the UK’s Foreign Service and moved to South Africa. He became what Rose described as a “complete eccentric”, wearing Chinese robes and long hair tied back in a ponytail.

He was never formally recognised for his efforts in Macau, which he lamented in his manuscript that was published posthumously by the Royal Asiatic Society.

“From 700 miles west to Chunking, 1,800 miles north to Vladivostok, 5,000 miles east to Honolulu, and 3,000 miles south to Australia, mine was the lone flag,” Reeves wrote.

In the audience Q&A session, Peter Rose was asked if there would ever be a statue to commemorate Reeves in Macau. While he initially joked that a statue would never be placed in front of the British Foreign Office, Rose did express support for such an idea.

“It’d be nice if he was recognised somewhere in Macau,” Rose said.

Watch the full talk on our YouTube channel below:

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