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Club Lusitano History

by Anthony Correa

Club Lusitano is one of Hong Kong’s oldest and most celebrated social clubs, dating back over 150 years since the earliest years that Europeans settled in the former British colony. It was founded as a private members club for the local Portuguese community and to this day retains its unique Lusitanian cultural identity through its language, cuisine and membership.  Membership is open to the Portuguese community resident in Hong Kong.

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Club Lusitano was opened on the 17th December 1866 and the unveiling of the building at that time was regarded as one of the most important occasions for the Portuguese community of Hong Kong. The property, located on Shelley Street, Mid-levels, was spacious and impressive in the style of the best Neo-Classical architecture. It had a huge salon, a theatre, large library and a variety of social rooms and all theatrical entertainment in Hong Kong was held there before the City Hall Theatre was opened in 1869. On the top two floors rooms were available for rent by members by the month or by the day for visitors from Macau.

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The Club Lusitano quickly became the heart of the small Hong Kong Portuguese community and all of the important official, cultural and family ceremonies were marked at the club. Shelly Street was a good club location for the Portuguese community of the mid-19th century. In the steep streets and lanes in and around Caine Road and Robinson Road lived many Portuguese who had relocated from Macau in search of better economic opportunities in the quickly expanding British colony. The club was therefore within easy walking distance of their homes and many availed themselves of the facilities on a daily basis. This part of Mid-Levels was known by the Portuguese as Mato Morro or “field/ wood of the Moors”, because of its Muslim community situated around the then Lascar Temple (1850) now Jamia Mosque in Mosque Street.

The new Portuguese settlers provided a competent workforce with vital local knowledge and language skills for the British trading companies, military and colonial government. However, there was little or no colonial government support and the Portuguese community largely funded the Club Lusitano from its own resources. They also made significant contributions towards the establishment of many of the early Catholic institutions in Hong Kong such as the Canossian Mission (1850), Sacred Heart Canossian College (1860), St Joseph’s College (1875) and the Catholic Cathedral (1888).  Some three quarters of the construction cost of the first Club Lusitano has been attributed to the generosity of two prominent members Mr. J. A. Baretto and Mr. Delfino Noronha.

On completion, the Club Lusitano with its fine gala balls, theatrical performances and official ceremonies contributed greatly to integrating the Portuguese community into the British colony and giving it status in the early days of Hong Kong. It was much more than a community center, more a place where the Portuguese could socialize with members of other communities including many members of the colonial establishment. Here they could share their experiences, entertain their guests, and discuss local and world affairs.  Many dignitaries were received including frequent visits from the Governors of both Hong Kong and Macau, military personnel and overseas delegations.

In an extract from “Twentieth Century Impressions of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Other Treaty Ports of China.” Lloyds London (1908), the Club Lusitano was described as:-

This Club, the membership of which is confined to the Portuguese, was founded some forty years ago, and is consequently one of the oldest social institutions in the Colony. A limited number of debentures ($75 each) are held by the members, who have to pay an entrance fee of $5, and a monthly subscription of $3. The Club passed through various vicissitudes, but now, largely owing to the efforts of Mr. F. J. V. Jorge and other friends and supporters of the institution, it is in a sound condition. The premises in Shelley Street were specially erected to serve the purposes of a club, and are, therefore, very conveniently arranged. The billiard room contains four tables, and the library, the “Bibliotheca Lusitana,” stocked with some ten thousand volumes, chiefly Portuguese literature, is one of the most extensive in the Far East. A spacious ballroom is often used for the presentation of amateur theatricals, for which the Club members have gained quite a high reputation, and there are also several rooms for residential purposes. Mr. F. J. V. Jorge is president of the Club, which is managed by a committee of six directors and a salaried secretary.

Amongst the enduring legacies from this period is the Lusitano Cup, an annual prestigious horse race that was first held in 1863 at Happy Valley. It is symbolic of the Portuguese community’s long association with horse racing in Hong Kong and it continues to this day with the annual Lusitano Challenge Cup, a class 3 race over 1400m with a HK$1 million purse.



By the late 19th Century a decision was made to move Club Lusitano in order to find a more central location for the members. There had been a significant migration of the Portuguese community away from Mid-Levels to other parts of Hong Kong and Kowloon and transportation to Shelly Street from other parts of Hong Kong, namely by sedan chair, was not as convenient as it is today. Showing great foresight, one of its members Mr. A.M.L. Soares bought a plot of land on Ice House Street and then on-sold it to the club at cost. That decision continues to benefit our members to this day as our current building stands on this same land.

The Shelley Street property had been sold for a highly acceptable price for those days, but the new building and its furnishings still had to be financed; this was done with loans from the same Mr. A.M.L. Soares that had first bought the land and the government of Macau furbished by the Banco Nacional Utramarino on exceptionally good terms. Mr. Soares was a generous philanthropist and established the Ines Soares Scholarship in memory of his wife to assist Portuguese students in their courses especially in Medicine at the Hong Kong University. The move to the new premises was substantially delayed by these financing problems, political turbulence in Portugal and the onset of World War 1. On 17th December 1920 the 54th anniversary of Club Lusitano, the first stone of the new clubhouse was laid in the presence of Sir Reginald Stubbs, Governor of Hong Kong, and Henrique Monteiro Correa da Silva, the Governor of Macau.

Some of the newspapers of the time placed this memorable event on the front page. The official presence of the Governors of the two colonies and the numerous Portuguese who witnessed the ground-breaking ceremony were reported in terms that drew attention to the community’s nationalist sentiment. The independent republican weekly “O Liberal” wrote:

by 3:45pm there was already a large crowd of people who had gathered early to choose a good place for watching the ceremony which had been set to start at 4:00pm. In effect, a few minutes later, their Excellencies… arrived.. .and after their speeches the foundation stone was laid in the formal style that could be expected of his Excellençy with the trowel and hammer in his hands. He laid in the place where the original stands, a stone inscribed with the following text “The Founding Stone of the new Club Lusitano Building was laid/on 17 December 1920 by His Excellency the Governor of Macau Mr. Henrique Monteiro Correa da Silva, Captain of the Navy, Knight of the Order of the Tower and Sword ‘War Cross 1st Class, in the presence also of His Excellency the governor of Hong Kong, Sir Reginald Stubbs, K.C.M.G.

The speech given by the President of the club was filled with references to the motherland and the Portuguese spirit:

“Today we have had the great satisfaction of seeing His Excellency the governor of Hong Kong standing alongside His Excellency the governor of Macau, representative of the proud, spirited Lusitanian race, honoring the Portuguese Community for which Club Lusitano is a focus for our sincere acknowledgement of Hong Kong‘s hospitality and for sublime love for our beloved Country, our adorable Portugal!’"

The Club Lusitano flourished at its new location. It was primarily organized as a men’s club and strict rules were enforced on dress code, members conduct and the use of facilities such as the billiard and reading rooms. The spacious Salaõ Luis de Camões named in honour of Portugal’s most famous poet became a well-known venue with many balls, receptions and official functions hosted there. One the most anticipated was the annual New Year’s Eve Ball that was an invitation only “black tie and gown” society event in pre-war Hong Kong. The club was also a well know destination for card games, including bridge, Volarette, Solo and Manilha. Inter-club tournaments were organized for bridge and billiards and Club Lusitano was frequently victorious.

Club Lusitano was also one of the founding members of the Lusitano Billiards Association in 1912. It was instrumental in participating in the annual Hong Kong Shanghai Interport Billiards games along with its fellow Hong Kong Portuguese clubs Club de Recreio and the Catholic Union Club. The highest break at Club Lusitano of 267 was recorded by Mr. A.J. Osmond (champion of the Colony of Hong Kong) in March 1925, a record that still stands today.

Jose Pedro Braga was the most prominent club member during this period. He was the grandson of Delfino Noronha, one of the club’s founders, and a successful businessman that worked closely with the Kadoorie family. By profession he was a journalist who was managing editor of the Hong Kong Daily Telegraph and Reuter’s Hong Kong correspondent for 25 years. He became the first Portuguese member of the Legislative Council in 1937 and brought much prestige to Club Lusitano. Braga Circuit in Kadoorie Hill is named after him.


Resolution by Club Lusitano to purchase Island Lot No 125 dated 1892


Laying of the Foundation Stone at Club Lusitano (17 December 1920)


1941-1945 WORLD WAR TWO

The events of World War Two greatly impacted the Portuguese community and the Club Lusitano. When the Japanese Imperial Forces attacked Hong Kong on 8th December 1941, the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps comprised of many club members, was mobilised. The No 6 Light Anti-Aircraft Gun (Portuguese) Company under the command of Captain H.A. de B. Bothelho made its headquarters in Club Lusitano. The unit’s Lewis gun crews were spread out from Kowloon, Taikoo, along the North Shore of Hong Kong Island and in Aberdeen.  Its headquarters remained at Club Lusitano until they were ordered to surrender on Christmas afternoon 25 December 1941.

Following the surrender of Hong Kong to the Japanese, Club Lusitano became a refuge for the Portuguese community and many sought shelter there. The club was able to continue to operate under the auspices of Portuguese neutrality and members came on a daily basis to meet in a safe and secure environment despite the suppressive Japanese military presence. The Macau government was under severe strain as refugees flooded in from Hong Kong and China, however meagre rations of rice and wheat grain were occasionally provided via Club Lusitano for distribution to the Portuguese community. The club served as a home for some members of the community too afraid to stay in their homes, providing a modicum of safety not available elsewhere.

However, even Club Lusitano was not safe from the Japanese Kempeitai who often raided its premises and arrested members on suspicion of espionage for the British. One such member was Carlos Henrique Basto who in 1942 was arrested while playing bridge with friends at the club. The Kempeitai arrested, then convicted him for espionage on the basis that the written notes he was making while playing bridge were coded messages. He was summarily beheaded for his alleged crimes in Stanley on 1 September 1942.

The strain on the Portuguese community was so great that at one point members were presented with proposals at an EGM to sell the club. On 7th July1943 a proposal to sell the Club Lusitano was explained as follows:

In the event of a sale of the Club premises being effected, it will be the aim of this Institution (the Club), with the limited funds at its disposal, to rehabilitate, as far as possible, needy members of the Community, with a view to making them self-supporting and useful citizens of Hong Kong, and to preserve the traditional law abiding reputation the Community as a whole.

The EGM notices’ explanations went on to say “Conservation of Funds: The funds available will be limited and therefore great care should be exercised to conserve them as much as possible. Relief will only be given to those truly in need.” And, furthermore “Communal living will be encouraged, as great economy could be effected by this means, particularly in the cost of food supplies and the preparation of meals and in rent.”

The proposals to sell the club were defeated, but such were the horrors and depravations of occupied Hong Kong that members were driven to consider selling their beloved Club Lusitano.

Although Portugal was neutral and its citizens “Third Nationals”, many of its members served with the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and were subsequently interned in prisoner of war camps for the next three and a half years. Over 31 Portuguese men died fighting for Hong Kong and hundreds more suffered as forced laborers in the squalid inhumane conditions of the prisoner of war and labour camps.  Few in this day and age could imagine the depravity that these brave men suffered and their sacrifice is commemorated to this day at our annual general meeting and with a laying of a wreath at the Cenotaph in Statute Square during Remembrance Day.

In 1949 the Portuguese government bestowed Club Lusitano the award Ordem Militar de Cristo (October 1949) in recognition of distinguished service in performance of the duties of sovereignty positions or public administration, and the judiciary and diplomacy.


In the post war period the Portuguese community strived to rebuild itself and Club Lusitano was again a major focus. Those that had fled to Macau returned to Hong Kong to find their homes had been looted or in some cases destroyed. Many Portuguese from Shanghai and other parts of the China coast relocated to Hong Kong fleeing the events of 1949 in China and the rise of communism. Hong Kong was overwhelmed with refugees and members of Club Lusitano played a key role in the reconstruction of the colony. Many members returned to serve in the Royal Hong Kong Regiment providing a vital local militia to support the British Army. There were over 10,000 Portuguese in the community by the mid 1950s. Membership of the club expanded rapidly and while there were constant political strains in China, in many ways the Portuguese community experienced a golden period of activity with members prominent in government, the professions, sports, and commerce.

In the post war period leading to the 1980s, the large British hongs (Swire, Jardines), the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (widely known as “the Bank”), China Light and Power, and government, senior promotion was only available to British or European expatriates disenfranchising the local Portuguese community.  Top executive positions in British firms were always reserved for expatriate British and the local Portuguese who made up the backbone of these firms felt this oversight unfair and unjustified. In the professions, a few pioneering members of the Portuguese community such as Leonardo d’Almada e Castro, QC broke through into the colonial ranks of the establishment becoming the first Portuguese King’s Counsel and then a member of the Hong Kong Government’s Executive Council. However, for the vast majority, good economic opportunities were scarce at a time when there was extensive and institutionalized discrimination against locals.

Amongst the less prominent were many members employed by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation who served with distinction in reconstituting the pre-war ledgers that had been lost or destroyed during the war. At one time over 700 Portuguese worked there and even the telephone operators were from the community. So great was the contribution of these members of the Portuguese community to what is now HSBC that a dedicated set of apartments was built for the Portuguese staff and their families in Kowloon Tong. These apartments to this day are known as Luso Apartments and situated in Warwick Road, Kowloon. On weekdays many of these members would make the short walk from the HSBC head office at 1 Queens Road Central to Ice House Street to socialize at Club Lusitano over lunch and after work to partake in the well-stocked bar. The club a provided a private and convenient place for Portuguese and Macanese meals and during this time it became famous for its unique cuisine.

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In 1964 the 16 Ice House Street building was demolished and replaced by a new 12 storey building designed by Macanese architect Alfredo V Alvares. Club Lusitano moved into temporary quarters in On Lan Street during the construction period. It was completed in 1967 and a grand opening was organised with official invitations sent out to members, their families and local dignitaries including the Governors of Hong Kong and Macau. However, by the time this auspicious event was scheduled to take place, the Red Guard riots had broken out in front of Government House, the Hilton Hotel and in Ice House Street itself.  A general curfew was imposed and the party was cancelled.

The new building (1967 – 1996) had twelve floors and two ground floors, one giving access onto Ice House Street and the other onto Duddell Street. The club occupied five floors covering a total of around eleven thousand square feet. The members’ floors of the new building occupied the 8th to 12th floors and the lower floors were leased to first the Equitable (Filipino) Bank. Other tenants over time included the Hong Kong Government, Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation and the buildings architect Mr. Alfredo V Alves.

The change to a building only partially occupied by the members proved profitable for the club, as not only had the land increased in value, but rents from the lower floors provided ninety five percent of the club’s income. Membership fees thus became only only a tiny part of total revenue and costs were kept down. This policy has turned out to be the fortuitous for the club’s survival in the ensuring years.

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The Club Lusitano membership faced many challenges after the initial relief from the war years. Members labored under a British colonial system of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s that was straining to cope with the reconstruction of Hong Kong and facing an increasingly volatile border with China that was collapsing under the disastrous economic policies of Mao Tse Tung. Economic refugees poured in from China, some with only the shirts on their backs, shantytowns grew rapidly on the slopes of Kowloon and unemployment soared. 

Hong Kong was surrounded by volatile global events. Frequent upheavals in Communist China that at times spilled over into the streets of Hong Kong such as the late 1960s Red Guard riots and bombings. The Korean War, the Vietnam War and numerous post colonial events in Singapore, Malaysia and other parts of South East Asia provided frequent reminders to club members of the unstable region surrounding Hong Kong. Many members were nervous about these events, and coupled with a lack opportunity for promotion began looking for better and safer futures for their families further afield.  

Thus started a trickle of Portuguese emigration from Hong Kong that became a flood by the 1970s. The club saw a steady decline of membership starting in the 1950s for nearly 50 years until the early 2000s. The United States, Canada, Australia, Portugal and Brazil were the most favored destinations and new sister clubs and Casa’s sprung up in these countries. These fraternal links between the Club Lusitano membership and this diaspora of Portuguese from Hong Kong, Macau and other parts of the Far East continues to this day.

The club members that stayed and some who then returned were those who were able to adjust to the changed circumstances of Hong Kong leading up to the handover in 1997. Many played a prominent role. Sir Albert Rodrigues served in the Executive Council from 1962 to 1974 and was Chairman the Executive Council of Hong Kong University.

Sir Roger Lobo served as member of the Executive Council between 1967 and 1985 and was a crusader for local Hong Kong rights during the negotiations between Britain and China over the return of Hong Kong tabling in the Legislative Council in what became known as the Lobo Motion: “The Council deems it essential that any proposals for the future of Hong Kong should be debated in the Council before any final agreement is reached”. 

Comendador Arnaldo de Oliveria Sales was Chairman of the Urban Council between 1973 and 1981. During his time he was responsible for the building of many public swimming pools and sporting facilities that stand to this day. He also served as the longtime President of Hong Kong’s Amateur Sports Federation and Olympic Committee and brought international sporting recognition to Hong Kong as President of the Commonwealth Games Federation between 1994 and 1998. In the 1972 Munich Olympics as Charge d’affaires of the Hong Kong delegation, he demonstrated enormous bravery by confronting the armed Palestinian terrorists that were holding the Hong Kong, Uruguay and Israeli teamshostage. He managed to secure the Hong Kong team’s release only after putting himself in great personal danger. Subsequently 11 members of the Israeli delegation and one German policemen were murdered and 5 of the terrorists killed in a raid by the German police.


Throughout these years Club Lusitano kept its strong links with Portugal and maintained its proud historical Lusitanian identity. In March 1991, Club Lusitano was awarded the prestigious Ordem do Infante Dom Henrique by the Portuguese government for services in the expansion of the Portuguese culture, its history and its values (with a particular focus on its maritime history). In October 1994, a reception was held for Mario Soares, then President of the Portuguese Republic attended by over two hundred people. This was the second time a president of Portugal had visited the club; the first was commemorated with the Ordem do Infante D. Henrique. In 1995 there was a formal reception given to the Portuguese Prime Minister Cavaco e Silva.

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By the mid-1990s it was decided to replace the 1960s era building and the club appointed Macanese architect Comendador Gustavo da Roza for the design. New building methods and building regulations allowed the Trustees and General Committee to construct a 27-floor story high rise building with the club occupying the top 5 floors. Member’s needs had changed since the 1960s and whereas the previous club buildings had dedicated large areas for the ballroom, cards rooms and reception rooms, modern day needs required smaller floor plates and Central demanded more office space. So a 3 level ground floor retail podium and 20 floors of office tower were incorporated to the design. At the top of the building is a 3 story high Cruz de Cristo that has become a signature of the building and serves as a reminder of our Portuguese and catholic heritage in the heart of Central.

The old building was demolished in 1996 and the club moved to temporary premises in Melbourne Plaza, Queen’s Road Central. The 3rd building at Ice House Street was conceived in the best of times in 1996 when the Hong Kong property market was booming, but the project was plagued with problems starting with the Asian financial crisis in 1997. The main contractor suffered financial difficulties and drainage issues beset the site. The project costs overrun significantly and the building was completed more than 2 years later than planned in 2002. The construction was first financed with a loan from HSBC, then Bank of East Asia and fell due just as the SARs epidemic hit Hong Kong in 2003 when the economy was on its knees. Real estate prices had collapsed by half between the time when the old clubhouse was demolished and when it was completed 6 years later. The club finally refinanced its debt with a long lease granted to Pioneer Group in 2009.

The Club Lusitano remains one of the premier and most prestigious social clubs in Hong Kong and in 2016 celebrates its 150th anniversary. Membership has expanded again in recent years with the admission of women members, the return of many Macanese from overseas and the inclusion of more Portuguese nationals. The spectacular 27th floor Salaõ de Luis de Camões ballroom sitting high above Central, hosts formal functions of dignitaries, community occasions, family celebrations and corporate events just as Club Lusitano has throughout its proud history. The Portuguese map of discovery and starlit ceiling in the Salaõ de Luis de Camões, reminds our members of our ancestral navigational history and of the brave spirit of exploration that lives on in the Portuguese community to this day.

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