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Alfonso Octavio Barretto

By Jason Wordie, expanded and amended from previously published SCMP column text

Artistic careers begin in the most unlikely places – Hong Kong was no exception. Allied prisoner-of-war and civilian internee camps across Japanese-occupied Asia experienced – in tandem with prolonged deprivation, forced labour, overall hardship and deprivation still justifiably remembered - an extraordinarily rich cultural life that remains largely overlooked today. From highly-diverse pre-war backgrounds, thousands of people were suddenly thrown together into a period of prolonged captivity – in most locations, this extended for almost four years. With little available distraction available beyond routine camp chores, regularly punctuated by meal and parade times, discovery and cultivation of some forms of personal stimulation and development were essential. Soul-crushing boredom – as dangerous to individual physical and mental wellbeing, and general group morale as the fact of enemy defeat and subsequent prolonged incarceration – was partially alleviated by a vast array of lectures and interest classes. Anyone in camp with some aspect of knowledge to share – however arcane – or practical skills to impart was keenly embraced. In direct consequence, forms of cultural life that emerged during these apparently sterile and wasted times, were as wide-ranging, productive and unexpected as were the ethnic, cultural, educational and socio-economic origins of those interned. These elements of diversity were accurately reflected through overall output. Visual and plastic arts in various medium, which ranged from pencil sketches to watercolours and sculpture, musical talent, theatrical expression, creative writing from plays to short stories, memoirs and novels, unexpected intellectual interests and an extraordinary range of lecture subjects – all were produced in Japanese prisoner-of war camps. Much of this rich cultural life was forgotten in the immediately aftermath of war, as everyone moved on with the rest of their lives, attempted to make up for what were overwhelmingly regarded as “lost years” - best forgotten about, as far as was possible. In consequence, the products salvaged from this brief cultural, intellectual and artistic flowering in many lives was filed away in desk drawers, disused suitcases or the bottom of wardrobes. Many such artefacts were only rediscovered and appreciated several decades afterwards – and only if these relics had not been permanently disposed of as an effect of domestic relocations, and an overall disinterest in the past. But not all emergent artistic careers ended when the war years did; one individual who continued with this pursuit in the years that followed, and over time evolved and developed what became a highly-distinctive personal style, was Alfonso Octavio Barretto. Alfonso Barretto came from a prominent, long-established local Portuguese family with transnational links to India, Macao, Canton and Manila which extended back to the eighteenth century. Trading connections and extended family networks criss-cross all these places prior to the establishment of Hong Kong as a British colony in 1842; the Barretto family had their own ‘factory’ on the Canton waterfront in pre-Treaty Port days. Mercantile connections extended to Hong Kong, Singapore and other regional ports, continued into the mid-twentieth century with successor firms in the hands of different branches of the family, with a variety of business interests. Born in Hong Kong in 1913, Alfonso Barretto was educated at St. Joseph’s College – as were many other local Portuguese of his generation – and subsequently worked at the Hong Kong Club. In 1940 he married Gloria D’Almada e Castro – also a member of a prominent local Portuguese family whose connections to Hong Kong began with the commencement of British rule. An active sportsman in his youth with interests in swimming and rowing, Alfonso was on the committee of the Victoria Recreation Club, then situated with a large club house at the water’s edge of Victoria Harbour.

Alfonso Barretto painting at Girassol, Tai Po Kau. New Territories, in 1957. Behind him, from left, are his sisters Tilly and Olive. (Mrs. Leo D’Almada e Castro, Jr. and Mrs. John Basto, respectively.)

Along with his younger brother Horacio and brother-in-law Christopher D’Almada and many others from his community, Alfonso Barretto served in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps from the late 1930s. He saw action in the fighting down the Repulse Bay Road in the Battle for Hong Kong in December 1941. He became a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese, and was subsequently interned in Sham Shui Po Camp in Kowloon until August 1945. During this lengthy period of confinement, when he also experienced periods of severe illness that subsequently shortened his life, Alfonso Barretto’s hitherto latent artistic talents first had time to develop, and along with associated technical skills, began to mature through regular practice. Art classes undertaken as a prisoner-of-war, with the time and (admittedly enforced) leisure hours to hone his new skills, subsequently led to a successful post-war amateur/ professional painting career. In a 1957 newspaper interview, shortly before a major public exhibition of his works at Club Lusitano, Alfonso Barretto modestly expanded upon this wartime artistic genesis. “I used to while away my time during POW days with drawing – oils and brushes then weren’t available. And I sold my first works to the Japanese... At the risk of being severely punished they would come, and under the glare of torches I would sketch them for a price – packets of cigarettes, soap and things.” A fun-loving, gregarious man, widely remembered as the immediate life and soul of every gathering he attended, Alfonso Barretto’s humorous, mostly monochrome portraits of other inmates – most of which still exist – display a keen eye for their individual subject’s more amusing or readily identifiable personal quirks. Done on Japanese-supplied, camp letterhead embossed note-paper, pencils were purchased and sent into camp by his wife Gloria who – categorised as a “Third National”, like most other members of the local Portuguese community - was not interned by the Japanese, and thus remained at liberty in Hong Kong throughout the occupation period. Sustained hope for the young, recently-married couple’s post-war future together also found artistic expression in prison-camp; a series of floor plans and coloured pencil sketches envisaged an idyllic New Territories “dream home”, eventually achieved in 1953 when the couple built Girassol at Tai Po Kau – still the family home, and repository of Alfonso Barretto’s paintings, POW sketch book, photos, and materials related to his artwork, among the papers and artifacts of a family which has passed many generations in the region. After the war ended, Alfonso Barretto experimented with different materials – initially “with watercolour, but found that I was too heavy-handed – oil was my medium”. Later, as Clubhouse Manager at the Hong Kong Jockey Club from 1949 onwards, he periodically stayed at Happy Valley before race-days. An over-night room at the racecourse doubled as a painting studio, and this was where most of his prolific artistic output was produced. Jockey Club workers were also frequent subjects for his sensitively-executed portraits, along with more prominent members of the Hong Kong business and administrative communities.

Portrait in oils of unidentified Hong Kong Jockey Club employee, c. 1958

Established in 1949, the Hong Kong Art Club was one of the post-war cultural initiatives that emerged from the war years. Alfonso Barretto’s involvement – he served as Secretary for some years – inevitably led to an expanded circle of fellow local artists, and the cross-fertilisation of talent and ideas that follows from close personal exposure to these connections. One 29 Portrait in oils of unidentified Hong Kong Jockey Club employee, c. 1958 Portuguese artist who exhibited with the Hong Kong Art Club in the early 1950s was a promising young man from Macao – Luis Demeé – who was coincidentally also linked to the Barretto family, as Alfonso’s grandmother was Belmira Demee. A wartime student in Macao of White Russian painter George Vitaelivich Smirnoff – whose stylistic influence is obvious in his early watercolour work – Luis Demeé moved to Portugal for further study, where he enjoyed a lengthy career as an art teacher in Oporto and took part in numerous exhibitions. The 1957 newspaper interviewer observed that “Alfonso Barretto himself is a refreshing departure from the commonly accepted portrait of an artist: stained smock, room in ashambles and dirty fingernails – the synthetic crank. He dresses nattily and with taste. Greying temples match an irritatingly well-trimmed moustache…” Surviving images make this general impression abundantly clear. “People of many nationalities sit to Mr. Barretto. But it is with the Chinese that [he] appears most at home and [is] most at home.” And as “… a man of gentle disposition [with] friends from a wide section of the Hong Kong community, and as he and his family reside in the New Territories, his circle of friends embraced humble NT farmers as well as government officials”, these personal connections provided subjects from Tai Po Kau villagers and Jockey Club workers to senior public figures. In 1960, Alfonso Barretto’s only visit to Europe provided further inspiration from the great art museums in London, Paris and Italy. While those years within the confines of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp had allowed latent artistic abilities to find an early expression, that overall experience also dramatically weakened Alfonso Barretto’s health. Whilst this again enforced the time and opportunity to paint and to be a keen bird watcher, with declining health he died, aged only 50, in September 1963.

Alfonso Barretto with framed portrait. Subject is un-named, and believed to be one of the Hong Kong Jockey Club workers – frequent portrait sitters for the artist

Nearly sixty years after his death, Alfonso Barretto remains Hong Kong’s only significant local Portuguese artist, with a career that extended from a private recreational interest into the public sphere as a professional artist, within his own short lifetime. Several oil paintings, and 30 Alfonso Barretto with framed portrait. Subject is un-named, and believed to be one of the Hong Kong Jockey Club workers – frequent portrait sitters for the artist. drawings extracted from his POW sketch book, will form part of the forthcoming Hong Kong Museum of History exhibition about the local Portuguese community – due to open in late 2023. This will be their first public viewing in over sixty years. A major contemporary retrospective, curated around Alfonso Barretto’s unusual creative evolution, and the too-brief life story that inspired and enriched his short peace-time career as a portraitist and painter, remains long overdue. Such an exhibition would be a significant attraction for Club Lusitano, with widespread appeal for the general Hong Kong public as well as Club members.

Mrs. Wendy Turner posed with portrait of herself; note the identical twin strands of pearls. Behind her left shoulder is an oil study of Chinese stake-nets in Tolo Harbour, New Territories, which had been observed by telescope from Girassol, and painted from details observed from a distance.


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