By Anthony Correa
A de O. “Sonny” Sales was born in the French Concession of Shamain Island, Canton (now Guangzhou) on 13 January 1920. The eldest of seven children, four boys and three girls, from a family with deep roots in Shamain. His great grandfather had been chief military officer of the French Embassy in the Shamain French concession, and his grandfather was in the river shipping business based in Shamain. Although he enjoyed an idyllic childhood in that environment, by the 1930s China was immersed in civil unrest, prompting his family to move to Hong Kong when he was 9 years of age with his father who worked for Shell.
Sonny was one of the first batch of students to attend La Salle College in 1931, graduating in 1936. Afterwards he attended St Joseph’s seminary Macau where he studied anthropology and deepened his lifelong Catholic faith, under the guidance of Portuguese Jesuits. The famous Portuguese historian priest Padre Manuel Teixeira was his Portuguese teacher.
Like many Portuguese during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in World War II, the Sales family sought refuge in neutral Macau where he worked for a time in the British Consulate as well as furthering his tertiary studies at St Joseph’s seminary. After the war, he returned to Hong Kong with his family to rebuild his life. He initially worked with his father at Arnold Trading.
He married Edith Nolasco da Silva on 17 November 1946 at St Teresa’s Church, Kowloon. The two had met during the war and in Macau their relationship blossomed. They moved to 105 Kadoorie Avenue in 1953 where he lived until his death 67 years later. This earned Sonny and Edith the distinction of the longest continuous tenants at the Kadoorie Estates.
He founded his own trading business in 1955, establishing an office in Prince’s Building, Central that he also retained until his passing. He became the President of the Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association and joined the Victoria Recreation Club (VRC), later becoming its Chairman from 1962 to 2013. VRC played a key role in Hong Kong for post war sports, as the home for swimming and the meeting place for early efforts to establish an Olympic movement.
In 1951 he assisted in the establishment of the Amateur Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong (ASF & OC), elected as Honorary Secretary and in 1958 he inaugurated the Festival of Sport (FOS), promoting “Sport for All” to Hong Kong citizens that continues to this day.
From 1967 to 1998 he served as President of the ASF & OC, now known as the Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China (SF&OC). During his service in the ASF & OC, he frequently led Hong Kong delegations to participate in international sports events. He was a member of Hong Kong’s first ever Olympic team as a delegate in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. He served in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games as Chef de Mission for the Hong Kong team and reprised this role for 6 more Olympic Games.
In 1972, Sonny took up his role again as Chef de Mission of the Hong Kong delegation at the Munich Olympic Games. Showing great bravery, he successfully negotiated with guerrillas for the release of Hong Kong delegation members in what became known as the “Munich Massacre” incident.
In early July 1997 with his close friend Mr. Juan Antonio Samaranch Torelló, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Sonny Sales secured for the ASF & OC, the right for Hong Kong athletes to continue taking part in the Olympic Games and in all international competitions as a separate entity, under the name of “Hong Kong China”. This he considered one of his greatest achievements for Hong Kong sports.
His long-standing contribution to international sports extended well beyond Hong Kong shores. A de O Sales held key posts in the Asian Games Federation (AGF) as Vice-President from 1962 to 1970 and Hon. Life Vice-President of the AGF and the Olympic Council of Asia from 1970. His lifelong sports love was for swimming and he served as Vice President of the Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA) from 1964 to 1972. Remarkably for someone from the then British colony of Hong Kong he served as Chairman of the Commonwealth Games Federation from 1990 to 1994.
In December 2012, A de O Sales was awarded the IOC Trophy for “Sport and Sustainable Development” in recognition of his six decades of accomplishment in local and international sports development.
In 1955, he became a member of the Urban Council of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Housing Authority. He was already heavily involved in the sports movement and in a densely populated metropolis advocated for areas where Hong Kong citizens could relax in a cleaner and greener environment. He immediately targeted, then transformed many well-located sites, some originally designated as military bases into public parks, developed pedestrian zones and established green zones throughout the city.
In 1973, he was appointed Chairman of the Urban Council by Governor Murray MacLehose with whom he established a close personal relationship. In 1973-74 the first year of his Chairmanship, 19 cultural and recreational facilities were completed costing HK$2.5m. It was abundantly clear to him that not enough resources were being allocated by the colonial authorities to the benefit of Hong Kong and he decided to take matters into his own hands.
He decided to put the hard-earned Hong Kong reserves to good use and during the era of his chairmanship of the Urban Council, Hong Kong’s recreational and cultural facilities witnessed a rapid growth. His approach was uncompromising and he tread on the toes of many a colonial bureaucrat as he pushed through his projects. By the last year of his tenure, 1980-81, 57 projects were completed costing HK$418m including HK$180m for two large indoor sports stadia and 2,276 items of recreational and cultural capital expenditure. This represented a 167-fold increase in financial resources dedicated to the benefit of Hong Kong people.
His drive and resourcefulness as Urban Council Chairman pioneered many new civic venues. The Queen Elizabeth Stadium opened in 1980, the Space Museum, 1980, the Hong Kong Coliseum, 1983, the Ko Shan Theatre, 1983 and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, 1989, all bore his imprint. The Jubilee Sports Centre in Sha Tin dedicated to elite sports training was a signature project that broke ground in 1977 during his tenure and was completed in 1982.
He initiated the first Festival of Asian Arts in 1976 and the first Hong Kong International Film Festival in 1977. Under his aegis, the Urban Council set up three professional performing groups, namely the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre in 1977, and then the Hong Kong Dance Company in 1981. This cultural legacy continues to this day.
He pioneered the construction of public swimming pools throughout Hong Kong in prime locations that were easily accessible to residents. His contribution to Hong Kong’s aquatic development was so great that FINA awarded the “Highest Merit” in 1978 in honour of his achievement in constructing the greatest number of swimming pools in any world city in 1977.
Sonny Sales not only served the sports community and the Hong Kong government, but also held key positions in many local and international organisations. He was the President of the Hong Kong Junior Chamber in 1952 and 1953, and was elected as World President of Junior Chamber International in 1956. From the late 1950s to 1960s, he served as President of La Salle College Old Boys’ Association leading him to receive the highest honour of “UMAEL Outstanding Global Lasallian Award” in 2011. Other titles included President of Rotary Club of Hong Kong and President of the
Club de Recreio.
Sonny Sales’ achievements have been widely recognized by governments and social organisations. He was awarded the GrandBauhinia Medal (GBM) by the HKSAR Government in 1998; a Comendador, Orden del Merito Civil of Spain in 1972 and a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1975.
He was offered a British knighthood on several occasions but declined every time, remaining steadfastly loyal to his Portuguese roots.
A signal honour was granted to A de O Sales in 2010 when he was made an affiliated member of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Affiliated members are those who, in recognition of their long-standing and exemplary association with the De La Salle Brothers and their mission, are welcomed as honorary members of the Institute. It is the highest honour of the Institute and carries the title AFSC.
He was a daily fixture at Club Lusitano, taking the short walk from his Prince’s Building office and lunching in the dining room whenever he was in Hong Kong. His table was reserved for his sole usage and he hosted many guests, friends and dignitaries there. Regardless of whether they were Governors, captains of industry, sports stars, royalty or Presidents, Sonny Sales held court at Club Lusitano with his signature panache and grace. He served as President of Club Lusitano for 34 uninterrupted years from 1968 to 2002.
He retained his Portuguese nationality his entire life and was extremely proud of his Lusitanian heritage. In 1999 for his services to Portugal he was awarded the honor of Grã Cruz da Ordem do Infante dom Henrique that carried with it the title Comendador. He was fluent in Portuguese and took every opportunity to demonstrate his language ability especially during the annual Portuguese National Day celebrations at Club Lusitano.
Mr. Sales passed away in Hong Kong on 6 March 2020.