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Francisco Paulo de Vasconcelos Soares, 1868-1953

By Anthony Correa

Francisco “Frank” Paulo de Vasconcelos Soares was born in Hong Kong to a Portuguese family from Macau. Both his father Matias da Luz Soares and mother Júlia Josefa Maria de Vasconcelos were born in Macau and were amongst the early Portuguese to relocate to Hong Kong after its colonisation by the British in 1841.

His father Matias Soares was a noted botanist and horticulturalist, who prior to moving to Hong Kong managed parks and gardens for the Macau government. He had been the designer of and supervised the 19th Century laying out of the Jardim do São Francisco, (San Francisco Garden) in Macau, situated behind the Club Militar at the northern end of Praia Grande, opposite to the present day Santa Rosa de Lima Convent and school.

Young Frank Soares was brought up by his father from an early age with a life-long appreciation and love of plants and nature.

Jardim do Sao Francisco, (San Francisco Garden) Macau

On moving to Hong Kong, his father worked for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P & O). Matias purchased a tract of land in Sai Ying Pun, where he erected a pretty bungalow for his residence and continued to pursue his passion for flowers, fruit and vegetables. It was here that Matias introduced from Malacca the root of the ginger-lily, a plant which has since become popular with flower growers in Hong Kong and southern China.

Matias Soares was in good company amongst other prominent Portuguese horticulturalists of the day. In 1876 Delfino Noronha and Marcus Calisto do Rozario purchased 5 acres of agricultural land in Yau Ma Tei and built a summer villa christened “Delmar”, after the first 3 letters of each of their first names. Matias was a good friend of Delfino and the two friends would cross to Kowloon on a sampan to engage in their hobby of gardening.

These early Kowloon settlers were instrumental in the early afforestation of Hong Kong, importing a number of Australian trees, particularly firs and pines that took root in Kowloon’s tropical soil (Rozario and Co were importers of Australian products – many from tropical Queensland). Coconut palms were also introduced from Singapore where the Portuguese had trading links. The 3 friends are credited with cultivating many fruit trees at “Delmar” including the first pineapples, bananas, rose apples, peaches, figs and guavas in the colony.

Early Life and Career

Frank Soares attended both St Joseph’s College in Hong Kong and the Jesuit run Semanario de Sao Jose in Macau. The Soares family spoke Portuguese at home and were very proud of their heritage, so a high standard of Portuguese literacy was expected of the children along with a strong catholic education.

Sadly for Frank, his parents Matias and Julia died in Macau in 1883 when he was only 15 years old. He and his siblings were brought up by relatives. Matias’ father Francisco Xavier Placé Soares was a wealthy shipowner and the family owned homes at Travessa do Padre Soares, Macau. The street was named after Matias’ youngest brother Fr Luís Soares.

The Portuguese in Hong Kong were well established as trusted employees in the British “hongs” and government. Within the community there was a system of patronage that provided for young educated Portuguese men to be introduced as members of staff. Frank started his career with is father’s old employer P&O as an accountant. Once he had secured his employment, Frank quickly established himself, and took up residence at Club Lusitano in Shelley Street where there were lodgings for bachelors.

He had extended family members that had by that time established themselves in Hong Kong in local business and society. Amongst them were Adão Maria de Lourdes Soares who was a prosperous businessman who established the Inez Soares Scholarship in memory of his late wife (Sir Albert Rodrigues being an early recipient) and administered by Associação Portuguesa de Soccorros Mútuos. Adão made his most lasting contribution to the Portuguese community by purchasing the land for the Ice House Street site of Club Lusitano and reselling it to the Club at cost.

Frank ultimately made his career in stockbroking. In the late 19th and early 20th Century this was a potentially lucrative career but also saw many fortunes lost due to the unscrupulous and dishonest activities in the stock market. The multiple Hong Kong stock markets were a free for all, with no regulation, and a market that favoured the well-connected. Insider trading was not illegal, speculation was rife as were frequent bankruptcies, events of civil unrest and acts of god. Only the most fleet of foot and astute survived in this environment and Frank Soares was able to keep his wits and carve out a living, becoming a partner at the firm Graça and Co.

On 27 November 1901 he married Emma da Soledade Selavisa Alves, at the Catholic Cathedral in Hong Kong. Emma like Frank was born to a prominent Portuguese family that had relocated from Macau. Her father was the keeper of records of the Colonial Secretariat office and one of the original shareholders of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 1897

Together, Frank and Emma had three sons and a daughter, João (Joannes) da Conceição Alves de Vasconcelos Soares (1902), Júlia Maria Belarmina Alves de Vasconcelos Soares (1904) , Mem Maria Alves de Vasconcelos Soares (1905), and Luís (Luigi) António Maria Alves de Vasconcelos Soares (1907). A fifth child Francisco Xavier de Vasconcelos Soares (1909) died shortly after birth.

Emma was a woman with a charming disposition, extremely charitable and sympathetic and never denied to help the sick and needy. She was very sociable, and as was the custom of the times ran a busy household with frequent parties, cha gordos and gatherings in her home. Her sister married Carlos A da Roza, an early & prominent accounting professional in Hong Kong who was a director of many public companies and became President of Club Lusitano. The Soares family were thus firmly at the centre of the Portuguese community in Hong Kong.

Soares Family pre-war, in the family garden in Ho Man Tin

Luigi, Joannes and Mem (L-R Rear), Frank, Julia and Emma (L-R Front)

JB Correa Collection

Development of Garden City, “the Father of Ho Man Tin”

By the turn of the century Hong Kong had experienced a period of rapid population growth that resulted in a severe housing shortage. The Portuguese community was under great pressure from rising rents and lack of suitable housing on Hong Kong island. This resulted in a proposal in 1912, “The Portuguese Housing Scheme (Cidade Camões)” that was put forward by Montague Ede and supported by Jose Pedro Braga.

The proposed Cidade Camões or Camões City was to be located in Happy Valley around what is today Tai Hang Road. The development was to be for Portuguese only in order to relieve their housing pressures, however it was opposed by Frank Soares and others in the community. They felt building a Portuguese only suburb in Hong Kong would result in the creation of a Portuguese ghetto, as only those within the community could buy and sell homes there rather than a free market like the rest of Hong Kong. Instead he advocated a development in Kowloon in what was then the farming area of Ho Man Tin.

Early 20th Century Map of Hong Kong showing the route of the Kowloon Canton Railway

At the time much of Kowloon was relatively uninhabited and in the early stages of urban development. In 1903, China Light and Power built their first power station in Chatham Road, Kowloon. A dedicated pier for the Star Ferry was completed in 1906 and the Kowloon Canton Railway commenced services in October 1910.

Frank knew the Kowloon geography well as he frequently went game shooting there. He saw its potential now that the railway was completed and he recognised the high demand for housing. The area he chose in Ho Man Tin was then rocky hills and swampy ground, so he had to start the development by draining the swamp and quarrying the rock to level the land so that homes could be built on the elevated site. In the days before heavy construction machinery, this labour intensive work had to be done by pickaxe, shovel and dynamite.

Garden City, Ho Man Tin seen from today’s Kadoorie Avenue.

The Kowloon Canton Railway runs parallel to Peace Avenue (circa 1930).

J B Correa collection

Commencing in 1912 and completed over 8 years, he named the area Garden City, as he envisaged a suburb of homes with gardens suitable for growing flowers, fruit and vegetables. The streets he named after his wife (Emma Avenue), daughter (Julia Avenue) and his family (Soares Avenue). He memorialised the end of World War 1 with the remaining three streets named, Peace Avenue, Liberty Avenue and Victory Avenue. He organised a whistle stop railway station at the centre of Peace Avenue providing residents transportation directly to the Tsim Sha Tsui terminus from where they could catch the Star Ferry to their offices in Central.

Peace Avenue, and Argyle Street (top) and Waterloo Road (bottom) (circa 1930)

J B Correa Collection

The area quickly became a Portuguese enclave as the houses were attractive, relatively affordable and suitably sized for the large families that typified the community in those times. However, it was not exclusively Portuguese and there were many Chinese, Eurasian and other European families who owned homes there too. Frank became known as the “Father of Ho Man Tin”.

Emma, Julia and Frank Soares (above), all have streets in Ho Man Tin named after them

Frank Soares (below) picking fruit in his garden (JB Correa Collection)

The Portuguese community lived an idyllic family lifestyle in the Garden City. The streets were safe, there were trees for the children to climb, a small park, a local catholic church in Prince Edward Road, St Teresa’s (1932) and high quality catholic schools, first La Salle College (1932), then Maryknoll Convent School (moved to Waterloo Rd in 1936). Living conditions in Ho Man Tin were significantly better than overcrowded Hong Kong island.

Another Portuguese community was located in Tsim Sha Tsui, near Rosary Church, Chatham Road (the first catholic church in Kowloon, est. 1905) and the contiguous St. Mary’s Canossian College, Kowloon’s first catholic school (est. 1900). Sports and social facilities were available in abundance at Club de Recreio in King’s Park (clubhouse opened on 4 February 1928), a convenient halfway house for the twin Portuguese residential areas. The community was close knit and they enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity.

Frank Soares built for himself a substantial two storey European style house with a large garden where he could plant his much loved fruit trees, flowers and vegetables at 2 Liberty Avenue, Ho Man Tin in the heart of his Garden City. Many dignitaries were hosted at their home including Marshal Manuel Gomes da Costa the commander the Portuguese Expeditionary Corp that served in France with the Allies during the great war, who later became President of Portugal. The Bishop of Macau was another visitor. This house was to prove its value in the looming war years.

Mem, Luigi & Joannes Soares (L-R rear) wearing their Victoria Recreation Club rowing blazers.

Frank and Bosco Correa (front ) with their visiting paternal uncle Antonio “Tony” Correa at 2 Liberty Avenue, Ho Man Tin shortly before the war.

J.B Correa collection

Portuguese Consul in the War Years

At 4:45am, on 8 December 1941 the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Hong Kong. By that time Frank Soares was retired from business and in 1937 had been appointed Chancellor of the Consulate of Portugal in Hong Kong.

At the outbreak of war he was Chancellor-in-Charge (acting Consul) and was responsible for the protection of the Portuguese citizens in Hong Kong. The following is an eye witness account from his grandson Bosco Correa of events on the day of the Japanese invasion.

“When the Japanese attacked Hong Kong on December 8, 1941 my grandfather who was then almost 74 years of age was the Acting Consul for Portugal. He decided to move the Consulate from the Bank of East Asia Building in Des Voeux Road, Central to his home in Ho Man Tin. When Kowloon was abandoned a few days later by the British forces which fell back to Hong Kong Island, looters took over Kowloon and he opened his home and gave refuge to some 400 refugees mainly Portuguese residents from Ho Man Tin and Kowloon Tong.

The logistics to shelter and feed so many people when all utilities such as water, power, gas and telephone were cut off due to the hostilities were immense. Just imagine cooking for so many people and arranging their washing and sanitary needs. Not only was he able to organize all this, he also got all the able-bodied Portuguese residents together and set up street guards to fight off marauding looters some of whom had to be shot and killed.

When the Japanese combat troops arrived, my grandfather personally went and met them and obtained their commanding officer’s assurance to respect the neutrality of the Portuguese residents and to protect the district from looters. All this whilst the Japanese and the British were exchanging heavy artillery fire against one another!”

While in charge of the Consulate he took a crucial decision, contrary to Portuguese law, which ensured the freedom, and perhaps saved the lives of many descendants of Macanese living in Hong Kong who had become British subjects. He himself recorded in a small handwritten note which he stapled to the Registry of Portuguese citizens of Hong Kong:-

“On January 2, 1942, that is, eight days after the surrender of the colony of Hong Kong to the Japanese, we began to register in this book – pages 6-105 – as Portuguese citizens, British subjects mostly of Portuguese descent by handing them certificates to avoid their being taken as prisoners in the concentration camp and allow them to be included with the Portuguese who took refuge in our colony of Macau.”

In total it is estimated there are about 600 people whose lives were perhaps saved by Frank Soares’ actions. In the following weeks and months, these Portuguese families left Hong Kong for Macau with their newly issued Portuguese travel papers. There they were able to see out the difficult 3 years and 8 months of the occupation in relative safety.

2 Liberty Avenue, Ho Man Tin, J B Correa Collection

The following is an extraction of an account of Mrs Hetty Van Langenberg (as written by her daughter in law Joyce Van Langenberg), who had taken refuge in Consul Frank Soares’ Liberty Avenue home:-

“One morning he sent for her….. He began: ‘Mrs. van Langenberg how would you like to live in Macao? I can guarantee safe passage for you and your children. ”But I haven’t any money and what money I had has been stolen from me,’ she protested. ‘I know of no one in Macao who would provide for my family. Here in your house we feel safe and protected. If I have offended you in anyway or contravened the rules of the house I will make amends” she apologised…

“No, no, my dear, you misunderstand me’ he said. ‘This offer is for your consideration’ he said reassuringly…. ‘The women who live here choose to stay because they have husbands or sons interned in Shamshuipo Camp whereas you are free of such commitment. Hong Kong has become an extremely dangerous place to live and I’m not sure how long I can continue to protect the people under my roof,” he said tentatively, voicing his thoughts.

“Every day waves of our people are fleeing Hong Kong for the safety of Macao. The Portuguese Governor is sympathetic to our plight and regards us as one of his own. Your children will be sheltered and looked after by the Portuguese government in Macao. The British Consul resident in Macao, Mr. John Reeve, has access to overseas news and will be better placed to make enquiries of your husband’s whereabouts.”

Hetty’s tension eased.. and accepted Mr. Soares’s offer with alacrity, grateful for his kindness. It was with surprise and delight when, on 6th February 1942, she and her four children were accompanied by staff of the Portuguese Consul to the ferry boat, the ‘Fat Shan,’ bound for Macao.”

Frank Soares, his daughter Julia and two grandsons Frank and Bosco however stayed in their Liberty Avenue home. His wife Emma had died in 1940 and by the outbreak of war he was one month short of his 74th birthday. He walked with the aid of walking sticks as he was lame after a bad fall in 1939 and he was naturally attached to the home he had built for himself and his family. Moreover, he was determined to see through his consular duties that he discharged from his home.

Like many local Portuguese men, two of his three sons although Portuguese citizens, volunteered to serve as part of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps in the defence of Hong Kong. At the fall of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941 to the invading Japanese, sons Mem and Luigi were interned at Sham Shui Po prisoner of war camp with other Portuguese volunteers. Eldest son Joannes managed to make his way to Macau. Frank Soares’ only daughter Julia handled the duties of running the household. Julia and the two grandsons would walk from Ho Man Tin to deliver food parcels and other permitted provisions to her brothers Mem and Luigi in the POW camp when allowed by the Japanese.

Certificate of recognition awarded to Mrs Julia Soares Correa and her sons Frank and Bosco (her husband Carlos “Charlie” Correa was stuck in Shanghai during the war years) by Sir Cecil Harcourt, Commander in Chief, 16 November 1945

It was a difficult time for the Soares family, punctuated by periods of extreme food shortages, air raids by Allied forces and terrible atrocities by the Japanese against the local population. Some of their Portuguese neighbours were arrested by the Kempetai who tortured them as suspected British agents. Some were executed or died as a result of torture. Looters were publicly beheaded by the Japanese as an example to the local population. At their most desperate periods, people they knew starved to death with their young children.

Unlike children in Macau, both of Frank Soares’ grandsons were deprived of education for the war years as the Christian brothers were forced to abandon La Salle College that was turned into a storage depot by the Japanese. The family survived the war by selling, their jewellery and other valuables, raising chickens (eggs a rarity in wartime Hong Kong) in their home, and selling the fruit and vegetables, produced from their substantial garden. Sweet potato became ubiquitous towards the end of the war.

Frank Soares was penalised by the Portuguese government for his actions in issuing certificates of travel, just like other Portuguese consuls who had saved lives in Europe, such as Portuguese Consul General Aristides de Sousa Mendes in Bordeaux, France and Ambassador Carlos de Almeida Fonseca Sampaio Garrido in Hungary.

He was deeply affected by this response from the Portuguese government. He was an extremely patriotic man and was awarded the Ordem Militar de Cristo by the Portuguese government prior to the war. Sadly his achievements in saving many compatriot’s lives were never recognised by Portugal.

Regarding the most difficult situation that any Consul for Portugal had to face during the hellish time of the attack on and the occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese during December 1941 through 1942, Jose P Braga wrote about Consul Frank Soares:

“A situation of unprecedented difficulty was created for him without previous warning and a minimum of material resources and a lamentable deficiency of professional personnel. He had thrust upon him duties and responsibilities unparalleled in their magnitude and of the most complex nature”

Amongst his many achievements, Frank Soares was the founder of the self-help Associação Portuguesa de Soccorros Mútuos (1915) that continues with charitable works for the Portuguese community to this day. He decided to establish this institution based on a report which he read of a mutual self-help association in Hawaii established by Portuguese sugarcane workers that were from the Azores and Madeira Islands.

Francisco Paulo de Vasconcelos Soares died in 1953 aged 85 and is buried with his wife Emma in St Michael’s Catholic Cemetery, Happy Valley, Hong Kong, an unsung hero in the Hong Kong Portuguese Community.


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