By Mr. Ken Chad
Early Years and Education
José Pedro Braga, or JP Braga as he was known, was born in Hong Kong on the 3rd of August 1871. He was the youngest in a family of eight children. His mother, Carolina, was the daughter of Delfino Noronha, who arrived in Hong Kong on the coattails of the British in 1844. JP’s own father, Vincente Emilio Braga, left for Japan in 1870, and his eldest son, JP’s brother later followed him. Vincente never returned to Hong Kong, abandoning his wife Carolina with seven children. Consequently, JP was brought up by his grandfather Delfino, who was a significant influence on his life.
Carolina Maria Braga and her family ca 1878. José Braga is the small boy standing at the left.
JP went to St. Joseph’s College in Hong Kong where he received the Belilios Scholarship. Emanuel Raphael Belilios made his fortune through trading opium, and ultimately became the chairman of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.
After St. Joseph’s College JP was sent to Calcutta to study at St. Xavier’s, a school for many of the crème de la crème of the Far East’s British colonial youth. At St. Xavier’s he won the prize for Elocution and Delivery. Interestingly, with two years to go at St. Xavier’s, he moved from the prestigious school to Roberts Memorial College (also in Calcutta). He graduated in 1888, winning the school’s gold medal which was presented to him by Sir Alexander Wilson. (Had JP just crammed what would have been two years at St. Xavier’s into one at Roberts College?) Roberts Memorial College had put 12 boys up to sit the entrance exam for the University of Calcutta that year, and only two were successful. JP was awarded a First Class pass and won the only scholarship available to a European in the Province of Bengal. The University of Calcutta was the first multi-disciplinarian Western style institution in Asia.
Tragedy and Back to Hong Kong
In 1889 JP found himself back in Hong Kong working in his grandfather’s printing business, then named “Noronha & Sons” and based in Zetland Street. You can be sure that this wasn’t his dream job! He aspired to be a barrister. So what had happened? Why this change of trajectory?
He was back in Hong Kong because his family desperately needed him. There was a smallpox epidemic that was ravaging Hong Kong at the time and tragically, it had taken the lives of three of his older brothers in 1887 and 1888. So, at his mother’s request, he dutifully returned to work and help in his grandfather’s business.
It must have been a lonely and heartbreaking time for him. Losing his older brothers, cutting short his trajectory to becoming a barrister, returning to Hong Kong in a deadly pandemic, and the drudgery of what must have seemed to him a dead-end career in printing.
Well he may have been down but wasn’t out for long. He did something extraordinary and quite risky, and his grandfather must have given him permission to do it too. He printed something that was to change the course of his future.
The Rights of Aliens in Hongkong
A controversy had arisen in Hong Kong involving the Post Oﬃce, and it was buried in the 1894 Annual Report of the Post Master General which included the following paragraph:
“I regret to state that during the year it was found that more than 50 registered letters…had been during the previous year lost or misappropriated in transit through this Oﬃce. No prosecution was instituted, and the greater part of the indemnities claimed by the senders was paid…”
This led to a stormy debate in the daily press, kicked oﬀ by an anonymous letter from “Another Victim” to the Editor of the Hongkong Telegraph printed on 27 August, 1895. The letter, apart from criticism of the Portuguese, called for the substitution of Portuguese clerks with billeted and higher paid Englishmen. This then triggered the debate that played out through the pages of the popular press of the time.
At the age of 24 and with the benefit of his excellent education, JP rose above the muck and took this opportunity to address deeper issues coursing through Hong Kong society. He explained his thinking on the subject in a document that he printed at his grandfather’s printshop, then named Noronha & Co, in 1895. The document was called “The Rights of Aliens in Hongkong” and it caught people’s attention. It carefully, tactfully, and eloquently reminded everyone that while there was immense respect for the British standard of fairness and justice, the intention of the Crown was that there was only room for one standard.
It was a courageous move on the part of young JP (and his grandfather) to put it out there in Hong Kong given the racially charged socioeconomic environment of the time, as well as the risk to the Noronha & Co printing business (which had the Government printing contract). It didn’t go unnoticed, and one person that sent JP a note congratulating him on his publication was the owner of the Hongkong Telegraph, J.J. Francis.
On a lighter note in May 1897, he wrote and published “Odds and Ends”, a booklet on things about Hong Kong or that interested him. He only published five editions.