Colin Day was in town to speak about the findings that inspired his most recent publication, entitled “The Lone Flag: Memoir of the British Consul in Macau during World War II.”
Mr Day explained during a dinner event promoted by the British Business Association of Macau that he book depicts John Pownall Reeves, a British consul in what was at the time the Portuguese colony of Macau from 1941 to 1946, the late years of the Second World War (WWII). The editor is an academic publisher who worked in both Britain and the USA before becoming a publisher for the Hong Kong University Press and later also a consultant to the Cultural Affairs Bureau (IC).
The book is based on the written reports of the British consul immediately after he left Macau to return home. During his next posting (in Rome), he wrote an account of his extraordinary years in the neutral enclave, which was surrounded by Japanese-held territory.
The core of the book is John Reeves’ memoir of those years and his tireless efforts to provide food, shelter and medical care for the region’s refugees. He coped with many challenges, as people faced starvation, including locals. Despite the territory’s neutrality, it was thoroughly infiltrated by Japanese agents and rife with assassinations. Day also had to navigate the complexities of multiple intelligence agencies—British, Portuguese, Japanese, and Chinese Nationalist—in a place that was described at those times as ‘the Casablanca of the Far East’.
According to Mr Day, Macau’s exceptional position during WWII and its history during those years have been hardly studied. “John Reeves’ memoir is an important contribution to our knowledge of this unique place at that time” because “we have a lot on the topic of Macau in the 18th and 19th century but the 20th century is not very well studied yet,” he said.
Mr Reeves’ main task was to provide relief to the approximately 10,000 people who crossed the Pearl River from Hong Kong to take refuge in Macau and who had a claim for support from the British Consul.
In the book edited by Colin Day and Richard Garrett and with a biographical essay by David Calthorpe, “there is more than just historical facts,” Mr Day says. In fact, there are many similarities between those troubled times in Macau and, for example, what is happening now in Europe with the influx of refugees from Syria,
Afghanistan and other countries. “We must recall that Macau in those years grew from a population of less than 200,000 people to 600,000 in 1945, so when now Germany or another of the big countries in Europe is discussing [whether or not] to accept let’s say 100,000 refugees, it’s important to think that a place like Macau of the 1940s took in about 400,000, and that really puts such an extraordinary achievement into perspective.”
Mr Day also said that this book, and the information compiled and explained within it, could also help to explain why Macau was able to maintain its neutrality and autonomy when all of the surrounding territories fell at the hands of the Japanese army upon invasion.
Mr Day explained to the Times that this book came about by “pure accident.” “In around 2000, on one of my many visits to Macau, a South African scholar was in town and he brought with him a copy of Reeves’ memoir. I got interested in it until finally we really got moving on it, [at which point] my role was primarily to try to find out as much as possible about what was in the manuscript that Reeves did not explain. For example, he mentions the secretary, but we have no more information about her besides her name. [The role] was a little about filling in the blank spots,” he said.
More than just historians, Mr Day believes that this book might interest a lot of people, since it is basically a story of a terrible adventure in which Mr Reeves found himself with no escape point. “It is about a human being rising in a challenging situation and doing very good work,” Mr Day commented.
“I’m an economist by vocation and there are two particularly interesting mysteries in Macau during the Second World War. First there is the question of food supply and prices. The other interesting technical issue is that Reeves was actually receiving London-Lisbon-Macau money to pay for his refugees, and actually by the end of the war he had received 1.75 million pounds from London, which was quite substantial. How that mechanism worked and what were the actual consequences of that money flowing into Macau are interesting topics that I would like to dig into”, he said.
“I do believe that this book creates more opportunities for further studies about this topic,” he concluded.