The bairro was an area of cheap housing in Macau constructed for low-income workers in the years before the Second World War. As was true of so many other streets and areas in Macau, the bairro was named for some Portuguese dignitary – in this case a respected former Governor, Artur Tamagnini Barbosa, whose name also survives in other locales and on other edifices within the Territory. But the name most commonly used by the locals for this neighborhood was Toi Shan, Cantonese for 'table mountain'. Why this name was chosen is unclear, for the area, having been reclaimed from the sea, was uncompromisingly flat.
The part that remains today of the Bairro Tamagnini Barbosa is largely unchanged from when we lived there as refugees in 1944-1945, except that it is now surrounded by high-rise apartment blocks and industrial buildings. But back then there were rows upon rows of single-story huts, each with one room and a tiny kitchen. Measuring no more than 20 by 20 feet in total area, each hut had a packed earth floor, a tile roof, a high Chinese-style cement threshold you had to step over, and no plumbing. The hut's two windows – one facing the street, and the other opening onto the tiny courtyard next to the kitchen area – had no glass panes: they were just barred with wood strips, and on the outside were plain wooden shutters. If you have seen pictures of the 'relocation camps' in California, where many Japanese-Americans were interned during WWII, you have some idea of the look of Bairro Tamagnini Barbosa, except that the Bairro's huts were built not of wood but of mud bricks and mortar, and its inhabitants were there by choice and not through duress.
Entrada no bairro que já foi demolido há muitos anos
The rows of huts were separated by open spaces, probably originally planted with greenery, but when we lived there they had been reduced to bare sandlots with an occasional stunted tree, where our pet chickens and ducks were allowed to forage, and where we played talu. I remember we lived on H street, and our house number was 35. Other refugee children from Hong Kong lived close by, and so as kids we had no shortage of other English-speaking playmates.
The main street that ran down the center of the development ended at the water's edge. Before the war there had been some land reclamation work being done, and in 1944 the large dredgers and other craft moored there had become rusted hulks still bearing the insignia of their Dutch origins on their smokestacks. When the tide was out, you could see that they were permanently imbedded in the muck of the seabed, which was alive with slimy, goggle-eyed mud-skippers and smelled of raw sewage. A Quasimodo-like character inhabited a cabin within that rusty pile of junk. He would chase us kids away whenever he saw us trying to explore, but explore we did.
To the left of the main street close to the water's edge was a strange-looking building with a tall brick chimney. This building was no longer used, but may have been some sort of crematorium for dead animals, maybe water buffaloes and such. There were mounds of gritty gray ash nearby that somebody said was calcium from the bones. I remember a long ramp leading up to the ovens. It seemed a scary place to us children, surrounded as it was by an atmosphere of mystery, neglect, and desolation.
Between the crematorium and the main street was a large field where that long summer we used to catch grasshoppers and dragonflies. To the left as you faced Portas do Cerco (the Barrier Gate) was Ilha Verde (Green Island) where we could get mulberry leaves to feed the silkworms that we raised for fun. To the right, way past the dredger hulks from which heat waves shimmered, was the walled compound containing a convent where the Maryknoll Sisters lived, members of the same American religious community from Hong Kong who were now also refugees in Macau.
If there is one person I should credit for my lifelong interest in the humanities, that person would be Sister Mary Famula, who taught us kids for a while in Macau. It was the good sister who gave us assignments in English and American history, using as a source the twelve dog-eared volumes of an encyclopedia called "The Book of Knowledge" (1912 edition). The volumes had been given to our mother two years before in Hong Kong by F.X. (Chiquito) Soares, chief clerk at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. The Bank was where our father and many other Portuguese – who were now incarcerated in a Japanese prison-camp - had worked before the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. Lacking funds, Soares had to resort to giving away books, silverware, or other items of value to the impoverished Bank families to sell for food. Our mother was wise enough to keep the books rather than sell them – and those ancient tomes proved to be among our most prized possessions throughout the war years.
In 1966 when my wife Raquel and I visited the East Coast of the United States, we paid a call to the Maryknoll mother house in the town of Ossining in upstate New York. Sister Mary Famula was there, but she was by then very old. I reminded her that she taught us children to sing the Irish ballad "The Minstrel Boy" and "America The Beautiful" some twenty-two years before, in a tiny hut used as a makeshift school-room in Bairro Tamagnini Barbosa.
One hot day in August 1945, we kids were playing outside our hut when a rickshaw pulled up at the edge of the main road. The passenger was in military uniform – a British Army uniform. At the age of ten, I was already reduced to wearing thick glasses, and it was some seconds before I recognized the soldier stepping from the rickshaw, especially since he was a lot thinner than the last time we saw him. "It's Dad!" I yelled to my brother Vince and sister Deanna. Excited beyond all imagining, instead of running to him, we ran headlong back into our hut to tell our mother. "It's Dad! Mom, it's Dad! He's here, he's back!"
And indeed he was.
Toponímia relativa ao Gov. Tamagnini Barbosa na ilha da Taipa
I shall leave it to the imagination of my readers to picture the joy of our reunion: the tears and the hugs, the first greeting of the three-year-old son our father saw for the first time, the sharing of the experiences of close to four lost years, the unfamiliar candy bars, powdered milk and toothpaste he had brought with him.
More than any other event during our refugee days in Macau, it was the return of our father from a prisoner-of-war camp that remains in sharpest focus in my memory more than a half-century later. Because of its connection to that emotional and long-awaited reunion, Bairro Tamagnini Barbosa appears in my mind's eye as fresh and clear as though these events took place only the day before yesterday.