Father Lancelote Miguel Rodrigues, priest of Macau’s refugees, died on June 17th, aged 89
Among the crowds of thin, anxious people, you could spot him in an instant. Dark, burly, bespectacled, in his white vestments, he would clamber on a sampan to embrace an old man, or crouch to watch children making fireworks. You could hear him, too, bellowing in several languages—Cantonese, Malay, soy-flavoured Portuguese—or singing loudly and sweetly to his guitar, while his audience danced. For the thousands of refugees who passed from the 1940s through the island of Macau, just across the Pearl river from Hong Kong, Father Lancelote Rodrigues was the self-appointed bringer of happiness and, as important, the gatekeeper to a new life.
Those refugees came in several waves. The 1940s brought Shanghai Portuguese, many of them bankers or company bosses, fleeing Mao Zedong’s Red Army. More came during China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when Chinese soldiers too descended briefly on Macau, plastering their slogans on the walls. In the 1970s and 1980s thousands of Vietnamese boat people arrived on their rickety, overloaded craft; in the 1990s crowds of East Timorese sought refuge from the Indonesian army. All of these encountered Father Lancelote, greyer with the years but not a whit less frisky or influential, and just as prone to take out his guitar and start strumming.
His broad smile summed up the tolerance of Macau, a place to which, when trouble flared anywhere in East Asia, anyone could come. For centuries Portuguese and Chinese had lived crammed together there, Christ beside Confucius, pretty baroque churches among more than 200 Chinese gambling dens in which Father Lancelote, too, liked to have a flutter or two. When, in the 1960s, neon-lit Western-style casinos began to rise on every side, Father Lancelote welcomed those too for the jobs and wealth they brought in. Moralising was not in his nature; after all, he grinned, he had most of the vices himself. The blood that flowed in his veins was Portuguese-Irish from his father and Malay-Dutch from his mother, an easy blend of old colonial powers, with a strong admixture as the years went on of finest vinho verde and Johnny Walker Black Label.
His work with refugees started officially in 1948 and never really ended. When he began he was not an ordained priest, just a young man, originally from Malacca, who had spent 13 years in St Joseph’s seminary furtively smoking, pining for girls and suffering Jesuit discipline. He wanted to give it up, but working with the Shanghai refugees changed his mind. These people, once wealthy but now with nothing, were mostly housed in the Canidrome, a decaying greyhound-racing stadium, sometimes in the dogs’ own kennels. Comforting them convinced Lancelote that if he was to be sufficiently loving and useful, he should be a priest. And so a priest he became.
Curry with paella
Over the years, working with one agency after another—but principally for the Catholic Relief Services based in Hong Kong—he found the refugees food, shelter and money. He got them jobs, often on the building sites for Macau’s new hotels and casinos. And whenever he could he secured them new, permanent lives in Europe, Australia, Canada or the United States. More than 2,000 Portuguese Chinese and more than 8,400 boat people were resettled abroad through his efforts.
The work was not easy with these penniless, paperless wanderers, and he was not a financier or a bureaucrat. But he had a better way to get the funds and forms he needed: an immense network of friends and contacts whose help he would solicit over lunches of grilled prawns, fish curry, paella and “Scottish water”. Good food, drink and conversation never failed, he found, to bring the money in.
North Americans were his particular target. Between 1952 and 1967 he received help worth $90m from the United States. In exchange he fed them information about Communist China, shrugging off rumours that he was a CIA man, though he was quite happy, as Sir Lancelote da garrafa redonda, to give any CIA agent a seat and a drink at his convivial table. Anyone was welcome who would help his cause. One young man from Montreal, sent to Macau to give Canadian visas to boat people, found himself plied with cognac at 11 in the morning to issue more visas faster.
As a tireless ambassador of happiness, only two things made him sad. One was that the resettled refugees from China had not done more, as time passed, to forge links from their new countries to their old one. After 1985 he had worked in mainland China as a missionary, putting up clinics and schools and helping AIDS victims; it was important to build bridges with the place, especially since Macau, like Hong Kong, had become an official part of it, its offshore palace of forbidden pleasures.
His second regret was how, over the years, Mammon had eclipsed God in Macau, and the Portuguese-speaking congregation at his church of Santo António had grown ever sparser and older. He remembered different times, when the streets came alive with candles on the feast of St John in midsummer. But he was one of a dwindling breed: colonial Macanese, for whom creed, race and colour never mattered, but whose hearts and doors were open to whomever fate blew their way.
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