Back Row: Theresa, Marie, Geri
Front Row: Millie, Mimi, Jacinta, Betty
My photographic journey acknowledges my quest to become a better photographer. My writing chronicles my desire to become a better story teller. Focused goals that motivate.
Yet, sometimes there is a need to step back and recognize the power and significance of photographs and actual conversations of the past. Mementos and symbols of connection that capture what once was. The past yields power and provides insight, no matter how intent I become on the present and future.
As I strive for professional excellence in my work, I have come to the realization that older photographic images, either in their black and white or faded color essence, powerfully convey an honesty of time, place, and most important, of people whose stories resound. They must be shared.
And it is with this acceptance that I tell the story, reveal the images of seven sisters, captured in their moments of time.
That Summer of 1956:
Once there were seven young women, full of individual hopes and fears, familial acceptances and arguments, and unique personalities. The sisters were undeniably beautiful. Each had an essence, a fascination that stopped conversation and commanded attention when entering a room. Each compelled feelings of curiosity, envy, admiration, and, yes, desire. Their allure and presence could not be denied. Behind such evocations, it was more complicated. And nothing was more revealing than that day when they came together to take this emblematic photograph.
Before I share the day, it is important to note what came before and propelled what became. Their family was Portuguese of Macao, a once thriving colony founded by explorers from the time of Henry the Navigator, Magellan, and De Gama. Not unlike other European conquistadors, these ancestors settled in China in search of riches, in the name of their country, in hopes of a promising new life in exotic lands. The generations that followed immersed themselves in their Portuguese colonial heritage…retaining the language and customs of the mother country, walking amongst streets in Macao named after famous ancestors. The heritage weaved over centuries with a dedication to maintain nationalism and legacy. It became so ardent that the sisters actually believed that they were descendants of the King of Portugal. This served to preserve their European ties, elevate their status, and allowed them to proclaim themselves as worthy.
The sisters were the daughters of Elfrieda Eca DaSilva and Rodolfo Baptista. The family eventually settled in Hong Kong, a British Crown Colony that was only 41 miles from Macao. There the British ruled. The family allegiance was steadfastly loyal to the monarch. It was a hierarchal, caste system that muddled social interactions and ultimately paralyzed perspectives. They never questioned their place “below” the English, destined to work primarily as accountants, teachers, etc, in the socio-economic, stratified structure of the colony. Yes, this British/Portuguese alliance is confusing when viewed with a 21st century perspective. But that was the classification of colonialism.
As well, the family was deeply religious, steeped in the rituals and beliefs of Catholicism. This was yet again an unquestioned and dutifully accepted practice. Rodolfo was indeed an accountant. Upon her marriage, Elfrieda became a loyal wife who found herself pregnant thirteen times. Eleven of the pregnancies survived and the family ultimately consisted of 7 sisters and 4 brothers.
By that summer of 1956, the second world war had ended more than a decade before. But the ravages and repercussions remained. The family fled Hong Kong at the onset of the war as, under English rule (an Allied Power), Hong Kong was unsafe; being bombed and threatened by the Axis power enemy of Japan. (Did you know that the day after the Japanese bombed American Pearl Harbor, they bombed British Hong Kong?) Portuguese Macao remained neutral and became a safe asylum. In short, the Portuguese fled back to Macao and were deemed refugees of war. And throughout, they lived in overcrowded quarters, shared with other families. There was little food. Many starved, most suffered in squalor conditions. And ultimately the burden of these grim years of captivity as well as the responsibility of caring for such a large family took its toll on the wellbeing of Elfrieda. Her health worsened. The war ended in 1945 and the family returned to Hong Kong. But, unable to recover, Elfrieda passed away.
Nothing is ever the same when a beloved Mother dies and the grief of this family was no exception.
And, as they, and other Portuguese families strove to regain the familiarity and security of their once pre-war life in Hong Kong, they were faced with rumblings of a new takeover threat from the mainland Chinese Communist (the Reds as they called them).
The wounds and loss of the recent war were still raw and fresh so there was a brewing fear with this potential regime upheaval. It was not yet war but it was ominously explosive.
The Portuguese community again felt unsafe. Many started to make plans to leave. Another exodus of the community. The seven sisters witnessed family and friends departing to seek new lives in England, the United States, and other countries such as Canada, Brazil, Australia, and, of course, Portugal. The sisters were coming of age, struggling to preserve a past and facing a future of uncertainty.
With their treasured way of life slowly disintegrating and the uncertain present looming over them, the seven came together on that humid, hot summer day in 1956 for a photographic symbol of unity.
As the photographer set up, everyone realized that Mimi had not arrived.
Mimi was the eldest the of eleven children, the “Mana”. This Portuguese title of rank deemed her the Princess, revered by right of birth. Frail with angular features, the family proudly interpreted her “European” looks as further proclamation of her special entitlement. They called her Pier Angeli as they were convinced that she resembled the young, beautiful Italian actress of the time. Perhaps it was this elevation in rank and beauty or perhaps the attention doled upon her, but Mimi also saw herself as the ultimate spokesperson, leader, and untouchably perfect member of the family. She did not see life as complicated. It simply had to be her way.
There was nothing more to say. Her dogmatic and unwavering decisions as well as her actions became mandated truths that dared not be questioned. She could be cold and distant…and very temperamental. And though the sisters did not always agree, they never defied or confronted their Mana.
“Where is Mimi?’ asked Betty with a tone of irritation.
“She just got back from Singapore. Didn’t you know she has been gone for over a month? She’ll be here. Don’t question.” Theresa explained.
“Why on earth did she go so far?” Blurted Betty.
“She was exhausted and needed time away from the family.” An explanation/excuse from Theresa to exonerate the Mana and hopefully change the topic.
“Typical”. Betty concluded. “Mimi is always exhausted and goes where she wants to go, no matter what is happening. And wouldn’t it be nice if we could all get away from our situations?” Her remark was met with silent nods of agreement.
Betty, the second oldest, was the one sister whose looks did not “fit”. She was always taller, heavier, and broader than the rest. She was every boy’s friend but never their date. But she was very intelligent and if there was something the family valued as much as attractive looks, it was smarts. So, she held her own.
“I am not going to tell Mimi that. Heaven forbid”, worried Theresa. Theresa was the third sister, very lovely and fine boned like Mimi. She had become known for her practical wisdom and kindness. She was married and already a mother of two…a role she embraced with the utmost of dedicated domesticity. Admirers and even critics of the sisters, all unanimously called Theresa the “nice one”. Her non-threatening and safe demeanor was a counter balance to the volatility of the others. The sisters would turn to Theresa for guidance and support.
“Don’t say anything.” Was Theresa’s final, altercation avoiding advice.
Mimi soon arrived and started to place the sisters in the pose she thought best. The shuffling of positions took longer than expected as most of the sisters protested…with the exception of Theresa and Marie.
Marie was the next sister, completing the “older tier” as they called themselves. All the family, except for Mimi, called her the beautiful one. Marie was a dreamer and a romantic. Perhaps it was the war, the death of her mother, and her middle ranking that often made her lost from reality, but, in 1956, Marie was still very childlike. She spent her days writing in her dairy and swooning over movie stars. She had also dutifully married (she never questioned that expectation) and soon had three children in a row. She was not happy but not equipped to really understand why. But she loved Hong Kong.She felt security and joy in the presence of family and by simply riding the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor on a summer day. She thrived during community gatherings at the club on Repulse Bay.
She even found a job with a local paper as a roving reporter. She got to meet the likes of Cary Grant and William Holden. Handsome actors! What more could a young woman want?
As the photographer continued the set up and the sisters put on their lipstick, the conversations continued.
“I spoke with my best friend Marguerite. She told me there is another farewell party tomorrow night for the Correa family. They are leaving next week for Sydney. So sad that everyone is going. It is one good- bye after another. I love Hong Kong. I don’t want to leave.” said Marie.
Theresa agreed and was relieved that her husband told her that he had no desire to immigrate. “His mother and sister are leaving in a month for San Francisco. Their papers came through but he is happy here” declared Theresa.” What if everyone leaves. I cannot bear the thought of being left alone.”
“Don’t worry. I will never leave Hong Kong” assured Marie.
This statement was met with glares from Geri, Millie, and Jacinta. the younger sisters who formed the next generation tier. They were more rebellious, more conflicted, more questioning. They saw their community as old fashioned and limited. Yet they struggled to find their means of escape, to forge new lives amidst conflicted feelings. Their stories, which began to unfold in that summer of 1956, were the most dramatic.
“In Hong Kong, everything is airy, fairy, nothing is definite or permanent. With everyone leaving, the nicest people say good-bye. For a change, I want to be the one to say good-bye.” proclaimed Millie.
And Geri agreed, “Soon…the Portuguese from Macao will become extinct. I will be happy to get away. In the future, our children will not care about Hong Kong. They will not marry Portuguese. All of this will soon be forgotten. We must become the new pioneers of the Portuguese”.
Mille met a British officer, educated at Sandhurst no less. He was the epitome of English upper class. He, as well, fit the desired pedigree of every colonial girl: European, well educated, and very wealthy (or so it appeared. Facades are easy to create when living in exotic places).
He found Millie lovely…a gamine not unlike Audrey Hepburn. (The sisters would often call her Audrey) But, like all the British military in Hong Kong, his was a temporary assignment and he would soon return to England. Millie was heartbroken.
“I will move to England to be near him. He is the love of my life. I know what I want and I am going all out to get it. Someone asked me what I wanted out of life. It’s strange when it comes down to hard facts. A woman seldom wants money, fame, or beauty. All she wants is to be loved by the one she loves. And that is what I want and I will do my darndest to get it.”
Theresa flashed a supportive smile; relieved that Millie/Audrey at least wanted to get traditionally married. Mimi simply rolled her eyes and Betty shrugged. Marie managed a half smile that did not hide her confused emotions.
Geri, however, was becoming lost. Lovely as well with a wonderful figure and large, penetrating eyes, she too had no difficulty in meeting a British officer. And, like his fellow military colleagues, he was also going home to his Motherland. But she had just found out that she was pregnant. Even the youngest, Jacinta, witnessed with disapproval: “The family situation with Geri is getting quite critical because everyone disapproves of her carryings-on. Everyone prays that she will acquire more sense than she has so far.”
Last but not least, there was Jacinta who insisted she be called Jessie as it was more modern, less ethnic. That summer, after finishing her studies yet still living with her domineering father, she was thinking up plans for the future. “I don’t want to be stenographer or work in an office. I am not interested in dating. I need to make money fast and leave. I absolutely know what I want. There is one thing I have learned… if a girl can hold her own, the world will behave and respect you.”
Not all of the conversation of that summer day was filled with complex decisions. The sisters loved to chatter. They called it “catching up” and this gathering was no exception. Looking upon their exchange, the sharings could appear to be disconnected streams of banter. But each understood and just jumped right in. That is what sisters do.
Marie: “Isn’t William Holden the dreamiest? He is hubba hubba. They are filming “Love Is a Many Splendid Thing” near our apartment tomorrow. I am going to take the children to watch. Maybe they will film us.”
Theresa: “I love Frankie. Don’t you just swoon over his blue eyes? I cannot understand people who think he has no talent. I am saving to buy his newest album.”
Betty: “Why do you two get so excited. over movie stars? I am not that fussy. Did I tell you that I am trying to get a form to enroll at Stanford University? I want to take courses in Economics. Who knows, I may move to the States one day.”
Mimi: “I did not like Singapore. Too many cats.” (All the sisters laughed. Mimi, for some reason, was strangely freaky in the presence of cats which seemed to roam everywhere in Asia. They were unavoidable as was Mimi’s hysteria. Her over the top phobia became somewhat of a family joke.). Oblivious, Mimi continued, “I am going to a party tonight at the club. The whole community will show up in their finery. Some because they’re friends; others just because they are curious. Typical Hong Kong.”
Mimi stops and stares at Geri, “Did you go to Mass? You need to ask for a special blessing from Father. He told me that he would wait for you.”
Geri: (avoiding the question with another): “Did anyone bring the tins of English biscuits and toffee? I love Cadbury’s and I promise not to eat them all.”
Jacinta: “Why am I here? I don’t want my picture taken. I am not at all photogenic.”
Theresa: “Lovely dress Jessie. Is it English or American?”
Jacinta: “English of course. The best tailoring. I think it is just like something Princess Margaret Rose or even Elizabeth would wear.”
All the sisters quietly nodded in reverent acknowledgment. God save the Queen and the Royal Family.
Finally, the photographer was ready and the sisters, positioned. With a “1-2-3-Smile” and a flash of the bulb, the final photo was taken on that summer day of 1956.
Time To Say Good-bye:
You are probably wondering what happened to the sisters and their world in Hong Kong. That lovely photo would be the last gathering as a complete group of seven. In the years to follow, there was indeed a flurry of immigration for all of the Portuguese community and the Baptista sisters were no exception.
Mimi and her husband moved to Glendale, California as the decade closed. They never had children but the children of her sisters (her nieces and nephews) came to see her as their MANA as well. She always maintained that aura of respect and rank over the family, generation to generation.
Betty traveled the world, received her advanced degree while in England, and eventually married late in life. Her husband remained in Hong Kong while she settled in Vancouver, Canada. Not easy to understand, but that is how Betty wanted it to be. She took “not fussy” to a whole new level.
Theresa’s husband finally decided to leave Hong Kong and took his family to Vancouver in the mid-sixties. Theresa worked, loved her children, and Canadian hockey. She always kept in touch with her sisters.. Everyone loved her.
Millie traveled by herself on a boat to England to reunite with that love of her life. The door of his country manor was literally slammed in her face before she even could see him and she found herself alone in England…a consequence that must have been quite daunting for such a young girl. But she stayed in England and eventually married herself an Englishman. She became the mother of 2 sons. With age, she embraced her Catholicism fervently. Let’s face it, a Catholic, though accepted in Anglican England, is not the norm.
Geri’s life unfortunately continued to unravel in Hong Kong. The father of her first daughter never returned nor did the father of her second. Both English officers. She did meet a third English officer and married him. He adopted both girls. But that marriage did not last. After the divorce, she came to live in San Francisco. At that point, her drinking and drugs took over and her erratic behavior escalated. Finally living in the seedy Tenderloin district of the city, she lost communication with her family.
Jessie returned to calling herself Jacinta. She now found her name to be “sophisticated”. She moved to Germany and married a dashing young man from Hamburg. They moved to Montreal, Canada. She thrived happily in a career that met her expectations. They collected art and antiques. Then, one day, Klaus, Jacinta’s husband, died accidentally and unexpectedly. It was a shocking tragedy that impacted the entire family. After years of struggling with her grief, Jacinta wrote the family to tell them she would not communicate further. In spite of efforts by some family members to reach out to her, nothing was heard from Jacinta.
And then there was Marie. She never wanted to leave Hong Kong but she was the first of the sisters to do so. With her children and husband, she arrived in San Francisco in February of 1957. She worked as a secretary (much to Jacinta’s protestations against the stereotype) but rose in ranks as an Executive Assistant of which she was very proud. She always missed Hong Kong and returned often until all of her beloved sisters ultimately left. Her stories about her homeland and family never diminished and she found great comfort and escape in her romanticized reminisces.
Her daughter grew up with the constancy of her Hong Kong stories and surrounded by the photos of her mother’s magical days. She often wondered why her mother could not be just as happy living in San Francisco, living with her. Over the years, this cast a sadness and confusion upon their relationship. It became the daughter’s lifelong quest of understanding.
Yes, Marie was my mother.
My Mother was the first of the sisters to pass away. At that time, I called as many aunts as I could reach, to express my condolences and thank them for being great sisters. It was something I needed to do; even though, because of time and distance, many of the sisters were strangers to me. But there was no doubt in my mind that their bond was so special and important to my mother. I needed to thank them.
Mimi passed a few years later. Then, within a span of three years, Betty, Geri, Theresa, Jacinta and Millie followed. They each died at their ultimate destinations of San Francisco, Vancouver, Southampton, and Montreal. Worlds away from their beloved Hong Kong.
Geri was insightful when she stated that one day the Hong Kong of their youth would be gone. But I think that neither she, nor any of her sisters, would ever imagine that their legacies would always prevail; powerfully captured in fading photographs, chronicled in diaries and letters with ink now barely legible. Seven beautiful and unique sisters. As Geri also once proclaimed, “true Portuguese pioneers”.
After my mother passed away, I received old correspondence, photo albums, and diaries she had saved. At the time, I did not read them or foresee what I would do with such mementos. But I held onto them, through many moves and years. Recently, I decided to study all and I suddenly realized that I needed to write their stories. During this deeply personal process, I felt the sisters’ inspiration.
Most of the quotes shared come directly from these old documents. As well, family and friends from Hong Kong have shared their recollections.
I dedicate this to the complex and beautiful Baptista sisters. I hope they are pleased and, perhaps, they might also see me as a “Pioneer of Portugal”. I will never forget. May they rest in peace.
Leave a Reply