The Bela Vista Hotel, Macau

These photos are of my father, Douglas Bland, taken during my parents’ honeymoon in the Bela Vista Hotel, Macau, in May 1949. This hotel features in my novel, The Orchid Tree.

Here’s an excerpt:

“After loping along an avenue lined with banyan trees and up a small hill, they arrived at the Bela Vista. Higgins was leaning against the door frame of the elegant nineteenth century mansion. ‘At last,’ he said, holding a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and flicking ash.

James settled his fare. It was only five minutes past eight; he wasn’t late. He lengthened his stride and followed Higgins through the foyer, up a staircase to a mezzanine floor, then past a reception desk and bar.

In the restaurant, the smuggler got up from his seat and pulled out the chair next to him. ‘Let me introduce myself properly,’ he said in heavily accented English. ‘I am K C Leung.’

‘How do you do?’ James shook hands. He sat down and glanced at the woman sitting opposite Leung. Not the dishevelled girl he’d “rescued”, but one so striking he had to look away in order not to be thought rude for staring.

‘This is Miss Sofia Rodrigues,’ Higgins said from the other side of the table. ‘I believe you swam together, but haven’t met formally.’

James leaned forward and extended his hand, briefly glancing at her tight-fitting cheongsam dress, her small breasts outlined against the silk.

Sofia’s warm fingers pressed his. He sat back and contemplated his surroundings. Potted palms stood like sentinels in the corners of the room. A Latin crooner, accompanied by a pianist, was singing I’ve got you under my skin. Wooden ceiling fans stirred the air, although the heat and humidity of summer had passed.

The Bela Vista was everything he’d imagined: starched linen, silverware and candlesticks on the tables, waiters jumping to light his cigarette.

Shame he almost certainly wasn’t here for the pleasure of his company.

Leung confirmed his order of the most expensive choices on the menu: shark’s fin soup, abalone and fried shrimp.

‘I hope you’re fully recovered,’ Sofia said, smiling at James.

‘No after-effects. What about you?’

When researching the background to my novel, I found out that the elegant mansion was built in 1870 as a residence for a British Captain and his wife, who turned it into the “Boa Vista Hotel” in 1890. A few years later it was sold and went through several reincarnations before becoming a hotel again in 1936 with its famous name, ‘Bela Vista’.  The hotel housed Portuguese refugees from China during WWII and reopened as a proper hotel again in 1948, finally closing on March 29, 1999, to become the Portuguese Consulate when Macau was handed back to China in December 1999.

The Chinese Maritime Customs

Largely staffed at senior levels by foreigners, the Chinese Maritime Customs Service was a Chinese governmental tax collection agency and information service from the time of its founding in 1854 until its split in 1949 into services operating in the Republic of China on Taiwan, and in the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.

The Service was controlled by the Chinese central government throughout its history. It was established by foreign consuls in Shanghai in 1854 to collect maritime trade taxes that were going unpaid due to the inability of Chinese officials to collect them during the Taiping Rebellion.

Hong Kong, a British Colony until 1997, was a free port. No import duties were charged, but at the time of my novel, The Orchid Tree, the Customs had established a station, Taishan, just outside Hong Kong waters. It was convenient for some of the staff to live in the colony and have their offices there, but their job was to make sure that all cargo junks called at the station to pay Chinese excise duties. They would anchor their craft and watch the traffic out of Hong Kong then chase and seize any junk evading this task. During the war, the collection of excise had lapsed and the trading junks had got into bad habits. They resented having to pay, and smuggling of consumer and luxury goods had become a profitable side industry.

My father, Douglas Bland , was in the Royal Navy during WWII and, after demob, stayed on in Hong Kong to work with the CMC from 1946 to 1948, making charts and chasing smugglers up and down the South China Coast. His story inspired the character of James in my novel.