During the last year and a half of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War Two, my father, George Smirnoff, with some other Russian refugees, decided to move his family to the only safe place we could get to, the small neighbouring Portuguese colony of Macao.
As White Russians, we lived in a form of limbo during those years. We were stateless, and so were no-one’s responsibility. The Japanese categorised us – along with others, such as the numerous Portuguese born in Hong Kong, as “Third Nationals”. We were not Allied nationals – therefore liable to internment and at least some food and sustenance in the camps. Neither were we citizens of nations allied to Japan, such as Germany or Italy; nor were we Neutrals, like the Irish, the Swiss or the Swedish. White Russians in China existed in a diplomatic no-man’s-land in those years – the charge of no-one.
And as we were no-one’s concern, we had – somehow - to fend for ourselves as best we could. It was a very difficult time. We lived wherever we could – for a time even in the French Convent in Causeway Bay. After one of the American bombing raids over Hong Kong, when our house at Tsim Sha Tsui was destroyed, we finally had to leave. Macao was the only place we could go.
My father and I went first on the Hong Kong-Macao ferry; this was then a four hour journey. We arrived in Macao with virtually nothing, except what little we could carry with us. Some time later, my mother followed with her two other small children, my sister and brother. She also arrived in Macao with very little and had to give up her gold wedding band as a last minute bribe to get on the ferry before leaving Hong Kong.
Our first home in Macao was the lounge-dining room in the Bela Vista Hotel. Formerly one of Macao’s better hotels, beautifully situated on the foundations of an old fort overlooking the Praya Grande, the wartime Bela Vista was far from luxurious, but provided a welcome refuge.
Along with other places, like the Macao Club, the Bela Vista was used as accommodation for the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of refugees who came across from Hong Kong. All the children slept side by side on the floor, packed in like so many small sardines; it didn’t matter - we were all just so glad to be away from immediate danger.
My father sought lodgings for his family in the town and eventually found the top floor of a house in a courtyard known as Pátio de Seis Casas – “Courtyard of the Six Houses”, down a quiet back lane not far from one of Macao’s lovely old churches.
Having been asked over the years for biographical information about my father, I learnt that, in the main, he had experienced a terribly disrupted, unsatisfying life. My father George Smirnoff and Yul Brynner had both been born in the same city - Vladivostok, far eastern Russia – some ten years apart. Thereafter, their stories were so different.
Yul Brynner wound up in the United States as a stage and movie star, a very gifted performing artist and a household name in every country. After years of movement from danger, from Vladivostok to Harbin and on to Tsingtao, then to Hong Kong and Macao and back again to Hong Kong, our family trailing along with him, George Smirnoff was never able to leave China. After years of such a life he is buried in Hong Kong, ironically in Happy Valley.
The year and a half that we spent in Macao during World War Two was probably the most peaceful and rewarding period of George Smirnoff’s sad life. During that period we had nothing of any material substance. But our family was intact, the people of Macao were wonderful to us and generously gave all kinds of help and support, and we had food on the table every day.
My sister Nina and I attended school – the locally-famed Santa Rosa de Lima on the Praya Grande – and as far as those wartime circumstances allowed, we had a normal life. There was no motor transportation around Macao then - we went everywhere on foot. Everyone did – and we thought nothing of it. It was a happy time.
It was a happy time for my father, too, probably the most personally satisfying period in his short life. Dr. Pedro José Lobo, then one of Macao’s leading business and political figures, commissioned him to paint a series of views of the city as it then was. He was free to paint whatever he liked – churches, fortresses, seascapes and street views. By means of Dr. Lobo’s generous patronage, he was released for the first time from immediate financial cares. Father Albert Cooney, one of the teachers at the Salesian school near where we lived, provided some paints and a supply of paper - and a lasting friendship.
George Smirnoff could spend days sketching and painting or staring at scenes he would later depict on paper or board (there was no canvas) or just fishing and thinking. That dark period, with war always just over the horizon, was almost the only time in his life that my father was truly at peace with himself and his surroundings.
I also used to follow my father when he went on scouting trips for his watercolours. He would sit for a long time and stare at the muddy waters or at junks out in the channel or some angle of Macao hills and water from the Praya Grande which in those days was the road around the peninsula on a retaining wall and now, due to large amounts of reclamation is far inland. It was peaceful and relaxing. For once, after all our lives in China, war and disorder hadn’t followed us.
After our rambles around the city we would go home, and later that night he would sketch and colour what he had seen earlier that day from memory. If you matched what he painted to the real setting, it was almost like a photograph. I thought that was how every artist and watercolourist worked.
This text first appeared in the Foreword to the book "Macao - People and places, past and present" by Jason Wordie.