Thursday 3 September 2020

Mr Wu and Beano — Remembering Anne Ozorio, Number 1

Anne Ozorio and her brother Joe at the Ozorio family mausoleum in Happy Valley, Hong Kong

Anne Ozori told me abou Mr Wu as we waited for a Barbican Hall concert on January 10, 2007. The next day I typed up from memory what she had  said. So it is not pure Anne Ozorio, but the next best thing. Anne said I would have loved Mr Wu. I can see why. By ROGER THOMAS

Anne Ozorio’s fathr was Joseph Maria Augusto Ozorio. (His Macanese nickname was Beano.) There has been a José (or Joseph or Joe) in every generation of the Ozorios since they started appearing in the Macau parish records when these were initiated at the beginning of the 17th century. Beano had a great friend in Hong Kong called Mr Wu. Mr Wu was an extremely rich, flamboyant businessman whose businesses included generic pharmaceuticals such as aspirin and the sourcing of medical supplies such as cotton wool. Beano was a senior government pharmacist.

Mr Wu was indeed highly flamboyant. He had a cowboy-style belt with a massive buckle that he liked to wear around town, going to the bank, etc (à la rhinestone cowboy). Except that the big stones set in Mr Wu’s belt buckle were scores of diamonds, not rhinestones.

Mr Wu had his rough side; he had connections with the “Green”as opposed to the “Red” Triads of Shanghai.“Yes I’ve had people killed,” he said, “you had to in order to survive, but I never killed anyone personally.” But he was also cultured. He was from a wealthy family in mainland China with a recorded history going back 800 years and had made a personal fortune before the Chinese civil war of the 1920s, the Japanese occupation and the communist revolution. His business interests in China included farms and vast tea estates. As a young man, he had studied the violin under several distinguished teachers. He was also a long-time school chum of one Zhou en-lai, later the People’s Republic’s founding prime minister and foreign minister.

Come the late 1920s there was civil war between the Communists and the Nationalist Kuomintang. But there was also internal civil war in Shanghai within Nationalist ranks involving the “Red” and the “Green” Triads. Despite Mr Wu’s links with Zhou en-lai, he refused to join the Communists and stuck with the Green faction of the Nationalists. With the defeat of the Japanese and the impending victory of the Communists in the late 1940s it was time for Mr Wu to retreat – to Hong Kong.

But before heading for the island, Mr Wu took a sensible initiative: he swallowed a large number of diamonds. So after going to the toilet in Hong Kong and cleaning things up, Mr Wu started his Hong Kong business career with a substantial amount of capital. Meanwhile, in China, Mr Wu’s businesses, including his tea estates, were expropriated by the Communists, but not for long. With the People’s Republic firmly entrenched in 1949, the Zhou en-lai connection kicked in. Mr Wu’s tea estates were returned to him. In later years, if you went to tea with Mr Wu in Hong Kong you were served the finest tea from his mainland estates.

Mr Wu was, as we saw, a trained violinist. And he had a piano in his office. What does a wealthy music lover with a violin background do? He sought out a very fine violin. For Mr Wu that meant a fabulously expensive 17th-18th century Guarneri. “Stradivarius violins are rubbish,” reckoned Mr Wu.

It is said that antique violins stored away permanently  lose their sound quality. They need to be regularly played. So Mr Wu engageed an Italian violinist resident in Hong Kong called (like the playwright) Dario Fo to regularly play in his office on the Guarneri. Beano was often invited to these sessions. And the Guarneri also came out from the vaults for public concerts at which Fo played. The high point of the evening was not so much the music as the arrival of the Guarneri with its armed guard.

Beano’s frriendship with Mr Wu was in part built on business. Beano, as Hong Kong’s chief pharmacist, realised that the colony and its people were being ripped off in the supply at inflated prices of generics such as aspirin and basic medical goods by the quasi-UK government agency the Crown Agents for the Colonies. This monopolistic intermediary supplied a wide range of inputs to the UK's Crown Colonies.

Mr Wu could source goods of equivalent quality much more cheaply than the Crown Agents. That included cotton wool out of China. As Mr Wu said: “Cotton grows in China; it doesn’t grow in Lancashire.”

The cotton wool contract agreed with Mr Wu by Beano led to litigation against the HK pharmacy department and Beano. The Crown Agents claimed a legal right to its monopoly trade. The case got through the Hong Kong courts and ended up in the final court of appeal for the colonies, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. Triumph for Beano and the Hong Kong peope (and Mr Wu!). No such legal right exists, the Privy Council judges ruled

Anne Ozorio claimed there was nothing that could be construed as corruption in the Mr Wu/Beano relationship. But Mr Wu set Beano off on an antique-collecting path with the gift of a 19th-century green jade snuff bottle that Anne later owned for a while. And Anne, as a secondary-school pupil, became a crucial agent in Beano's quest for antiques. Anne got to know Mr Wu, who advised Beano that she could be of great help. “She knows all about Chinese history,” he said.

Anne started to frequent the antique dealers’ shops. The shop-owners were prepared to explain things to a young schoolgirl that they wouldn’t confide to a grown man. Soon, as they got to know her and her father, she was allowed to take items home “on approval” – a Ming vase here, a jade statue there, secreted in her schoolbag.

Later, university student Anne is rushing along the street to get to a History lecture. A vast chauffeur-driven limousine draws up. “Hello Anne,” says Mr Wu. “Get in the car. And why are you running?” “Because I’m late.” “And why are you late?” “Because I don’t have a watch.” “You silly girl. Come to tea with me tomorrow.”

At tea the next day Mr Wu brought out two watches, a plain gold one and one studded with diamonds. You can have whichever you want, he said. “I’ll have the plain one,” said Anne. “I’d be scared that the diamond one would be stolen or I’d lose it.”

One day, Mr Wu told Beano that he had disowned his eldest son, who had gone to the US to study aeronautical engineering at MIT. Why? Because the boy had married an (admittedly rich) American woman. “I don’t want half-breed grandchildren,” said Mr Wu. “And what do you think I am?” said Beano, laughing. Beano was half Macanese, a quarter German and a quarter Filipino.

Another day, Beano received a sharp summons from Mr Wu. “Beano, come to my office straightaway.” Beano arrived to find a convoy of cars with armed guards and some mystery Americans on board. Beano was put in one of the cars and they drove to Hongkong & Shanghai Bank where they were taken down to the vault within the vault within the vault. The Americans were museum people from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC who had heard about an exquisite object of great value and had requested a viewing. Out came an amazingly carved jade statuette that was made for a Chinese Emperor. “No touching,” said Mr Wu as the Americans gasped in wonder. “We’d like to buy it,” they said. “No way,” said Mr Wu. “But you owe me money anyway – the insurers charged $85,000 extra cover premium for it to be allowed out of the vault.”

Mr Wu is now dead of course. As is his friend Beano – and Anne.Where’s the jade from the bank vault? Anne reckoned Mr Wu would have made arrangements for it to be sent back to China. Perhaps the Guarneri went there too.

More blogs soon Remembering Anne Ozorio