Hong Kong: 1941

A large part of my thesis slog involves trying to understand Hong Kong on the eve of war. So I was delighted to come across a diary which reveals the social, political and economic life of the British colony in 1941, including attitudes towards the evacuation scandal, the treatment of British and Canadian soldiers, refugee humanitarianism and race relations between the Chinese and British in the period immediately preceding the fall of Hong Kong. I’ll be using this diary, which was written by a Brit, to write about the lives of Jewish soldiers immediately before the Japanese invasion in future blog posts.

But first, here’s a glimpse of Hong Kong in November 1941. As historian Philip Snow observed, the colony certainly coasted into the war with its ‘serenity unimpaired’:

‘The evacuation last year has not unduly interrupted the social life of the Colony, and the ballrooms of the principal hotels are still full in the evenings. I understand that within the past few years there has been a closer co-operation between Europeans and the Chinese though naturally old prejudices are hard to eliminate.

There is little or no shortage of food, clothing, etc., and as yet no rationing. But the cost of living has naturally increased considerably due to increased cost of production, shipping charges and the various local measures of war taxation (which include a salaries tax, but no income tax).

Even before the War there were few stage plays, and we now have to rely on amateur performances, usually given in aid of charity. Next week one local club is giving ‘The Trial of Mary Dugan’ and there will be three performances. Variety and other concerts are given from time to time to the troops, in aid of charity, or both. Shanghai gets American and occasional British films at about the same time as we get them in London. We get them a couple of months later.

For those of you interested in the history of civilian internment in Hong Kong, I recommend 99-year old Barbara Anslow’s diary, since turned into the book ‘Tin Hats and Rice’, which paints a vivid portrait of life as a POW in the Stanley Civilian Internment Camp.

Resolution and Reflection in 2019

I’d like to wish all readers of this blog a happy new year, whether you’re reading from India, Israel, Canada, Britain, Hong Kong, or elsewhere in the world.

New Years are typically a time for resolutions – promises kept to a perceived ‘better’ version of ourselves. Instead of embracing the latest fad diet or paying for a new – and expensive – gym membership, I’ve been thinking about alternative resolutions for 2019. Many pertain to this blog: I’ve resolved to post more frequently and write more about Hong Kong, while continuing to cover topics such as Shanghai Refuge and refugee issues more generally.

The start of a new year often prompts reflection, and as part of this appraisal process I’ve been looking through my blog posts from the years 2016, 2017 and 2018. Here’s a summary of my posts so far, many of which reflect the ark of my PhD:

2015 – 2016: In October 2015 I begin my research ‘journey’. Tentatively, and for the first time, I start to piece together the lives of Jewish refugees who fleetingly lived in Hong Kong in the 1930s and 1940s. During these early months the blog is populated by posts about immigration control in Hong Kong, a topic discussed at length by super-star historians such as Agnes Ku and Mark Chi-kwan. I also write about wider ‘Asia Rescue’ literature as my interest is piqued by the release of a film called ‘Rescue in the Philippines’.

Throughout 2015 and 2016 the British media is awash with polarising stories on what becomes known as the European ‘Migrant Crisis’. As of September 2018, one in five migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya have either drowned or disappeared. In June 2016, the United Kingdom votes for Brexit, thanks in part to an anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed by the Leave campaign. (As an aside I’m interested to see the television adaptation of the controversial referendum which aired on Channel 4 today).

In Autumn 2016 I start my month-long fellowship at the American Jewish Archives (AJA). The fellowship prompts a couple of blog posts about the post-war immigration landscape in the United States and life in Shanghai after the war. At the AJA I meet lovely American researchers and attend some interesting lectures, including a talk by Stephen Porter, author of ‘Benevolent Empire’.

2017: In November 2016 and during my time in Ohio, Trump assumes power in the U.S. on a nationalistic and anti-immigration platform. I write a couple of articles on the ‘Modern Refugee’, a piece influenced by Peter Gatrell’s work. I start to think about the incarceration and detention of refugees from a historical perspective – namely the role of camps to detain and control thousands of Chinese refugees in Hong Kong in the 1930s and 1940s. I spend a couple of weeks in New York holed up at the JDC and UN archives during a particularly nasty snow blizzard. I write a couple of pieces about the Jews of Shanghai and Hong Kong (namely the Sassoons and the Kadoories) and Hong Kong’s Portuguese and Indian communities.

2018: In 2018 I think a lot about ‘humanitarianism’. I attend some interesting events on this topic too, including a lecture on the ITS Archive at the Wiener Library, a talk on World Refugee Day and a conference in Switzerland on ‘Dealing with Jewish Refugees During World War Two’. I post a series of blogs on the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association and write about the Jewish community of Tientsin and refugee memory of Shanghai.

So what’s in store for 2019? I hope to write more articles about the history of the Jewish community in Hong Kong, particularly during the Inter War years, as well as some lesser known aspects of Hong Kong’s history.

 

 

 

Life in Post-War Shanghai

A rich and varied literature written by both former refugees and academics has shed light on many aspects of the cultural, economic and social history of the 16,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

As seen in my previous blog post, refugees were highly active in their engagement with local and international NGOs in their quest to leave Shanghai at the end of the war. Their pleas for help, often raw with emotion and frustration, help supplement our understanding of post-war Shanghai. As the years dragged on, many found life in Shanghai increasingly precarious. Life was especially hard for the old, vulnerable and infirm, who found themselves alone in an alien city. It is these protagonists, living on the fringes of society in care homes and medical institutions, who have been neglected by historians. I’ve included one such ‘life story’ below, dated 27 December 1949:

My sister had a miserable life in Shanghai where she came from Germany more than ten years ago. Her marriage was unhappy, she divorced her husband, and by all that she became nervous. When I left Shanghai for America in March 1947 my sister lived in this Old Age Home with unpleasant people in a dark room. The manageress is known to be most provoking towards her charge. Unfortunately, my sister lost her temper at such an occasion and was taken to a Nerve Hospital in August 1947. January 1948 already the hospital doctor wanted to release her, which should be proof that her state of health was considered to be normal. But the American Jewish Joint Committee whose support she receives, prolonged her stay for lack of accommodation.

After many efforts made by my sister and a relative of ours, now in Palestine, she was finally released June 1948.

My sister is in possession of three affidavits for immigration to USA. But the American Consulate doctor did not grant her the OK.

We are the only members of our family who survived.

Refugee Memory of Shanghai

The history of Shanghai as a ‘Port of Last Resort’ began to be seriously explored in the 1970s when David Kranzler wrote his seminal work ‘Japanese, Nazis and Jews’ (1976). What is clear from the records held at the American Jewish Archives (Ohio) is that refugees began to digest, historicise and attach specific meanings to their Shanghai experience from 1946, when many from so-called ‘small quota’ countries attempted to enter the United States with help from various Jewish and non-Jewish organisations (namely the Joint, UNRRA and World Jewish Congress). Accounts of life in Shanghai and the Hongkew Ghetto were sent to senators in Washington in attempts to amend U.S. immigration legislation. Clearly, refugees were already acting as witnesses, historians and advocates in the immediate post-war period.

Below is a letter to the editor of the China Daily Tribune from one of the very few refugees able to leave Shanghai for the United States in 1946. He writes: ‘Nine years have passed … nine years full of good and bad days, but through the kind assistance of the Chinese Government, we the refugees and I have been permitted to settle down since 1939, after our flight from the Nazi purge’. 

The more recent historicisation of Shanghai as a ‘Shanghai Ark’ and myth-making at the state level is explored by Yu Wang in his fascinating article ‘The myth of ‘Shanghai Ark’ and the Shanghai Refugee Museum’ (2017), which he describes as a kind of ‘Foucauldian heterotopia’. I’ll write more on this topic a little later.

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Russian Jews of Tientsin

As you may have guessed from my previous blog entry, I’ve started to look more closely at Hong Kong’s role as a post-war transit port for Jewish refugees leaving China. Many of these refugees were Russians (either stateless / Soviet passport holders) from Harbin or Tientsin. You can read more about the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that governed these migrations in my blog post From Harbin to Beverley Hills.

I’ve found an interesting monograph written by Lazar Epstein, leader of ‘The Bund’ in China, Japan and the United States (you can find out more about Epstein here) which details the early beginnings of the Russian Jewish community in Tientsin and the exodus of this community from China in the early 1950s.

The Russian Jews of Tientsin, China 1900 – 1950 by Lazar Epstein (no date)

Our Russian Jews came to China from the Ukraine, from the areas around the Polish border and the biggest group of all, from Siberia, late in the nineteenth-century. Some among them were the Honourable Descendants Citiziens, whose parents had paid 1.500 rubbles for registration fees to be members of the First Guild of Merchants, thus acquiring the opportunity to live out of the Pale of Settlement which restricted Jews from travelling or living in any sea or river port or capital city in Russia. Others were descendants of the Cantonists (later known as the Nikolacvsky Soldati) a tragic group of Jewish men who earned their right to travel and settle freely after having served in the Tsar’s army for 25 odd years. The Cantonists were young Jewish boys required by the Tsars Alexander I (1801-1825) and Nicholas (1825 – 1855) to be gleaned from the Jewish community in most of the Pale of Settlement. It was decreed that Jewish communities should supply youngsters aged nine to twelve to be trained for prolonged Army service. This was an attempt to assimilate young boys based on the premise that Jewish children conscripted early into the military could be persuaded to adopt Christianity. They were provided instructions in drill and military training (usually in Siberia), rudimentary education and very strict discipline was maintained by threat of starvation and corporal punishment. At the age of 18 they were drafted into the regular Army where – if by then they had not converted to Christianity – they served for 25 years.

Jews who left Russia to go East left for the same reasons and at the same time that so many did go west. From our interviews we can establish that these reasons were: to escape conscription into the Army; to escape the pogrom which followed each crisis that Russia suffered, the defeat in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War and the failed revolution of the same year. Then the revolution of 1917 and the Civil war in 1921 precipitated further needs to escape. By mid 1930s there were about ten thousand Russian Jews in China. They lived a very self-centred life there, formed lasting ties with each other and it is a fascinating fact that now, almost twenty-five years after the community ceased to exist as a localised unit in China, its members are still very much aware of each others lives and form a kind of non-geographical unity despite the fact that they are scattered to the USA, Australia, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Hong Kong and Israel, countries which absorbed the immigrants from China since 1948.

With the occupation of Tientsin by the Japanese Military Dictatorship, the Chinese government ceased to exist, and the White Russians collaborated with the Japanese – in fact, instigated – the few examples of anti-Semitic experience that were to occur. As the Second World War ended, the civil war in China between the communists and the Kuomintang (Nationalist) increased in intensity. Fighting went on, although still some distance from Tientsin. Export and import business was no longer easy. Goods were very expensive, money was hugely inflated and people carried it in their suitcase in order to pay employees. We quote from a letter (anonymous) sent out from Tientsin on July 28, 1946: ‘The atmosphere in town is not good. Life is getting more and more expensive, taxation is hard to understand and consequently it is hard to plan your business. Labour is much more expensive than in the States – they just get you by the throat and you cannot help it. When I am not busy, I will make copies of Shanghai bills and you will see that hundreds of thousands of dollars there count for nothing. The situation with our citizenship turned out to be a washout, and burns me up. We are asked to forget that we are Jews and to remember that first we are Soviets, and I will be damned if I will conform to that. We stand a good chance to have our Jewish organisations such as school, hospital and club, turned into Soviet organisations, with Russians included. And you know what kind of Russians we have here, the kind we ran away from in Russia …’   

These words became reality very soon. People who were born in Russia and did not have foreign passports were notified that they had to take out Soviet citizenship. The Chinese government provided residents’ identification papers. People who had business with the USA started the trend of getting visas to get out. By 1948 the exodus had begun. People could still leave taking their belongings and their money. With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the first shiploads from China arrived in Israel – mainly young people in their early twenties, members of the Betar, the Macabees, graduates from the Tientsin Jewish school. The Communist takeover in Tientsin was actually swift and virtually bloodless – on the cold clear January 10th  of 1949. The Jewish School was very soon to be closed and Kunst was taken over to become the Soviet Citizens Club – a gathering place for Russian-speakers, Jews and others. Children from the Jewish school had little choice but go to the Soviet School to become Pioneers and members of the Komsomol and like their parents, to be Soviet citizens. The Chinese people or government really interfered very little in the lives of the Jews even at this juncture. It was the Soviets who completely took over.

In the early fifties it became very obvious that the permanence of the Jewish businessmen in Tientsin was no longer desirable or practical. Export regulations and heavy taxes practically paralysed the commercial activities. People’s investigative committees were looking into businessmen’s war-time deals, connections with the Japanese, money transfers or black-market exchange activities. China was going through the first san-fan u-fan (three-year, five-year self cleansing) period. One was expected to confess one’s own misdeeds or anyone else’s (usually the latter) to the government and many Chinese as well as foreign businessmen were arrested, others committed suicide, all worried. It was a period of great tension and again, those Russian Jews who
had visas, chose to leave as soon as they could. To Israel, Australia, Brazil.