Hong Kong’s Border Controls, the IRO and Resettlement for European DPs

I recently came across a letter from G. Findlay Andrew, Chief of the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) Far East office, to the Chief of Police in Hong Kong, D.W. Macintosh. The letter was written in 1950, when the Hong Kong Government instituted new border controls between China and Hong Kong in an attempt to limit the number of Chinese refugees entering the colony. Findlay Andrew was anxious to ensure that the IRO’s Resettlement and Repatriation Programme for European displaced persons (DP’s) would continue as normal despite the new Special Emergency Measures introduced in 1950. The IRO promises to honour Hong Kong’s new regulations, but also asks for leniency and exemption.

Findlay’s letter is illuminating in a number of ways. Firstly, we see the extent of the IRO’s involvement in European DP matters in Hong Kong (the IRO was founded in 1948 when it took over from UNRRA. In 1952 its operations ceased and the IRO was replaced by today’s UNHCR). The IRO helped thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees leave China from 1948 to 1952, many transited through the port of Hong Kong, which Findlay refers to as a ‘distribution centre’. Secondly, the IRO’s close working relationship with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and Horace Kadoorie in particular, is revealed. Thirdly, the letter shows the complexities of migration for non-Chinese and non-British ‘alien’ DP’s from China. As described below, there were bureaucratic nuances for each type of migration, whether individual, group or mass. I’ve written about the complexity in which Russian ‘refugee transients are onforwarded’ to their destinations here. We also glean that surprisingly, very few DP’s ever set foot in Hong Kong. Many were detained on ships and were not permitted to land on shore. Finally, as we’ve seen elsewhere in this blog in relation to Chinese refugees, the colonial government was loath to take on any social welfare responsibilities for DP’s, hence the IRO’s commitment to ‘provide the necessary accommodation and maintenance’.

For further information on the IRO’s work in China with Chinese displaced persons and Cold War politics, see Meredith Oyen’s article ‘The Right of Return’.

Here’s the letter below.


Letter from G. Findlay Andrew to D.W. Macintosh, 9 May 1950

As you are aware the IRO has during the past two years had a very large number of transients pass through the colony en route to the countries which have granted them reception visas. Due to the present development of events in China, Hong Kong has become increasingly a distribution centre from which the refugee transients are onforwarded to their destinations. No repatriate or resettler is brought out of China under the auspices of the IRO unless they have a valid destination visa. Their movements, however, have to be influenced by the following factors: –

  • Their departure from China has to be within the validity period of their ‘exit’ permit.
  • Their arrival at destination has to be before the expiration of their visa.

Generally speaking the movements fall under three categories:

  1. Individual movements with IRO Travel Certificate
  2. Group movements under direct IRO and / or American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee auspices. These are usually composed of groups of several hundred persons. The group of 260 who passed through on the S.S. General Gordon on the 4th Is a good example of such a movement.
  3. Mass movements none of which has, or is likely, to pass through Hong Kong.

The individual movements carry along the lines of ordinary transients who submit their individual applications for transit visas and conform to all details to the Government’s requirements. The Group movements are usually dealt with under a ‘bloc’ transit visa and this operation is dealt with under the discretion of the IRO, combined in the case of the Jewish DPs, with the AJJDC. These are usually ship to plane movements. There have been exceptions, however, when suitable surface transport has been available. In this latter case it has meant the group having to be kept in Hong Kong till the sailing of the oncarrier. During this period of detention the IRO has provided full maintenance with accommodation ashore or afloat and has assumed the responsibility for the departure at first opportunity.

With the reduced number of passenger vessels calling at this port together with very heavy advanced bookings, surface onforwarding is becoming increasingly difficult and it is increasingly apparent that IRO will have to rely more on aircraft for future movements. Where the numbers of any groups are sufficient to warrant the charter of a plane the problem will be simplified but where transients have to wait for schedule passenger planes there may be the necessity of a short stay-over in the colony.

I have set forth in detail the foregoing as a background for the following requests which are the main purpose of this letter –

  1. That under the new regulations the Resettlement and Repatriation Programme of the IRO may continue to receive the sympathetic cooperation of the Police and Immigration authorities of the Colony.
  2. That if, and when, unexpected happenings occur, such as the delay of a sailing or flight, due consideration may be given to the assurances and guarantee of the International Refugee Organisation. During such enforced delays the IRO will provide the necessary accommodation and maintenance.
  3. On the other hand, I would give you the assurance of the International Refugee Organisation, Far East Mission’s sincere desire to conform, in spirit as well as in the letter, with every requirement of the regulations. I know that in expressing this wish, I can also speak for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee which is represented in the colony by Horace Kadoorie.

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.