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.

 

The UNHCR’s First Mission to Hong Kong, 1952

UNHCR Hong KongIn the 1950s Hong Kong became a base of international humanitarianism as NGOs opened offices in the colony to help assuage the Chinese refugee crisis. The newly formed United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) dispatched a mission to Hong Kong in 1952 – its original remit was actually to help Europeans displaced in China (see letterhead above). Other organisations were founded to help Chinese refugees who were, according to the UNHCR deputy commissioner James Read, ‘living in the most primitive circumstances … their houses are shacks and lean-tos, put together from a few pieces of wood and corrugated iron … sanitary arrangements are non-existent’. These included voluntary organisations rooted in Hong Kong’s Chinese communities, Kaifong Associations, global Christian missions and politically influenced secular NGOs, which dispensed housing, food and sanitation for Hong Kong’s growing refugee population.

For further reading on this subject, I recommend:

Laura Madokoro’s new book (Elusive Refuge, Chinese Migrants in the Cold War, 2016) takes a comprehensive look at white settler immigration policy towards Chinese refugees during this era – I haven’t had a chance to read it as yet but it’s certainly on my ‘to read’ list!

 

 

Dr Solomon Bard (1916 – 2014) and the Battle of Hong Kong

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Dr Solomon Bard: a man of many talents

Dr. Solomon (Solly) Bard was born in Siberia in 1916. He received his early education in Harbin and Shanghai, and lived most of his working life in Hong Kong. He moved to Hong Kong in 1934 to study medicine at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) where he graduated in 1939. During the Second World War he served in the Hong Kong Volunteers Field Ambulance Unit. When the colony fell to the Japanese he was imprisoned in Sham Shui Po prisoner-of-war camp. After the war, Solly was appointed Director of the Student Health Service at HKU, and in 1976 to 1983 served as the Executive Officer of the Antiquities and Monuments Office. He occasionally served as the conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and later became its Chairman.

Below is an excerpt of an oral history interview with Dr Bard in which he discusses his memories of the Battle of Hong Kong.

The Japanese landed at Mirs Bay and at any moment the invasion, the attack on Hong Kong, was expected. They were massing at the border at Lo Wu and it was no surprise whatsoever when I was told to report to the headquarters to be deployed on the morning of the 8th of December. And just as I gathered my kit together, I could hear explosions, and I said to my wife – we were only two and a half months married – I said Sophie, I think the war has started. I got my kit and I reported to headquarters. The war had started.  Kai Tak was attacked and the Japanese had crossed the border.

Very shortly after the hostilities began, I was transferred to Mount Davis, because Mount Davis came under heavy shelling and bombing. Mount Davis had a battery, a regular Royal Artillery Battery of about a hundred and thirty personnel and they were expecting to have casualties. And the medical headquarters, that’s a part of the whole field ambulance, the headquarters decided that they needed a Medical Officer. And I was the nearest.

My position with Advanced Dressing Station was the nearest to Mount Davis and so I received orders to proceed to Mount Davis and spend the rest of the fighting here at Mount Davis. So, in fact, since the landing took place right at the other end of the island – we were on the west end at Mount Davis – we never had contact with the Japanese, except shells and bombs, and that came very heavily and a lot of it.