In the 1930s, the Jewish community of Hong Kong was small but diverse. Although the core of the community was made up of wealthy Jewish merchants from Baghdad, known as ‘Baghdadi Jews’, there was also a small contingent of Ashkenazi Jews who had escaped pogroms and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, as well as Russian Jews formerly from Harbin, Manchuria. Many left Harbin for Hong Kong after the Japanese occupation in 1932. They were joined by European Jews (mainly German and Austrian) in 1938 when Hitler’s persecution of the Jews intensified.
As shown by the ‘List of Subscribers’ document (above), the Baghdadi community dominated Jewish life in Hong Kong. They were both its religious and social leaders and enjoyed close ties with the British ruling classes. Baghdadi families such as the Josephs, Kadoories, Gubbays, Abrahams and Raymonds were often closely related through family or business connections. The Sassoons are listed as the donors of the Synagogue, although by 1939 they no longer lived in Hong Kong. Subscribers such as Monia Talan (Russian),Harry Oscar Odell (Russian) and Dr. Siegfried Szarfstein Ramler (Polish) betray a small but significant non-Baghdadi presence.
During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong (1941 – 1945), Jewish residents were either interned as civilians, fought and died as part of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC), or because of their German nationality (Germany being an ally of Japan) were at liberty. Jewish soldiers who died defending Hong Kong included Hebert Samuel (German), the statistician at CLP, and Samuel Liborwich (British) of the Middlesex Regiment.
Recently I’ve been doing some digging into the history of Hong Kong’s most interesting historic Jewish figures. As you can see, not all were Baghdadi as the historiography would have you believe!
1. Emanuel Raphael Belilios (1837-1905), Sephardi
Belilios arrived in Hong Kong in 1862 and established the business E.R. Belilios & Co., trading opium. He was chairman of HSBC in 1876 and served on the Legislative Council from 1881 to 1890. He was committed to education and founded the Belilios School for Boys in 1900.
2. Governor Sir Matthew Nathan (1862 – 1939), British
Matthew Nathan was born in London in 1862, the second son of Jewish parents. He was the first and only Jew to be appointed Governor of Hong Kong (1904 – 1907), representing a major milestone for the colony’s early Jewish community. During his tenure as Governor he pioneered the early development of Kowloon with the opening of Nathan Road, today a major thoroughfare, and developed the Kowloon-Canton Railway project which connected Hong Kong to China via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He also actively promoted education – particularly in technical fields – as he had a background and interest in engineering.
3. Lord Lawrence Kadoorie (1899 – 1993), Baghdadi, born in Hong Kong
Lord Lawrence Kadoorie was born in Hong Kong in 1899. He became partner of the Sir Elly Kadoorie & Sons in 1927 and expanded the family’s interests into textiles and manufacturing. He was CLP’s longest serving Chairman and was integral to the long-term success of the company, pioneering China’s first nuclear power station at Daya Bay. He was the first Hong Kong individual to be granted a peerage as Baron of Kowloon in 1981. Together with his brother Sir Horace Kadoorie, he established the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association to help Chinese refugee farmers in 1951. His interests included photography, sports cars and Chinese works of art.
4. Dr Solomon Bard (1916-2014), Russian from Harbin
Dr Solomon Bard was born in Siberia, Russia and he moved to Harbin, China as a child with his family. He came to Hong Kong to study medicine in 1934 and served as a medical officer during the Battle of Hong Kong. He became the Director of the University Health Service of the University of Hong Kong in 1956 and was the first Executive Secretary of the new Antiquities and Monuments Office in 1976. He held various high-profile positions in arts and culture, and made significant contributions to the Hong Kong Museum of History. Dr Bard was also the Chairman of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and a talented violin player.
5. Harry Odell (1896 – 1975), Russian from Shanghai
Harry Odell arrived in Hong Kong in 1921 and married Sophie Weill, whose family owned the prestigious jewellers ‘Sennet Freres’. He fought in the Battle of Hong Kong and was interned in a POW camp. After the war, Odell started a film distribution business and became Hong Kong’s first impresario. He lobbied the government for a permanent auditorium and as a result, the Hong Kong City Hall was built. His MBE was awarded in honour of his contribution to Hong Kong’s cultural life.
I recently spent two weeks in New York and finally ticked off three archives that have been on my ‘to do’ list since 2016. These were the United Nations archive, the American Jewish Joint Distribution (JDC) archive and the Jewish Centre for Historical Research. It was a fascinating trip punctuated by icy blizzards (I enjoyed a ‘snow day’ in the hotel – one of my first for many years!) and avid cable news consumption as President Trump came under increasing pressure to defend his charge of wiretapping against the former administration.
In this article, I’ll be sharing my research experience at the JDC archive, an NGO founded during the First World War and the first Jewish organisation in the United States to dispense large-scale international funding. Over the past five years the JDC has digitised its vast holdings and these digital records are now searchable and accessible online here (on PDF format). Portions of the archive’s holdings are available in-house only, including the New York Head Office collection (pertaining to China) – records most relevant to my research. The JDC’s post-war China records provide a fascinating insight into the organisation’s Shanghai office and their struggles to deal with large-scale refugee movements from China to Australia, Canada, Israel, South America and the United States amidst rampant inflation, fluctuations in the currency market, lack of funds and the complexities of the Western immigration landscape. The records also reveal the JDC’s collaboration with United Nation legacy agencies such as UNRRA and IRO, as well as other Jewish refugee organisations. The collection is available in digitised or microfilm format, and the archivists are most helpful. They can be reached via email, here.
Most records in the New York UN archive were created by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA), a UN agency from 1945 until its closure in 1947. UNRRA was active in China dispensing relief services to millions of internally Displaced Persons, both Chinese and European. For those looking for UNRRA’s successor organisations, such as the International Relief Organisation, you’ll need to go to the Archives Nationales in Paris, France, whilst the records of the UNHCR are held in the United Nations archive in Geneva (confused yet?). Researchers should note that the New York office is in the midst of a large-scale digitisation programme in collaboration with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and quite significant portions of its holdings are currently held off-site. The bitter-sweet upside of this is that by the end of the year, most UNRRA records should be accessible online, possibly negating the need for that expensive research trip to the States.
In August 1937, during the Battle of Shanghai, 4,000 British men, women and children were evacuated to Hong Kong by order of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Some 200 British and Iraqi Jews were amongst the evacuees. Iraqi Jews had a confused and complicated status in China, where most sought British protection. As Maisie Meyer has shown, the British policy of naturalization was inconsistent and largely dependent on economic, social and humanitarian considerations including the status, wealth and position of Iraqi Jews (in the 1920s and 1930s around one third of Shanghai Sephardim were recognized as British subjects).
The British government’s evacuation selection process, as well as shipping priorities and funding for specific evacuee groups, demonstrated its narrow understanding of British identity as influenced by religion and race, as well as the legal privilege attached to British status. The 1937 British refugee crisis also parallels the evacuation of British women and children from Hong Kong to Australia in the summer of 1941, which was also executed along racial lines. During my visit to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee archive in New York, I came across the following article which recounts the impact of the bombing raids on the Jewish community and their dispersal across Asia – including to Hong Kong.
Shanghai in the Shadows (October 1937)
Jews are bearing their full measure of suffering in war-torn Shanghai, where they are faced with a truly desperate situation. Refugee members of the community whose homes were in the Northern District have seen there possessions reduced to ashes, and others fear that looters have been busy in their absence. These people are now without means of subsistence or employment, for most of them owned shops, cafes and small factories, and among them are German Jews, now refugees twice over, they were just beginning to establish themselves in Shanghai when the new upheaval overwhelmed them.
The refugees are receiving aid from the local ‘Shelter House’ which is doing excellent work, and from other organisations, or have been taken in by friends, but their position is an unhappy one, for the community has been very hard hit by the present crisis. However, together with funds collected in Shanghai, there have been contributions from Jews in Kobe, Manila and elsewhere.
Apart from the refugees, other Jews who left for Shanghai for a brief summer vacation to Tsingtao Dairen, Japan or Kuling are stranded, as ships bringing as few people as possible to Shanghai and they write frantically for permission from the authorities to return, both of which are very difficult to obtain. A third group consists of Jews who left for Hong Kong. Approximately 200 hundreds Jews availed themselves of the opportunity afforded by the British authorities and were evacuated to Hong Kong, where they are being cared for as far as possible by the local Jewish community. However, the island is overcrowded, and many inconveniences have to be borne.
During the air-raids over the Settlement on August 14 and 23, six Jews were killed and several injured. Among the injured was a Jewess newly arrived from Kalgan who expected to find safety in Shanghai. On Yom Kippur, the evening service was conducted to the accompaniment of an air-raid, with a crescendo of loud and successive explosions, and the whine of aeroplane engines as an undertone. It was with heartfelt emotion and earnestness that prayers were offered up for a new year of peace among nations.
 Meyer, Maisie, From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai (Lanham, 2003), 194 – 195
Today I attended a fascinating conference titled ‘Strongroom to Seminar’ hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and The National Archives. The aim of the conference was to share strategies and ideas as to how to best engage students in the archival method.
The keynote speaker was Professor Jo Fox of Durham University, whose presentation was so good I thought I’d blog about it here!
Jo spoke about the shifting identity of the archive in the 21st Century and the importance, as well as the challenges, of introducing archives to students as part of a holistic pedagogic method in History Departments across universities. It’s a topic I feel strongly about and one we’ve taken seriously at The Hong Kong Heritage Project, where we’ve rolled out a number of innovative oral history and archive programmes for high school and university students.
One of the most thought-provoking aspects of Jo’s presentation was to touch on the uncertainty and instability of archival research. We’ve all experienced the gradual dissipation of hope and excitement as documents don’t quite yield the answers we expect – but how can be this be taught as part of a history module?
Jo argues that the process of archival study should shape the questions we ask of our sources, and that as historians we need to constantly re-frame our research questions in the face of everyday disappointments. It’s vital to teach students the value of historical problem solving and the difference between finding documents and finding useful documents. Each research journey is personal, and deeply affecting. Research invokes a spectrum of emotion – from boredom, excitement and frustration – feelings that can’t easily be taught as part of a course module. Jo offers practical solutions to this dilemma by turning to public history. A number of universities have recently offered hands-on modules in which students can critically engage – and indeed literally interrogate – their sources. For example, the 2011 Queen Mary University ‘Blair Government’ course introduced students to key players in the Blair cabinet, including Tony himself!
Finally, Jo addressed another more recent challenge facing historians and the archival method – that of digitization. Digital copies of records are often touted as a cure-all to the dual problems of access and preservation. I know I’ve certainly been grateful for online collections that have saved the cost of a train ticket across the country or flights and accommodation abroad. But besides the problems faced by archives – the huge costs involved in digitisation programmes and the relentless pace of technological change – Jo argues that digitization comes at a cost for the end-user too. The sense of a collection’s materiality is being lost by a new ‘smash-and-grab’ culture in which students enter an archive, launch an eight-hour assault with a digital camera and return home to assess their booty. Something valuable is lost in this process. No longer do we spend days contemplating our sources and intellectually meandering through collections. The archive is now considered as a place to raid rather than to think. Similarly, when collections are accessed online, we not only lose the tactile enjoyment of the record but the sense of a collection’s provenance and accessioning history. Jo asks whether digitization will prompt a change in the way in which we practice history in the twenty-first century, and I agree that it certainly calls into question the hallowed value placed on digitization in the profession today.