Refugee Voices

Peter Pulbver and family
Peter Pulver (pictured, centre, outside The Peninsula Hotel, 1946) was stranded in Hong Kong for five months until he was able to make the journey to Sydney, Australia with his family.

Last night I gave a presentation to staff and students at the King’s College London history department on the topic of ‘micro histories and oral histories’, which, as I’ll explain in a moment, was particularly fitting as I seek to document Jewish refugee experiences in Hong Kong.

Professor Tony Kushner has long advocated local and micro approaches to refugee studies (see Refugees in an Age of Genocide, (1999)). His methodology places refugees at the centre of historical narratives, allowing the reader to understand individual experiences of events such as the Holocaust and the lives of dislocated populations before and after the Second World War.

Everyday histories are all too often cast aside in favour of macro approaches, which focus on events on a national or international scale. The problem with relying solely on this method of interpretation is that by ignoring human agency, we risk reducing refugee movements to mass human tidal waves knocked from one place to the next by seismic events, much like tiles in a pack of dominos.

Oral history is of course crucial to the documentation of local and micro histories. By privileging life stories, the discipline gives those ‘hidden from history’ an opportunity to be heard, whilst providing new insights and perspectives into the past. Much like other archival records including diaries, manuscript collections and press cuttings, oral histories need careful interpretation. The fallibility of memory, interviewees unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) exaggerating or omitting key events and the blurry line connecting public memory (as read in newspapers) with personal memory, are but some of the knots oral historians need to untie when conducting interviews. I hesitate to call these particularities ‘problems’, as what is not said is often just as important as what is said, and a keen historian will be able to unpick these discrepancies.

Many interviews were conducted with ex-Shanghai refugees in the 1980s and 1990s, which continue to be used by historians today. Steve Hochstadt’s Exodus Shanghai (2012) is one of a long(ish) line of books that stitches together disparate oral history accounts to tell the story of refugee experiences in Shanghai, usually covering the period 1938 – 1945. Useful as these may be for historians looking to record the escape to, and survival in, Shanghai, the chronological focus of many of these interviews proves problematic as I seek to document short-term refugee experiences in Hong Kong. Since many refugees stayed for a matter of weeks or days in the colony and in a merely transitory capacity, any Hong Kong experiences may be treated as a mere footnote in the wider excitement and anticipation of the voyage to a new home. Compounding this is the difficulty of finding individuals who transited through Hong Kong at all. In the hope of finding such stories, I will look to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as well as the HKHP Archive, which acquired a large collection of such interviews from the United States in 2010.

Following the end of my presentation I received some useful feedback and insights into potential new avenues of research that look beyond micro, local and oral history approaches. Many drew a parallel with the current Syrian refugee crisis and the wider pre and post-Holocaust Jewish refugee crisis – for which the rhetoric remains dangerously, and depressingly, familiar (see this Daily Mail cartoon). One member of the audience raised a particularly interesting point about transitory refugee encampments that become permanent or semi-permanent over time, perhaps due to political stalemate or, in the case of the Jewish refugees, their stateless identity and post-war transport problems. A modern-day equivalent can be seen at the Calais migrant camp known as ‘the Jungle’ where many Syrian, Sudanese and Afghan refugees subsist, whilst a historic Hong Kong example is that of the Vietnamese refugees kept in ‘closed camps’ during the 1970s – 1990s as they sought re-settlement or residency. In these and other cases, despite the ad-hoc or non-existent accommodation, sanitation and medical infrastructure in place, some semblance of community and an informal economy started to take root. This can also be seen in the case of the Jewish refugees from Shanghai who arrived in Hong Kong at the tail end of July 1946 for a week’s transit to Sydney. When a ship scheduled to transport the refugees to Australia was diverted by the Australian Government, their Hong Kong stay soon turned into weeks and months, and the refugees’ ad-hoc accommodation in two ballrooms of The Peninsula Hotel took on a more permanent feel.

Another particularly pertinent question focused on official Hong Kong reactions to the Chinese refugee crisis post 1949, and the potential contrast with attitudes and policies towards Jewish refugees as well as their comparative experiences. To understand this more fully I will need look to look to the mandate of the Hong Kong branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 1951 onwards, its role in the wider Chinese refugee crisis and the governorship of Sir Alexander Grantham, in office 1947 – 1957. A topic for a future post, perhaps!




The Stowaways and the S.S. Catherine

Central District and Hong Kong harbour, captured 1946 – 1947 by Hedda Morrison

“Lying in the harbour, awaiting a buyer, is an 800-ton wooden steamship the S.S. Catherine, which has made a thrilling trans-Pacific voyage from Seattle to Hong Kong in just under five months. The ship brought 8,000 pieces of timber for Hong Kong’s saw mills from Tacoma”. – China Mail, July 15 1947

In July 1947 the China Mail reported on the perilous trans-Pacific journey of the S.S. Catherine, a ship so damaged it had been twice abandoned by its original crew, calling for officers to be flown in from Seattle to complete its journey to Hong Kong. Thrilling though this journey was, the above excerpt disguises the most fascinating aspect of the ship’s voyage – the story of the three stateless Jewish refugee stowaways who boarded the S.S. Catherine in Honolulu only to be returned to China.

Originally named the Whitney Ocean, the S.S. Catherine was built in Los Angeles in 1917 to carry timber across the West Coast of America. After World War Two, the ship was sold to French interests and made several trans-Atlantic crossings from Panama to France and back. Later it was taken over by a Panamanian firm and by 1947 was managed by The Login Corporation based in San Francisco.

The stowaways – Henry David (17), Kurt Hayman (26) and Herman Schulman (no age given) – were discovered on board the S.S. Gordon during a stopover in Honolulu. The ship had set sail from Shanghai and was en-route to the United States. Having no valid passports or visas, the men were apprehended by the U.S. Immigration Authorities who approached the Captain of the S.S. Catherine, flying under the Panamanian flag and also on a stopover in Honolulu, to return the stowaways to China as work-away crew. Unfortunately, the ship was not destined for China but rather the British colony of Hong Kong – and this misunderstanding would have profound implications for the three stateless refugees. The men were now faced with an arduous 40-day voyage from Honolulu to Hong Kong, one in which the crew subsisted on a meager diet of dry rice and corn beef, fresh water rationing and seawater baths. The ship had no wireless, quickly ran out of food and water and very nearly sank during the voyage.

Upon arrival in Hong Kong, the owners (The Login Corporation) tried to sell the vessel, but complications arose and the ship, which landed in Hong Kong in July 1947, languished in the harbour until at least April 1948 (correspondence from the HKHP Archive regarding the refugees’ and the ship’s fate comes to an abrupt end at this point, so it’s difficult to know whether the ship was sold on or eventually destroyed for scrap).

In August 1947 the refugees called on Albert Raymond and Lawrence Kadoorie, trustees of the local Jewish community in Hong Kong, to ask whether it was possible to work on shore. Albert and Lawrence promised to investigate and for a short time paid for their accommodation – first at the house of the ship’s Chinese steward and later (for Heymann only) the YMCA in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. Lawrence communicated with the police authorities to try and resolve the situation but soon learned that as the group were stateless (i.e. they held no passports), it was impossible to let them remain in Hong Kong. Although the authorities were said to be sympathetic, they could not give the necessary permission without starting a precedent described as a ‘detriment to the Colony’s interests’. Lawrence then contacted shipping companies in Hong Kong in the hope of allowing them to sign on to another ship, but his efforts came to naught as most ships were not willing to take mixed (European and Chinese) crews. In September 1947 the Captain of the S.S. Catherine left the ship and no pay was given to the men until December 1947. They were now effectively stranded in Hong Kong aboard a ship moored in the harbour, without permission to work or live on dry land.

Lawrence described the ongoing situation in a letter dated 2 December 1947 to his friend Harry Herbert, who was earlier stationed in Hong Kong during the refugee crisis of August 1946 when hundreds of stateless refugees were stranded in The Peninsula Hotel’s ballroom (to be explored in a later blog posting). Herbert was now living in New York and working for the National Jewish Welfare Board and so was perfectly placed to provide advice and support. Lawrence explained that the youngest (Henry David) held papers and a necessary affidavit to enter the States, whereas Schuaman and Heymann were operating under Panamanian engineer’s certificates. Theoretically the Panamanian consulate was responsible for the trio but as Lawrence noted, ‘somehow this does not work out in practice’, and so the Hong Kong Jewish community had taken on the responsibility of caring for the three stowaways.

Although the Hong Kong Jewish community supported the men as much as they could, money was often tight. The refugees often complained of a lack of food as they shared what little they had with others on board the ship. With the S.S. Catherine moored out in the harbour, trips ashore via sampan were costly at H$15.00 each. During this time all three were working hard – cleaning, painting, carrying out repairs to the pumps in the engine room – whilst receiving no pay.

The trio experienced many false starts and dashed hopes – on one occasion the ship was to leave to Palestine, on another to Bangkok, a third time to Shanghai and a fourth to Singapore, but in every instance these projects came to nothing. Enquiries were made by the Jewish community on the refugees’ behalf regarding the possibility of their return to China (final destination: Shanghai), but they soon abandoned hope as it became clear that the Chinese authorities would not grant the necessary visas.

The prolonged stay on board the ship soon took its toll  – Henry David suffered diphtheria whilst Schualman was tormented by jaundice. David was hospitalised at the cost of the Jewish community with treatment given by Dr. Ramler, a Hong Kong Jewish doctor.

By 15 January 1948, Kurt Heymann was able to sign on the Rock Mount, a British ship destined for Rio de Janeiro, from where the shipping company would repatriate him to Chile to join his brother. Meanwhile Henry David was in touch with the American Consulate and received an affidavit from his uncle in New York. Schualman, whose father was still in Shanghai, was anxious to go to New York to study at the Lubawitz Yishiva. By April 1948 only two refugees remained – Henry David and Schualman, and they continued to be supported by the Hong Kong Jewish community.

Nothing more is mentioned about the three stowaways after April 1948 – so it is difficult to know (without extensive research in other archives) whether Henry David and Schualman ever reached New York. The story of the three stowaways, stranded on a ship moored in the Hong Kong harbour for over six months, serves as an allegory for the insurmountable difficulties faced by stateless refugees in the post-war years. Despite community support, desperate attempts at repatriation overseas and the sheer audacity tempered by hard work from the refugees themselves, the visa system proved to be opaque and impassible, an unlucky lottery where the odds were never in their favour.