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!




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