The Shanghai Municipal Council and Refugee Arrivals, 1938 – 1941

Image courtesy of Beth Hatefutsoth

As mentioned in my previous blog post, the Foyle Library holds an incredible and near complete collection of Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC) annual reports. During my visit to the library in October this year, I was particularly interested to see the SMC report for 1939, which describes the arrival of Jewish refugees from Europe and the SMC’s attempts to close Shanghai’s doors. Here’s the extract:

The majority of these refugees took up residence or lived in camps established in the Settlement area north of Soochow Creek. Various committees and organisations undertook the work of finding accommodation for them and the Council had also come to their assistance, several municipal buildings in the Eastern District being loaned for their use. As the situation became more and more serious, the Council asked the Consular Body to take all possible steps to prevent any further influx of European refugees into Shanghai and the various Consuls agreed to make representations to their respective governments in the matter, stressing the unfavourable conditions in Shanghai and the virtual impossibility of any large number of refugees gaining a livelihood. – SMC Report, 1939

Before we go on, a little context about the events preceding the SMC report is needed. Firstly, as to the wider history of Shanghai: in 1842, at the end of the Opium War, the British and Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanking, which forced China to open five ports, Shanghai being amongst them. ‘Miniature countries’ were created in Shanghai, with the British, French and Americans operating their own tax, justice and defence systems. The SMC governed the city’s International Settlement (composed of the Americans and British). July 1937 marked the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War which quickly spread to Shanghai. In her book ‘Voices from Shanghai: Jewish Exiles in Wartime China‘ (2008), Irene Eber quotes Parks Coble to illustrate the heavy civilian and army casualties, largely localised in Zhabei and Hongkou: ‘the bloody Battle of Shanghai would become the most intense conflict since Verdun in World War I’. By 1939, Shanghai was no longer the sparkling ‘Pearl of the Orient’ it had been at the start of the decade – with massive levels of inflation, an increase in lawlessness, precarious political situation as well as a huge Chinese homeless refugee population stretching the city’s resources to its very limits. Eber expounds that ‘the massive arrival of European refugees from the end of 1938 on must have seemed like the last straw to SMC officials’.

Another crucial, and often overlooked, aspect of the war was its impact on the passport control system historically handled by officials from the Nationalist government. With the outbreak of hostilities this system ceased to function and the practice was not reinstated by the Western powers for fear that the Japanese may want to have a say too. Passport controls lapsed and became an arbitrary process, with some shipping companies requiring a visa for entry to Shanghai, whilst others did not. As Eber acknowledges, this is a hugely important distinction that many historians have ignored, leading to the ‘visa-free’ misnomer. Thank you Irene for elaborating on this integral point.

But how were refugees reaching Shanghai from Austria and Germany? David Kranzler outlines the two major routes to the Far East, which depended on the period during which the escape took place:

By sea – end of 1938 to June 10 1940. Refugees would take a passage by train to Italy, where they would usually take the Italian Lloyd-Tristino line through the Suez and on to Shanghai via Singapore and Hong Kong.

By land – June 11 1940 to December 7 1941. When the Mediterranean was closed by Italy’s entry into the war in June 1940, the only way to reach Shanghai was the land route across Russia and Siberia.

With the large-scale arrival of refugees from December 1938, the SMC, as Eber notes, was ‘far from calm’. The council’s first response was to appeal to Jewish organisations in England, Europe and America to help discourage more refugees from arriving. It was also made clear that no funds would be contributed to support this population, the onus of which was placed on the newly created Committee for the Assistance of European Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (although, as we can see from the SMC extract above, accommodation was made available on loan).

Eventually a ‘permit system’ was implemented to stop this influx of refugees, whereby an entry permit or possession of money was required to enter Shanghai. I will outline the complex political, economic and cultural motivations behind this as well as the attitudes (and failures) of the various communities, committees and national interests, referenced in Kranzler’s ‘Japanese, Nazis and Jews’ (1976), in a later blog posting. The regulation was issued on October 22 1939 and as Eber notes, the outbreak of war in Europe would, in any case, have prevented German ships from docking in Shanghai. According to these new regulations, further immigration to Shanghai was limited to: persons able to show a deposit of US$400 as guarantee money; a resident’s immediate family; someone with a contract for a job in Shanghai; or the intended spouse of a Shanghai resident.

As a result of a loophole in the regulations (which allowed refugees to procure the necessary funds and leave for Shanghai without a permit) and as, in their view, too many refugees were still arriving in the city, the SMC created new requirements which necessitated both a permit and US$400, effective July 1 1940. In June 1940 Italy joined Germany in the war, thereby halting the flow of Italian carriers and again changing the picture – events had again overtaken SMC attempts to stem the flow of refugees. As Kranzler states, this spelled doom for the 2,000 potential immigrants with entry permits to the Foreign Settlements. New overland routes were worked out, but people in Germany had to start all over again with permit and transit visa applications. And so, with the exception of 1,000 Polish refugees who arrived in Shanghai in 1941 and a fortunate few hundred Jews able to enter under the new requirements, Kranzler writes, ‘the gates of the sole unrestricted haven for Jewish victims of Nazism were effectively closed’.


Voices from Shanghai: Jewish Exiles in Wartime China (2008), Eber, Irene

Japanese, Nazis and Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai, 1938 – 1945, Kranzler, David