Immigration is often a hotly contested and divisive topic that crosses political and ethnic affiliations. The catalyst for the large-scale movement of people is often war and persecution, with political, economic and environmental push factors. Conversely, economic opportunity and pre-existing social communities are the factors that pull migrants away from homesteads. The fate of the displaced and the extent of immigration control has been the subject of recent intense debate across the political spectrum in Europe, where a refugee crisis looms large, but also in Hong Kong, where the right of abode issue was preceded by a decade of legal battles and protests that still simmer on today. Hong Kong has a long history of refuge, and arguably, its modern history can be viewed as a rolling history of immigration (think the refugee influxes that followed China’s Tai Ping rebellion in 1861, the 1911 Revolution, Japanese Occupation of Shanghai in 1937 and the ensuing civil war).
The question of Hong Kong’s history of immigration is central to the fate of Jewish refugees transiting through post-war Hong Kong. As we’ve seen in earlier blog posts, this refugee movement was the result of the extreme violence and persecution meted out by the Nazi regime in Europe. The history of immigration, and conversely, the exclusion and inclusion of certain groups, can tell us a great deal about the formation of identity, nationalism and how people and governments view the ‘other’. It can also tell us about refugee experiences in Hong Kong and also adds to the debate about whether more could have been done within the British Empire to help Jewish refugees both before and after the Holocaust. This blog post will look at the context of immigration control in Hong Kong before 1945.
Much has been written on the subject of immigration control in the 1930s and the failure of the United Kingdom and the United States to do more to save Jews from the Holocaust. I’m currently reading Louise London’s Whitehall and the Jews, 1933 – 1948, which takes a dim view of the British Government’s approach to Jewish suffering, arguing that policy was calculated primarily according to Britain’s self-interest and that humanitarian aid to Jews was assigned a much lower priority than the maintenance of severe restrictions on alien immigration to the United Kingdom. London states that the policy was shaped by circumstance, but its limits were defined by self-interest.
In a similar way, the history of Hong Kong’s immigration control policy can also be seen as reactive, permissive, and shaped by circumstance.
Immigration control in Hong Kong has a comparatively recent history. Until 1950, immigrants from the Mainland of China enjoyed virtually free access to Hong Kong. Pragmatism rather than nationalism was the call of the day, and immigration policies followed suit as passive tools of administration shaped by external political events beyond the control of Hong Kong. The first restrictions on travel were imposed in 1923 when persons (other than those of the Chinese race) entering Hong Kong were required to hold travel documents or visas. Prior to this, the Travellers Restrictions Ordinance (1915) gave authorities the power to inspect all ships upon arrival and required persons of non-Asiatic race and all Indians to report to a police station within 12 hours of their arrival. The Registration of Persons Ordinance (1916) introduced a registration system with the police, which again exempted ‘persons of Chinese race’. The Deportation Ordinance (1917) further empowered the governor to deport undesirable elements, particularly non-British subjects. The exemption of Chinese persons from these early edicts reflects Hong Kong’s labour needs and also the fact that once political or economic turmoil had died down in China, migrants often returned home. Immigration control was further developed in 1934 by the Immigration and Passports Ordinance, which set out nine categories of ‘undesirable immigrants’ who may be refused permission to land by sea. There was no such exemption for those who arrived by land, which was the main route of entry for migrants from Mainland China, via the New Territories. Again the ordinance exempted persons of Chinese race from requiring a valid travel document or visa.
The immigration scene changed with the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 and the fall of Guangzhou in 1938. A mass influx of refugees entered Hong Kong and unlike on previous occasions, they didn’t seem to be making the move back to China. On 6 June 1940, the Hong Kong Government appointed a committee to ‘reduce excess population and control immigration’. A few days later (21 June) the Report of the Excess Population Committee was produced. The committee’s terms of reference were clearly economically and socially driven: ‘in view of the fact that the number of the poor population in Hong Kong was higher than is desirable both from the point of view of defence and public health, to consider … what immediate steps should be taken’. The authors of the report made clear the undesirability of assimilating this new group of refugees, and chief amongst their concerns were issues of food security in a time of war, public health fears and considerations of Hong Kong’s military defence as a fortress colony. Amongst their recommendations they cited the need for a ‘Bona fide Hong Kong Resident’ certificate of identity, the establishment of formal points of entry, both on land and on sea, increased powers for the courts to recommend the deportation of convicted aliens, refugee camps to be removed from Hong Kong Island and Kowloon and to north of the defence line in the Kowloon hills, and importantly, for refugees to be sent back to China as soon as hostilities had ceased. Clearly the authors of the report did not think it was Hong Kong’s responsibility to care for these refugees. There was also a suggestion to encourage food distribution centres to areas outside of the colony to avoid attracting new refugees, sadly a political call familiar across much of Europe today.
As a result of the report, S.M. Middlebrook, Administrative Officer of Malaya, was employed by government to draw up a scheme for the regulation of immigration. He recommended the establishment of an Immigration Department to take over the duties of the Police Passport Office and this was duly opened as the Immigration Office on 18 November 1940. The Immigration Control Bill was published on 9 November 1940 which for the first time imposed immigration controls over ‘persons of the Chinese race’, and decreed that persons without relevant travel documents, visas or entry permits, frontier passes or certificates of resident would not be permitted to land or to remain in Hong Kong. Importantly, immigration control was only imposed at the time of entry, and if persons entered without detection, it was not an offence to remain in Hong Kong without permission.
And yet almost as soon as the department was established it seemed to close its doors, with immigration again controlled by the police in the post-war years. Indeed, an Immigration Department was only successfully (and continuously) established in Hong Kong some twenty years later, in 1961. Why was this? The Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong in December 1941 certainly takes the lion’s share of the blame, but the office was beset early on by a number of problems, including poor bureaucratic management, misinformation in the Hong Kong press, unsuitable employees, to downright corruption. The Hon. M.K. Lo (one of the authors of the Excess Population Committee report) made clear the level of public distrust in a Legislative Council debate a few months after the department had been established (February 1941): ‘apart from the question of administrative machinery there have been numerous complaints of sheer rudeness and offensive conduct on the part of the officers of this Department. ‘civil servants will be civil servants’ may be a familiar witticism, but I suggest that it embodies a wholesome admonition to which civil servants in Hong Kong should pay serious heed.’ A report into the failures of the Immigration Department pinpointed government failings in appointing an unsuitable Immigration Officer (Mr. Forrest, who was rendered ill from the stress of running the shambolic department), criticised the passport photograph monopoly instituted by Forrest, his policy of excluding local candidates and the lack of proper financial machinery. Another major problem was misinformation in the Hong Kong press, with headlines reading: ‘All Chinese residents must apply for certificates of residence’ and from the SCMP: ‘Immigration check. All residents of colony are to have identification documents’. Small wonder then, as the report stated, that the new office was swamped with applications, many of which need never have been made.
Immediately after the war, traffic across the border in each direction remained unrestricted. Post-war immigration was not top of the government’s agenda, which had more pressing rehabilitation issues to attend to, and Hong Kong was keen to maintain friendly ties with China, which had emerged from the war as an ally. This position soon changed with civil war in China and the establishment of the PRC in 1949, when Hong Kong soon became a place of refuge once more.