Eyewitness: Hong Kong on the eve of War

Last week I visited the University of Southampton to read the papers collected during the lifetime of Hon. Philip Ellis Herbert Samuel (1900-c.1992), today housed at Hartley Library’s Special Collections. With 6.5 million manuscript items and 50,000 printed books, the library is home to one of the largest Jewish archives in Western Europe, and so well worth a visit. I was first notified about the collection a couple of years ago by a historian friend researching life in 1930s Hong Kong for an upcoming book. She kindly revealed the close links between the Hong Kong Heritage Project (the archive of the Kadoorie family) and the P.E.H. Samuel collection housed at Southampton. Samuel was employed as the confidential office manager of Sir Elly Kadoorie & Sons in both Shanghai and Hong Kong during the period 1939 – 1941. His papers provide a vivid first-hand account of the day-to-day workings of various Kadoorie businesses and also depict Hong Kong British-Jewish society on the eve of the Japanese Occupation.

Samuel was the son of British political royalty: his father, Herbert Louis Samuel, first Viscount Samuel, was the leader of the Liberal Party in Britain from 1931 – 1935 and the first High Commissioner of Palestine in 1920 – 1925. His letters to his mother, Beatrice, and father, Herbert, are often touching and affectionate, showing signs of a close familial bond. Samuel’s letters and diaries also shed light on a number of important and controversial historical events in Hong Kong on the cusp of war, including the evacuation of British women and children (for more information and first-hand accounts of the evacuation see Vivian Kong’s excellent blog), the Chinese refugee crisis, military training of volunteers and racial discrimination in the ill-fated Immigration Department – this is also covered in more detail in my blog post here.

Samuel arrived in Shanghai from Southampton in August 1939 to work for the Kadoorie family. He was met by Horace Kadoorie at Hong Kew and stayed for several weeks at Marble Hall, the family’s palatial Shanghai home, before settling into the arguably just-as-luxurious Palace Hotel. Samuel was soon introduced to another side of Shanghai, a city that had long been home to extremes of both rich and poor, as he had arrived in the midst of a Chinese, Russian and European refugee crisis. He describes his initial contact with refugees from Central Europe following a visit to a refugee ‘camp’ with Horace Kadoorie in August:

‘This camp is housed in a well-built school building with plenty of light and air, but they have to sleep in bunks (upper and lower) so as to house the maximum number. Apart from 16,000 refugees from this source, there are in Shanghai many thousands who previously came from Russia, and over a million Chinese who have come into the Settlement and French Concession and the area known as ‘Greater Shanghai’ as a result of Sino-Japanese hostilities. I hope to see more of those camps and of the Schools during my present stay in Shanghai’.

Horace Kadoorie with Miss Smith and William Deman
William Deman (teacher at SJYA School), Miss Smith and Horace Kadoorie

As someone with a keen background in volunteering and social work, Samuel immediately showed a natural interest in supporting Horace Kadoorie in the day-to-day management and operation of the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association (SJYA), an organisation established to provide aid and education to these Jewish refugees. In one of his many letters home, Samuel describes the charitable work undertaken by the Kadoorie family:

‘The problem of the refugees here is terrific. Hundreds of them are being fed by Sir Elly and his sons; and thousands – including grown-ups – are receiving education, either general or in English and in business or other subjects to fit them to take up a new career. It is not only in the provision of money and guidance that they excel. They have accurate means of discovering the needs of individual cases of hardship, and will often personally provide soup or cod liver oil to someone who is in sore need. Consumption is very general among these refugees owing to under-nourishment: so they have presented a fine X-ray installation to one of the hospitals here on condition that a free examination is made of any refugee who may be suffering from T.B.’

Following eight months in Shanghai, Samuel was transferred to Hong Kong on 20 April 1940. He was initially lodged in the Peninsula Hotel and later moved to 31 Kadoorie Avenue in August 1940 following an invitation to share the home of W.R. Lambert, manager of the E.D. Sassoon office in Hong Kong, whose wife and two sons had been evacuated to Australia. Samuel worked as the office manager of the Hong Kong branch of Sir Elly Kadoorie and Sons, then housed on the second floor of St George’s Building. Samuel soon became active in Hong Kong’s social and religious life. He subscribed to Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue and began attending lectures at the Jewish Recreation Club organised under the auspices of the newly formed Hong Kong Jewish Youth Association. The talks were given by individuals in Hong Kong’s small Jewish community: in April Dr. H. Talbut gave a lecture on Sigmund Freud and in the following month Mrs. J.N. Frenkel spoke on the topic of ‘The Problems of Modern Youth’ –  a perennially fashionable topic it would seem! Samuel became firm friends with many in the Hong Kong Jewish community and was especially fond of E.M. Raymond, with whom he often went walking in Repulse Bay, an area noted for its natural beauty.

Peninsula in the early days
The Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong pictured soon after its opening in 1928

Importantly, Samuel also encountered several European Jewish refugees including Edgar Laufer who hailed from Berlin and worked as the Chief Chemist at China Light and Power, as well as a mystery Viennese refugee couple and their 16-year-old daughter who Samuel treated to a night at the cinema in June 1940. In September 1940 Samuel informed his parents that he had started military training as a volunteer under Major Harry Owen Hughes. In the same letter he also described in detail the activities of the SJYA, excusing his letter’s diversion to Shanghai by explaining: ‘I side-tracked myself on this aspect of social work as there is nothing comparable to it in Hong Kong where the Jewish community is small and refugees from Europe have been expelled.’ As Samuel had made clear, by September 1940 many Jewish refugees had already left Hong Kong for Shanghai. I’ll be writing about the background to this as well as the internment and expulsion of the refugees in an upcoming blog post.

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One thought on “Eyewitness: Hong Kong on the eve of War

  1. Pingback: Fortress Hong Kong? – Hong Kong Refuge

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