Fortress Hong Kong?

As part of my MPhil research I’m examining the obstacles and challenges faced by Central European refugees wishing to gain entry into Hong Kong before the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe by looking to the immigration ordinances that governed refugee policy and the relationship between Hong Kong and Britain.

I recently found a case at The National Archives (UK – TNA) that helps shed light on the British-Hong Kong relationship as well as the visa process which refugees needed to navigate in order to gain entry into Hong Kong. Dr. Frederick Reiss was a professor of dermatology at the National Medical College in Shanghai, and Chairman of the Medical Board for the Committee for Assistance of European Refugees in Shanghai under the direction of Michael Speelman (hence it was also known as the Speelman Committee). By September 1939 Reiss was President of the European Emigrants’ Associated Hospitals Committee in Shanghai and also head of the Shanghai Leprosorium. As a refugee from Nazi Germany, Reiss was one of many thousands who found refuge in Shanghai. However his first port of call was not the ‘Paris of the Orient’ – as Shanghai was then known – but rather the British colony of Hong Kong.

Committee for the Assistance of European Refugees in Shanghai
Committee for the Assistance of European Refugees in Shanghai, letterhead

I located Reiss’ file purely by chance whilst looking through the individual files held in the TNA series: Colonial Office – Records of the Colonial Office, Commonwealth and Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, Empire Marketing Board, and related bodies.  I remembered the name ‘Reiss’ from correspondence held in the HKHP Archive, as he was close friends with the Kadoories (most probably through the Speelman Committee connection). Reiss was born in Jerusalem on 26 September 1896 and lived and worked in Germany, most recently at the University Skin Clinic of Berlin, from whom he had procured a reference (written in German and kept as part of his file now held at the TNA). He moved to Paris on 26 August 1938 and by the time of his application to Hong Kong through the city’s British Passport Control Officer, he was living with his brother-in-law, Kahnheimer, also a refugee from Germany. Having escaped Nazi persecution in Germany, Reiss’ ultimate aim was to establish a medical practice in Hong Kong.

Dr Frederick Reiss’ reference, dated 23 November 1933


Kahnheimer secured the help of Mr. Blacklock, a solicitor who was to smooth the visa-procurement process. Blacklock wrote direct letters and sought appointments with the Eastern Department at the Colonial Office in Whitehall, thereby circumventing the usual visa procedure, a move which greatly displeased the civil servants assigned to his case. In a memo written in August 1938, one official writes: ‘Dr. Reiss’ friends have been rather troublesome, and if they only carried out the usual procedures for obtaining visas, etc. instead of trying to short circuit them through this office, it would have been a good deal more rapid and much easier for them (and incidentally for me!).’ By January 1939, correspondence between two colonial officials shows that a subordinate was advised not to send Blacklock’s letters to Hong Kong as it may imply Britain’s interference in this case, which they were at pains to deny: ‘send only the Passport Control form. Mr. Blacklock’s letter makes a lot of assumptions and we should not lead Hong Kong to believe that Colonial Office have promised ‘sympathetic’ consideration. And tell F.O. we are referring to Hong Kong’.

Clearly, Colonial Office officials were keen to demonstrate to both Hong Kong and the Foreign Office that no undue influence was exerted on Hong Kong’s immigration decisions. Such decisions, they noted, should be made under the auspices of Hong Kong’s Immigration and Passport Ordinance once the individual was in possession of a valid passport duly visaed by a ‘competent British authority’. But what became of Reiss? Did he succeed in procuring the Hong Kong visa? Probably not, although it becomes difficult to trace Reiss’ movements in the first half of 1939 as the outcome of his application is not recorded in the TNA file. The final application decision would have been made in Hong Kong as his case was sent to the Hong Kong Government on 3 February 1939. My guess is that Reiss’ application was turned down in Hong Kong and so he made the move directly to Shanghai (an interesting history of Newfoundland and their response to Jewish refugees makes the case that many applications from doctors were rejected on the basis of professional competition, see Paul Bartrop’s False Havens for further details).

As we have already seen, by September 1939 Reiss was already acting President of the European Emigrants’ Associated Hospitals Committee in Shanghai, and also head of the Shanghai Leprosorium. In November 1939, Reiss and his wife are mentioned in a letter by Philip Samuel (based in Shanghai) writing to his mother and father in England: ‘On Saturday I gave my first informal party – 5:30 to the Metropole Cinema to see the Chinese produced film ‘Lady Precious Stream’; then dinner and dancing at this hotel. My party comprised the Wilsons and Dr. and Mrs. Frederick Reiss, who had also entertained me at their flat. He is a celebrated Shanghai skin specialist, and she (Hungarian) is most artistic – her hobbies including floral arrangements a la Japonnaise and the running of the Jewish Refugee women’s workshops.’      

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