I’m currently reviewing the historiography of European refugees in Hong Kong. Much of the literature on wider Hong Kong Jewry was written in the 1980s following the establishment of the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society (JHS) in 1984. The aim of the society was to establish a library of Sino-Judaic studies, document the Hong Kong Jewish experience and publish widely on the subject. Working to this brief, the Past Chairman of the JHS, Dennis Leventhal, wrote and edited a number of monographs including ‘Faces of the Jewish Experience in China‘ (1990) which explored the community’s Baghdadi roots and decried the paucity of adequate internal records by which to tell the story of Hong Kong Jewry. Due to this lack of internal records, many historians have relied on accounts written by Lawrence Kadoorie (Lord Kadoorie), who is considered both an authoritative and rare eye-witness of this era. The Kadoorie Memoir of 1979, published as a monograph by the JHS in 1985, is an oft cited source of information on Hong Kong Jewry, as is his Review of Community Affairs published in the same year.
So I was delighted to come across an unpublished and previously unseen account written by Kadoorie only a few years after the Jewish refugees of 1938 had arrived in Hong Kong. Kadoorie may have been prompted to record his memories of the wider Jewish community in part due to the destruction of the Jewish Recreation Club during the Japanese Occupation. Here is the account in full, written in May 1946. As you can see in the second to last paragraph, Kadoorie mentions the 24 Jewish refugee families who settled in Hong Kong before the War:
The first official record of Jews coming to Hong Kong was when the British founded the Colony in 1841 and the merchant firm of Sassoons, then established in Canton, opened an office here. For many years after that, the Jewish Community consisted chiefly of Sephardic Jews from Baghdad, who had moved up through India to the Far East.
From 1900 onward, the Community grew and prospered considerably. A Synagogue ‘Ohe Leah’ was built in 1901 by Sir Jacob Sassoon and given to the Community. Later, in 1909, Sir Elly Kadoorie presented a club to the Community (which club was completely demolished during the Japanese Occupation 1941/45). A Jewish Cemetery was established very early in the existence of the Jewish Community.
About 1924/25 trade deteriorated, and Shanghai took the place of Hong Kong as the centre of commerce; many offices moved north and the Jews moved with them, leaving a comparatively small community preponderatingly Sephardic.
Immediately before the War (1941) there were approximately 100 Jews, about 70% Ashkenazi and 30% Sephardic. When hostilities came, the British Jews were interned, some as members of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and others as civilians in Stanley Camp. Those who were neutral found life very difficult; a few were able to get away to Macao where the British Consul looked after them.
European Jewish refugees were not allowed free entry into the Colony unless jobs were found for them. Pre-war there were 24 refugees who had work; all except for one family had come from Shanghai.
After the War (1945) the Community dwindled down to about 55 people. An effort has been made to re-establish community life by re-opening the Jewish Club in a building formerly used as a house for the Hazan, which was donated to the Community by the late Mr. J.E. Joseph. A number of British and American servicemen have made use of the building, but due to lack of transportation and post-war conditions, few civilians attend.