Asia Rescue

In recent years there has been a concerted effort to document the wider history of Asia Rescue independently from the history of Shanghai by looking to the ports of Manila and Kobe. Recent scholarship has examined the Philippines as a temporary place of refuge principally through the work of U.S. high commissioner Paul V. McNutt but also through memoir and documentary film.[1] Japan’s unlikely status as a safe haven has been appraised by Pamela Shatzkes, who has investigated the arrival of Germans, Austrians and Poles in Kobe before their onward migration to Shanghai. More ominously, Jewish experiences of internment have been surveyed in Indonesia.[2]

The documentary film Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust was released in 2013

Despite these attempts to write a more comprehensive history of Jewish refuge in Asia, a major gap in our understanding persists due to the absence of Hong Kong. One explanation for this scholarly neglect, especially regarding pre-war Hong Kong, is the question of refugee numbers. Historians estimate that between 16,000 to 20,000 Jews survived in Shanghai between the years 1938 – 1945, whilst in Manila this figure stood at 1,200 for 1938 – 1939, and in Kobe 4,608 refugees sought sanctuary during 1940 – 1941. The presence of large refugee communities and the length of their stay, particularly in Shanghai, have allowed historians to develop in-depth studies. In contrast, Hong Kong’s Jewish refugee population stood at a mere 100 persons between the years 1938 – 1940. When taken at face value and compared to the Asian ports of Shanghai, Manila and Kobe, these numbers appear minor and irrelevant. However, when set against Hong Kong’s existing Jewish population, estimated to have stood at 100 individuals in 1938, they take on greater significance.

The study of this small refugee group also allows us to enrich our understanding of the wider plight of Jewish refugees in the 1930s. As argued by Peter Gatrell, incarceration has been a defining characteristic of the refugee experience during the twentieth century. The undocumented history of internment of German and Austrian refugees in Hong Kong as ‘Enemy Aliens’ alongside potential Nazi sympathisers by colonial authorities contrasts with similar episodes in Britain and throughout the British Empire, and also provides points of comparison with the confinement of refugees in Shanghai’s Hongkew district and the emergence of camps in Hong Kong for Chinese refugees escaping the Sino-Japanese conflict in 1937. The British treatment of Jewish refugees within an Asian setting, the impact of colonial defence regulations and the changing parameters of immigration legislation in the years immediately preceding the Japanese Occupation have also yet to be explored. The visibility of refugees in the local press during their internment in La Salle College provides a rare insight into local attitudes towards Jews, aliens and refugees more widely. Furthermore, a number of refugees contributed to the long-term economic development of Hong Kong, the war effort in China, and for a short time were vibrant members of the local music scene. Such important contributions by refugees have yet to be fully documented.

Historians examining Hong Kong’s post-war refugee history have hitherto focused on Chinese, and more recently, Russian refugees, and the question surrounding the ‘Problem of People’ in the 1940s – 1950s. This literature explores themes concerning refugee identity and memory, colonial responses to refugees and the impact of international politics on refugee movements. Agnes Ku’s work on discourses of identity and immigration raise important questions about the making of the Hong Kong identity and categories of citizenship. Stefanie Scherr’s doctoral thesis on Russian refugee memory of Hong Kong uses the oral history discipline to gauge temporal understandings of transit and migration, whilst Glenn Peterson has explored attempts by the newly established UNHCR to extend its mandate beyond the European context to the plight of refugees in Asia within the context of the unfolding Cold War. By incorporating the presence of Jewish refugees within these histories, a comparative analysis of European, Chinese and Russian refugees in the realms of memory, identity and colonial responses is made possible, thereby enriching both Hong Kong and Shanghai’s refugee historiography.

[1] See Dean Kotlowski, Breaching the Paper Walls: Paul V McNutt and Jewish Refugees to the Philippines, 1938-1939, Diplomatic History Vol. 33 No. 5 (2009) and Goldstein and Kotlowski, The Jews of Manila: Manuel Quezon, Paul McNutt, and the Politics and Consequences of Holocaust Rescue in Manfred Hunter, ed. Between Mumbai and Manila: Judaism in Asia since the Foundation of the Israel (2013). For autobiographical accounts see Frank Ephraim, Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror (2003) and for documentary film see Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust (2013)

[2] Rotem Kowner, The Japanese Internment of Jews in Wartime Indonesia and Its Causes, Indonesia and the Malay World, 38:112 (2010)