Immigration Control (2)

Hong Kong’s so-called ‘Problem of People’ is discussed in the 1956 Hong Kong Annual Report

I’ve discussed the inception and failure of Hong Kong’s first Immigration Department in 1940 here. In this blog posting I’ll be looking at the complexities of immigration control in the 1930s and what this meant for Chinese and foreign refugees.

Early immigration control in Hong Kong followed in the footsteps of British policies of deportation, registration and banishment but was also passive and shaped by external events in China beyond the control of the colonial government. Until 1950 Chinese immigrants enjoyed virtually free access to Hong Kong because of its status as an entrepot for the market of China. Freedom of movement was deemed crucial for agents, buyers and itinerant traders, and labourers were needed for large-scale projects such as land reclamation schemes. The colonial authorities considered the people of Hong Kong and China closely linked by family, social and cultural ties. Politically, Hong Kong was also more than willing to adopt the status of a ‘safe haven’ from the perceived corruption and instability of China, as presented in the government’s Hong Kong Annual Report (1956): ‘for her part, Hong Kong took pride in her role as a safe and well-ordered sanctuary and she welcomed all who sought asylum, on the sole condition that they did not continue whatever struggle they were engaged in from within her borders’.

Despite this professed guarantee for ‘all who sought asylum’, the Sino-Japanese War led to changes in Hong Kong’s immigration policies. The fall of Canton in 1938 led to a mass influx of refugees in Hong Kong, some of whom brought capital and business whilst others were eventually housed in squalid refugee camps. Unlike previous refugee flows into Hong Kong, the population showed no sign of migrating back to China. Overcrowding led to an outbreak of cholera and a forced vaccination scheme, as well as fears for the defence of Hong Kong as a ‘fortress colony’ amidst the Japanese advance. The Immigration Control Ordinance (1940), imposed immigration control for the first time on persons of the Chinese race from the Mainland of China. Due to institutional corruption, administrative failures and the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong, the new Immigration Department did not survive the war and in 1945 responsibility for immigration reverted back to the police. Prior to 1940 therefore, Chinese refugees were not subject to immigration control. German and Austrian Jewish refugees on the other hand were required to possess a valid passport and visa for Hong Kong, a guarantee of employment and to show that they would not become a charge on public funds.

[1] See: Chan, Johannes, Immigration Control in Hong Kong: An Interdisciplinary Study (2004) and Ku, Agnes, Immigration Polices, Discourses and the Politics of Local Belonging in Hong Kong (1950 – 1980) (2004)



Hong Kong’s Early Jews

Subscribers to Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue, 1941

Not much has been written about Hong Kong’s Jewish community in the 1930s. Who were they and what was the size of the community?

The first Jews to arrive in Hong Kong were not affiliated with the Sassoons as is commonly thought, but were British and Australian merchants. Samuel H. Cohen was an adventurer from Sydney, Australia and arrived in Hong Kong in 1844 soon after it had become a British colony, whilst Jacob Phillips, a businessman from Birmingham, arrived in 1843 or 1844. In 1845 Elias David Sassoon opened an office in Canton, which marked the beginning of Sassoon interests in China. Many Jews who moved to Hong Kong from Iraq or India in the second half of the nineteenth century did so because of the employment opportunities afforded by the Sassoons in the tea and opium trade under the auspices of the British Empire. By 1900, there were 165 Jews living in Hong Kong, the majority of whom were Baghdadi.

With the development of Shanghai and the expansion of trade and industry in north China in the inter-war years, many Baghdadi Jews left for Shanghai. In the 1930s the arrival of Jewish refugees from Shanghai, Harbin and Europe – notably Iraqi, Russian, German and Austrian individuals – increased the size and plurality of the community, but Baghdadi Jews remained disproportionally influential. As Caroline Pluss has shown, the cultural hybrid identities of Baghdadi Jews in Hong Kong allowed them to access a myriad of Baghdadi, Jewish diasporic and British colonial networks and resources, thereby maximizing their cultural, economic and social capital in the colony.

The size of Hong Kong’s Jewish community in the 1930s can be inferred from various sources including eyewitness accounts and community records. Walter Buchler, a visitor to Hong Kong in 1936, noted that there were no more than 100 Jews in the colony. The first report of the Hong Kong Jewish Refugee Society was circulated to 136 Jewish individuals in December 1938, although it was felt that the appeal ‘has not reached every Jewish resident owing to the absence of a complete register’. The list may also have been sent to recent German and Austrian refugee arrivals. In a memorandum dated 1946, Lawrence Kadoorie estimated that there were 100 Jews in Hong Kong immediately before the war, of whom approximately 70% were Ashkenazi and 30% Sephardi. The records of the Ohel Leah Synagogue help shed further light on the extent of the community. The Statement of Accounts for December 1934 lists 45 male subscribers, whilst the statement for January 1939 lists 42 male members and 17 female members. Lawrence’s estimate of a community of around 100 persons in 1940 – 41 therefore seems accurate.