Hong Kong’s Early Jews

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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.

 

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