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.
 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)