Refugee Musicians

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Several Jewish refugees worked as musicians at Hong Kong’s famous Gloucester Hotel

In Shanghai, German and Austrian refugees were successful in forging a cultural life of their own replete with newspapers, Viennese cafes and Yiddish theatre troupes as they sought to recreate the cultural practices of their homelands in new, temporary and alien environments. The arrival of these refugees also enhanced Shanghai’s western music scene. Refugee musicians fell into two groups: amateur and professional. Whilst the former performed in Shanghai’s dance halls, cabarets and bars as an alternative means to survive, professional musicians attempted to enter Shanghai’s serious world of music with some success, at least until Pearl Harbour. Refugee composers and artists performed with the Municipal Orchestra and found jobs as music teachers. They also formed chamber music groups, musical ensembles and a light opera company.

Although Hong Kong’s (western) cultural scene was seen as less developed than metropolitan Shanghai, musicians were still in high demand. The Sino-Japanese conflict had created a housing crisis and social problems in Hong Kong but also provided a tremendous boost to the economy as foreign trade was diverted through the colony, bank’s relocated their headquarters and the huge influx of refugees created a boom in land sales and government revenues. Despite the Chinese refugee crisis, the outbreak of war in Europe and hostilities in China, there was an attitude of ‘business as usual’ in Hong Kong as galas were held at The Peninsula Hotel and cafes and dance halls were as crowded as ever. The memoirs of Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke recall the care-free British attitude following the fall of Canton ‘… the pleasures of life appeared to suffer little interruption … in the evening there was the endless exchange of dinner parties, drinks and dancing in the big hotels’. The German and Austrian refugees employed as musicians in Hong Kong’s top-tier hotels and restaurants were of a professional calibre but due to their small numbers they were unable to organize a distinct musical community to rival that of Shanghai. Most were recruited directly from Shanghai and performed in bands together with other refugees. Some had been highly successful in their native Austria and Germany but were grateful for the lesser opportunities afforded in Hong Kong, which meant survival and a livelihood.

Of the 94 refugees registered as enemy aliens from September 1939 to August 1940, 64 were employed by Hong Kong firms or managed their own business interests in the colony. Of this group, nine were engaged as musicians. Adolphe ‘Aaron’ Landau, a French citizen from Shanghai and subscriber to Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue, employed seven refugees at two of his restaurants: Jimmy’s Kitchen and the Parisian Grill. Landau partnered with Shanghai-based Jimmy James to open a Hong Kong branch of ‘Jimmy’s Kitchen’ in 1928, a popular western style restaurant with branches in Shanghai. Landau employed several German and Austrian refugees as managers and cashiers of his restaurants in Hong Kong and procured professional musicians directly from Shanghai. He entered into a bond of $7,000 at the Colonial treasury on behalf of at least three of these refugees, all of whom were musicians. Landau’s employment of husband-wife partnerships and the undertaking of government bonds on behalf of refugees indicate a clear humanitarian motive.

A further five professional musicians were employed by the Gloucester Hotel in 1938-1939. Opened in 1932, the hotel restaurant was installed with a special sprung dance floor that became a popular destination for Hong Kong’s wealthy residents and tourists. Mary’s father was employed by the hotel in 1939. In Vienna he worked as a professional musician: ‘he had his own band at times, played for the opera and as a young boy he was part of the Viennese choir boys’. The family left Vienna for Shanghai in November 1938 when Viktor’s saxophone was confiscated by the Nazis. Once in Shanghai friends helped him purchase new instruments and Viktor soon secured a job at Hong Kong’s Gloucester Hotel: ‘he was able to obtain a yearly contract in Hong Kong to join a band, which he did. We did, we left in April of 39’ for Hong Kong. And that was, we thought, we found heaven. And he was very happy working there and we had a nice place to live and I went to a lovely school and it was very nice.’ Other refugee musicians were also able to procure jobs in Hong Kong: ‘In the band there were three other, or four, three or four other families that were also refugees only they were able to join the band on their way to Shanghai, because we went through Hong Kong on our way to Shanghai but we, we just had to double back’.