Incarceration and Detention

the-squatters-washing-bay-at-wong-nei-chong
Refugees were termed ‘squatters’ by Hong Kong government authorities in the 1930s. Pictured – an informal settlement at Wong Nei Chong, c. 1937 / 38.

As noted by Professor Peter Gatrell, incarceration has been a defining characteristic of the refugee experience throughout the ages.

Within the field of Hong Kong studies, much has been written about the plight of Vietnamese refugees, and in particular, their detention from 1982 onward in ‘closed camps’. Yet the incarceration of refugees in Hong Kong started well before this time. At the end of 1938, as Chinese refugees and defecting soldiers crossed the border from South China into Hong Kong to escape the Japanese invasion of Canton, Hong Kong established a number of refugee camps to accommodate its fast growing refugee population. As noted in his memoir, Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke (Hong Kong’s Director of Medical Services), persuaded the Governor of Hong Kong to build camps in part as a precautionary measure against epidemic outbreaks of cholera and other contagious diseases plaguing the colony.

A close reading of the Emergency Regulation (1922) amendments (April 1939) reveals the influence of race and notions of hygiene in the colonial treatment of Chinese refugees. Firstly, there was no autonomous or self-governing system in the camps, with ‘camp controllers’ closely monitoring and controlling all aspects of camp life, from the provision of food, types of entertainment permitted and a pass system to leave and enter the compound. Camp residents were described as ‘internees’ and the camp routine was heavily militarised. Here’s a look at the schedule featured in the April 1939 Government Gazette (which as you can see, includes roll call):

Refugee camp schedule

6AM: Reveille

7AM: Rollcall

8AM: Inspection of huts

8:30AM: Sick parade

9AM: Meals – first sitting

9:30AM – 3PM: Exercise, fire drill, educational and recreational activities

3PM: Inspection of huts

4PM: Meals – first sitting

7PM: All children under 7 years in bed

9PM: All to be in camp. Gates closed

9:30PM: Lights out

As we can see, an infant routine was fixed in the camp schedule, with a separate bedtime for children below the age of seven. The Gazette goes on to stipulate: ‘internees must at all times wear their identification tags on the front of their coats and dresses and the Camp Controller is authorised to prevent internees who fail to display such marks of identification from entering the huts … babies in arms and children may be exempted from this rule. In such cases the mother or guardian must carry the identification tags on her person, together with her own.’

Hygiene and so-called Chinese pastimes were also closely legislated and monitored in the camps, with stipulations such as: ‘No person shall spit in the camp or smoke in any hut’ and ‘The camp, the huts, and the latrines must be kept clean. No person shall wilfully disobey this rule’. Gambling too was barred. These legislative clauses were enacted in part to prevent epidemic outbreaks and fires, but also to control the day-to-day activities of a transient refugee population.

Dr Irma Frommer

My last blog posting examined the life of Hungarian refugee medic Dr. Jean (Eugene) Frommer and his work attending to wounded soldiers in China during the Sino-Japanese War. His wife, Dr. Irma Frommer, was also a Hungarian refugee and medical professional. She was hired by Hong Kong’s Medical Services Department in 1940 to replace Dr. Fehily, a Russian emigre who worked as the Lady Medical Officer (maternity and child welfare) under Dr. Sewlyn-Clarke from 1939 – 1940.

Colonial Office papers from 1940 reveal considerations such as nationality, pay scales (linked to nationality) and the centrality of the local Medical Register. One Colonial Official writes that:

This must be the ‘Jewish emigre’ referred to in a letter dated 31.5.1940 addressed to Sir Wilson Jameson from Mrs. Fehily, which I have enclosed in her P.F.

As Mr. Blake says, Fehily was a Russian (on both sides) so that we need hardly take exception to the Hungarian origin of Dr. Frommer as long as she is qualified to practice in Hong Kong.

The D.M.S. is satisfied that she is competent to carry out the duties required of her. But they propose to pay her a very low rate of salary and I do not know how this is altogether satisfactory. But I suppose we had better agree? and as well to the creation of an additional appointment of a Chinese woman Medical Officer.

Colonial Office officials were clearly appalled at the low salary offered to Dr. Frommer (at $4,500 PA compared to Dr. Fehily’s $7,500), with one civil servant describing the wage as ‘exploitation’. The Chinese woman Medical Officer’s salary was even lower, at $2,400, paid for by savings made from Dr. Frommer’s low rate of pay. In the event, Dr. Frommer accepted the modest salary and started work in Hong Kong in August 1940.