I recently came across a file in a UK archive that chronicled the post-war migration of an elderly Russian-Jewish couple from Harbin, China, to the United States from May 1950 to December 1950. Although the couple had lived in Harbin for the past twenty years, life in China was becoming increasingly difficult. Harbin was under Soviet occupation in 1945 until 1947, when Jewish community leaders were arrested and sent to the Soviet interior, while other stateless nationals were pressured to return to Russia by Soviet agents. The Communist Party came to power in China in 1949 and it soon became clear that life could not continue as it had before. The couples’ son, Leonard, and his young family had already left Harbin and were living in the States, where they were anxiously waiting to be reunited. The hardships faced by this family sheds light on the complexity of post-war migration and the use of Hong Kong as a transit hub for stateless Russians and Jewish refugees.
At the end of World War Two, thousands of Displaced Persons used Hong Kong as a transport hub to reach other destinations, such as Australia, Israel, or South America. DP’s also attempted to reach the colony to make use of its consular facilities as American Embassies and consulates in China started to close their doors after 1949.
The Russian couple planned to apply for a U.S. visa as well as a visa to Ecuador, where immigration control was less strict. Using South America as a base, they could then re-apply for another U.S. visa. Crucially though, the couple could not accept a permanent resettlement visa to any other country, or they would be excluded from the Displaced Persons Act (for China Refugees). After much wrangling, the couple were able to leave Harbin and travel south to the port city of Tientsin (today’s Tianjin), the site of a once vibrant Jewish community. In Tientsin they visited the British Crown Consulate, where they needed to prove they had:
- An assurance from Hong Kong that an onward passage was secured from Hong Kong to Ecuador
- The address of the person whose house they could stay at while in Hong Kong
- A letter of assurance from a local transport company (such as Butterfield & Swire) that their departure tickets from Hong Kong had been reserved and paid for by someone in Hong Kong.
Once the British Consulate had interviewed the couple, they would verify the information with their sponsors in Hong Kong. It was a long waiting game.
Leonard wrote to his parents warning them of the challenges that lay ahead: ‘I was told, however, that the British authorities are very strict about letting anybody to Hong Kong and require sponsors and a guarantee that the visitors would not be a public charge’. The family’s Hong Kong sponsor was keen to help but he noted that the Hong Kong Police were ‘sticky’ when it came to in-transit refugees and that finding accommodation would be a challenge due to the colony’s ever-growing refugee population.
The Hong Kong branch of the International Refugee Organisation further described the bureaucratic entanglements involved:
- ‘Very little can be done until actual Ecuadorian visas arrive
- The visas, or photostatic copies, should be immediately forwarded to [the couple] in Tientsin
- On the basis of 2 and 3 above, the British Consulate in Tientsin will issue a Hong Kong transit visa. The Immigration Authorities here may call you by phone to confirm your guarantee, accommodation and on-forwarding passages before giving Tientsin permission to issue the visas
- When the [couple] arrive in Hong Kong, they will proceed to the American Consulate and try to ascertain how long it will take for their US visas to come through
- I have written a letter to the Immigration Authorities … requesting at least 60 days in transit be given to persons coming to Hong Kong for the purpose of further processing their USA visas. Assuming the Immigration Authorities accept my request favourably, there should be no difficulty in the [couple] remaining here until their visas are granted, only as long, of course, as the Ecuadorian visas are valid
- Since the [couple] have been registered with IRO and declared eligible for legal and political assistance only, their case would be covered in my letter to Immigration
- I suggest the blue completed personal history forms be forwarded to the American Consulate to be placed in the [couple’s] visa application dossier.’
At the end of an arduous year spent anxiously waiting for visas, chasing bureaucrats and living out of a battered suitcase, the couple finally left China via Hong Kong and set sail for Beverly Hills. Once settled in the U.S., they sent a postcard and a family photograph to their Hong Kong sponsor thanking him for his help and generosity. The photograph showed the couple smiling. The sun was shining. They were surrounded by Leonard’s dogs and their grandchildren.