Known as the ‘Paris of the Orient’ and a ‘Paradise for Adventurers’, Shanghai was to provide an unlikely refuge for approximately 18,000 European Jewish refugees escaping the horrors of Nazi Germany. With the end of World War Two in 1945, the refugees made preparations to leave the city and establish new homes and lives across the globe, namely in Australia, the United States and the newly established State of Israel. Since the 1990s autobiographies, documentaries, films, permanent exhibitions and Rickshaw Reunions with former refugees have sought to record the history of this ‘Port of Last Resort’. In recent years there has been a concerted effort by scholars seeking to document the wider history of Asia rescue independently from the history of Shanghai by looking to the ports of Manila and Kobe. Despite these attempts to write a more comprehensive history of Jewish refuge in Asia, a major gap in our understanding persists due to the absence of Hong Kong.
In the 1930s, amidst a wider Chinese refugee crisis, a small group of European Jews came to Hong Kong seeking refuge. These refugees were able to find employment as musicians, dress makers and engineers thanks to the existing Jewish community, British intellectual progressives and family connections. Jewish physicians were also sent to the interior of China to work in mission hospitals and refugee camps for the Chinese Red Cross during the Sino-Japanese War. In September 1939, Austrian and German refugees were interned in Hong Kong as ‘enemy aliens’ following Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, and in 1940 they were ordered to leave the colony. Many left Shanghai, where they spent the duration of the war years in the Hongkew Ghetto.
In the post-war years, the port of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Jewish Community played an important and yet little understood role in the migration of refugees from China. This project seeks to uncover the work of the established Jewish Community in facilitating refugee transit in partnership with Jewish and non-Jewish aid agencies operating in and around Hong Kong (including the Hong Kong branch of the International Refugee Organisation and later the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and record the experiences of those transiting through the colony. This research will also encompass the geo-political context that provided the backdrop to refugee movements, including the Cold War, the Chinese Civil War and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese refugee crisis, and place colonial Hong Kong and its response to refugees within this framework.
The work of the established Jewish Community in the post-war years was complex and wide-ranging. They consulted with the Hong Kong Immigration Department and consulates in Hong Kong and abroad to arrange visas and acted as guarantors for the refugees’ short-term stays. They worked hand-in-hand with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to help arrange transportation, supply loans and accommodation in Hong Kong. They met refugee passengers from ocean liners or planes at Kai Tak, took care of medical emergencies, prepared care packages and carefully followed individual cases. Later, stateless White Russians would make the same journey from Tientsin and Harbin in China through Hong Kong and on to their final destinations.
The existing historiography has not yet critically assessed the role of Hong Kong as a transit port for Jewish refugees nor explored refugee experience and memory of Hong Kong. This research project seeks to redress that gap, now made possible through the records held at The Hong Kong Heritage Project archive.