Chinese Refugee Camps

Following on from my earlier blog posting on the colonial legislation governing Chinese refugee camps, I’ve found a South China Morning Post article from March 1939 which details a new refugee settlement at Fan Uk Ling. I’ve reproduced it here in full:

Refugee Camp – New Settlement at Fan Uk Ling ready, Early Applicants.

The additional refugee camp which Government has been compelled by the further refugee influx to establish at Fan Uk Ling, between Sheng Shui and the border, has been rushed to completion and is filling rapidly. Work on the sheds began on Saturday and was completed on Wednesday night. Before the place was ready people were already entering, though there was no food for them. Food provision commenced with the formal opening yesterday. By last night there were 600 people in the camp and the number is expected to reach 2,000 very quickly. These refugees have been bivouacked along the border. Some have their cattle with them and the authorities are trying to persuade the men to take their cattle back to their homes across the border and resume work, leaving their women and children on this side. To meet the reluctance shown it has been suggested that the men might return to Hong Kong territory each night to sleep with their families, but so far there has been little response.

 

The Modern Refugee

MACEDONIA-GREECE-EUROPE-MIGRANTSIn light of US President Donald Trump’s entry ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations and the suspension of America’s refugee programme announced on 27 January, it’s more important than ever to understand past refugee movements, displacement and forced migration so as to help inform contemporary policy responses.

Even as far afield as in Hong Kong, Trump’s ruling has left asylum claimants in limbo.

If you’re interested in finding out more about broad-brush refugee history there are a number of excellent websites, films, books and public exhibitions that have helped engage the public on refugee issues, past and present.

A relatively new web resource, Refugee History includes a number of thought-provoking evidence based blogs written by an academic panel. Check out Lyndsey Stonebridge’s timely piece on Hannah Arendt’s refugee status, a woman who is as relevant today as she was in the 1950s: ‘As long as mankind is national and territorially organized in states, a stateless person is not simply expelled from one country, native or adopted, but from all countries … which means he is actually expelled from humanity’. You can also follow the network on Twitter via @RefugeeHistory.

Although the global refugee situation is changing daily, Professor Alexander’s Betts’ Guardian piece, Five history lessons in how to deal with a refugee crisis , written in 2015, is still worth a read today. For a more in-depth analysis, I recommend Tony Kushner’s Remembering Refugees, Then and Now (2006), for an insight into contemporary representation of refugees, and Peter Gatrell’s The Making of the Modern Refugee (2013), praised as a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the recent historical roots of refugees.

The Wiener Library in London is currently hosting an excellent exhibition titled ‘A Bitter Road: Britain and the Refugee Crisis of the 1930s and 1940s’, which explores Britain’s response to Jewish refugees using items from the Library’s collection. The exhibition is due to close on 17 February 2017 so do hurry if you want to catch it.

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Gianfranco Rosi’s ‘beautiful, mysterious and moving film’ Fire at Sea

Finally, for a more contemporary view, the documentary Fire at Sea (2016) is a moving portrait of Lampedusa, the Sicilian Island where thousands of desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year for hopes of a better life. The film was described as ‘masterly film-making’ by the Guardian. Unfortunately Fire at Sea is not available on Netflix but can be downloaded from itunes for a couple of pounds. For those who prefer to read rather than watch, I recommend Emma Jane Kirby’s short yet excellent The Optician of Lampedusa (2016), the true story of Carmine Menna who along with a group of friends stumbled upon a sinking boat carrying hundreds of refugees whilst on a fishing expedition. The Observer gives a nod to Kirby’s dedication to the refugee plight as both journalist and author: ‘Shortly after the drownings, Pope Francis spoke of “a day for tears”. Emma Jane Kirby challenges us to do more than cry.’

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Dr Jean (Eugene) Frommer

Jewish doctors were among the first targets of Nazi persecution when in April 1933 restrictions were placed on the number of physicians in German National Health Insurance practices. Deprived of their profession at home, physicians sought to enter the medical practice abroad, mainly in Britain and the United States. It was a task complicated by regulations that gave local doctors certain privileges. In Britain for example, ‘alien’ doctors needed to study and re-qualify but this did not automatically confer the right to practise nor did it mean a place on the General Medical Council register. Humanitarian support from individuals in Britain sat uneasily with restrictionism from professional bodies such as the Medical Practitioner’s Union which took an anti-alien line for fear of foreign competition.

In Hong Kong, as in Australia and Canada, refugee physicians were also met with anti-competitive legislation. Medical practitioners seeking to register and practise in the British colony needed to adhere to the Medical Registration Ordinance (1935). The ordinance gave preference to degree holders and professors from the University of Hong Kong and persons already registered in British dominions. For foreign doctors holding degrees, licences or diplomas from Europe, the United States or Japan, their qualifications needed to be recognized as ‘entitling to registration by the General Council of Medical Education and Registration of the United Kingdom.’ According to the 1939 Register of Medical and Surgical Practitioners, there were no European medical practitioners registered in Hong Kong except those who had qualified in Italy, with whom Britain had reciprocal medical qualification arrangements. The majority of Hong Kong’s registered physicians therefore qualified in Hong Kong or in England and Scotland, although there was also a sizeable minority with qualifications from Japan.

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Aid to China Must Go On, China Defence League newsletter, 1 October 1939

One of the few European Jewish refugee physicians to secure a place on Hong Kong’s medical register in the 1930s was Dr Jean (Eugene) Frommer, a Hungarian physician. He was able to do so as a graduate of the University of Pisa in Italy, which as we have seen had a reciprocal arrangement with Hong Kong. Dr Frommer practised in Florence until anti-Semitic legislation forced him to seek refuge in the Far East. After his arrival in Hong Kong, Dr Frommer worked as a surgeon in hospitals for wounded Chinese soldiers in China, on which he reported: ‘the Chinese soldiers are more courageous than European troops. I could perform operations without using anaesthetics. In the interior their morale is excellent and they are not only holding their ground but are driving the Japanese back’. Dr Frommer was sent by the South West China Relief Organisation to Kangchow, Kiangsi to bring back Rewi Alley, a New Zealander and adviser to the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives, who was suffering from typhoid. He also worked at the Cue Lup Hospital at Shekki, where ambulances full of wounded soldiers came rolling in from the front every day: ‘the Japanese have tried three times to occupy Shekki, burning villages and bombing civilians as well as troops. But wounded soldiers coming into hospital have refused operations in order to get back to the front line again. One soldier with a bullet lodged in his hip flatly refused to have it removed by an operation as he said it would keep him too long away from the front’. On three occasions Japanese planes came to Shekki whilst Dr Frommer was stationed there.

According to the Biographical Dictionary of Medical Practitioners in Hong Kong, Dr Frommer opened his own private practice in Kowloon in 1941. He was married to Iram Frommer, Lady Medical Officer for the Hong Kong Government and also a Hungarian Jewish refugee.

Further reading

  1. Hong Kong Medical Registration Ordinance (1935)
  2. Collins, Kenneth, ‘European Refugee Physicians in Scotland, 1933-1943’, Social History  of Medicine 22 (2009)