I recently spent two weeks in New York and finally ticked off three archives that have been on my ‘to do’ list since 2016. These were the United Nations archive, the American Jewish Joint Distribution (JDC) archive and the Jewish Centre for Historical Research. It was a fascinating trip punctuated by icy blizzards (I enjoyed a ‘snow day’ in the hotel – one of my first for many years!) and avid cable news consumption as President Trump came under increasing pressure to defend his charge of wiretapping against the former administration.
In this article, I’ll be sharing my research experience at the JDC archive, an NGO founded during the First World War and the first Jewish organisation in the United States to dispense large-scale international funding. Over the past five years the JDC has digitised its vast holdings and these digital records are now searchable and accessible online here (on PDF format). Portions of the archive’s holdings are available in-house only, including the New York Head Office collection (pertaining to China) – records most relevant to my research. The JDC’s post-war China records provide a fascinating insight into the organisation’s Shanghai office and their struggles to deal with large-scale refugee movements from China to Australia, Canada, Israel, South America and the United States amidst rampant inflation, fluctuations in the currency market, lack of funds and the complexities of the Western immigration landscape. The records also reveal the JDC’s collaboration with United Nation legacy agencies such as UNRRA and IRO, as well as other Jewish refugee organisations. The collection is available in digitised or microfilm format, and the archivists are most helpful. They can be reached via email, here.
Most records in the New York UN archive were created by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA), a UN agency from 1945 until its closure in 1947. UNRRA was active in China dispensing relief services to millions of internally Displaced Persons, both Chinese and European. For those looking for UNRRA’s successor organisations, such as the International Relief Organisation, you’ll need to go to the Archives Nationales in Paris, France, whilst the records of the UNHCR are held in the United Nations archive in Geneva (confused yet?). Researchers should note that the New York office is in the midst of a large-scale digitisation programme in collaboration with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and quite significant portions of its holdings are currently held off-site. The bitter-sweet upside of this is that by the end of the year, most UNRRA records should be accessible online, possibly negating the need for that expensive research trip to the States.
In August 1937, during the Battle of Shanghai, 4,000 British men, women and children were evacuated to Hong Kong by order of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Some 200 British and Iraqi Jews were amongst the evacuees. Iraqi Jews had a confused and complicated status in China, where most sought British protection. As Maisie Meyer has shown, the British policy of naturalization was inconsistent and largely dependent on economic, social and humanitarian considerations including the status, wealth and position of Iraqi Jews (in the 1920s and 1930s around one third of Shanghai Sephardim were recognized as British subjects).
The British government’s evacuation selection process, as well as shipping priorities and funding for specific evacuee groups, demonstrated its narrow understanding of British identity as influenced by religion and race, as well as the legal privilege attached to British status. The 1937 British refugee crisis also parallels the evacuation of British women and children from Hong Kong to Australia in the summer of 1941, which was also executed along racial lines. During my visit to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee archive in New York, I came across the following article which recounts the impact of the bombing raids on the Jewish community and their dispersal across Asia – including to Hong Kong.
Shanghai in the Shadows (October 1937)
Jews are bearing their full measure of suffering in war-torn Shanghai, where they are faced with a truly desperate situation. Refugee members of the community whose homes were in the Northern District have seen there possessions reduced to ashes, and others fear that looters have been busy in their absence. These people are now without means of subsistence or employment, for most of them owned shops, cafes and small factories, and among them are German Jews, now refugees twice over, they were just beginning to establish themselves in Shanghai when the new upheaval overwhelmed them.
The refugees are receiving aid from the local ‘Shelter House’ which is doing excellent work, and from other organisations, or have been taken in by friends, but their position is an unhappy one, for the community has been very hard hit by the present crisis. However, together with funds collected in Shanghai, there have been contributions from Jews in Kobe, Manila and elsewhere.
Apart from the refugees, other Jews who left for Shanghai for a brief summer vacation to Tsingtao Dairen, Japan or Kuling are stranded, as ships bringing as few people as possible to Shanghai and they write frantically for permission from the authorities to return, both of which are very difficult to obtain. A third group consists of Jews who left for Hong Kong. Approximately 200 hundreds Jews availed themselves of the opportunity afforded by the British authorities and were evacuated to Hong Kong, where they are being cared for as far as possible by the local Jewish community. However, the island is overcrowded, and many inconveniences have to be borne.
During the air-raids over the Settlement on August 14 and 23, six Jews were killed and several injured. Among the injured was a Jewess newly arrived from Kalgan who expected to find safety in Shanghai. On Yom Kippur, the evening service was conducted to the accompaniment of an air-raid, with a crescendo of loud and successive explosions, and the whine of aeroplane engines as an undertone. It was with heartfelt emotion and earnestness that prayers were offered up for a new year of peace among nations.
 Meyer, Maisie, From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai (Lanham, 2003), 194 – 195
Today I attended a fascinating conference titled ‘Strongroom to Seminar’ hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and The National Archives. The aim of the conference was to share strategies and ideas as to how to best engage students in the archival method.
The keynote speaker was Professor Jo Fox of Durham University, whose presentation was so good I thought I’d blog about it here!
Jo spoke about the shifting identity of the archive in the 21st Century and the importance, as well as the challenges, of introducing archives to students as part of a holistic pedagogic method in History Departments across universities. It’s a topic I feel strongly about and one we’ve taken seriously at The Hong Kong Heritage Project, where we’ve rolled out a number of innovative oral history and archive programmes for high school and university students.
One of the most thought-provoking aspects of Jo’s presentation was to touch on the uncertainty and instability of archival research. We’ve all experienced the gradual dissipation of hope and excitement as documents don’t quite yield the answers we expect – but how can be this be taught as part of a history module?
Jo argues that the process of archival study should shape the questions we ask of our sources, and that as historians we need to constantly re-frame our research questions in the face of everyday disappointments. It’s vital to teach students the value of historical problem solving and the difference between finding documents and finding useful documents. Each research journey is personal, and deeply affecting. Research invokes a spectrum of emotion – from boredom, excitement and frustration – feelings that can’t easily be taught as part of a course module. Jo offers practical solutions to this dilemma by turning to public history. A number of universities have recently offered hands-on modules in which students can critically engage – and indeed literally interrogate – their sources. For example, the 2011 Queen Mary University ‘Blair Government’ course introduced students to key players in the Blair cabinet, including Tony himself!
Finally, Jo addressed another more recent challenge facing historians and the archival method – that of digitization. Digital copies of records are often touted as a cure-all to the dual problems of access and preservation. I know I’ve certainly been grateful for online collections that have saved the cost of a train ticket across the country or flights and accommodation abroad. But besides the problems faced by archives – the huge costs involved in digitisation programmes and the relentless pace of technological change – Jo argues that digitization comes at a cost for the end-user too. The sense of a collection’s materiality is being lost by a new ‘smash-and-grab’ culture in which students enter an archive, launch an eight-hour assault with a digital camera and return home to assess their booty. Something valuable is lost in this process. No longer do we spend days contemplating our sources and intellectually meandering through collections. The archive is now considered as a place to raid rather than to think. Similarly, when collections are accessed online, we not only lose the tactile enjoyment of the record but the sense of a collection’s provenance and accessioning history. Jo asks whether digitization will prompt a change in the way in which we practice history in the twenty-first century, and I agree that it certainly calls into question the hallowed value placed on digitization in the profession today.
As part of my research on the refugee experience in Hong Kong I’ve been looking more closely at public attitudes towards specific refugee groups, including Chinese refugees who fled for the relative safety of Hong Kong after the Japanese invasion of Canton in October 1938.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, public attitudes towards refugees over the past 70 years have remained more or less constant, with public sympathy and hostility spiking and dipping dependent on the media news cycle. Today, media antagonism towards such groups continues to play an important role in shaping black and white stereotypes of refugees as angels or devils: either deserving of refuge as ‘genuine’ asylum seekers (a term that also comes with its own baggage since the press campaigns of the 1990s) or as ‘benefit scroungers’ and illegal immigrants. A visual Prezi presentation examines the evolving language and discourse used by the Daily Mail before and after the Alan Kurdi tragedy (a paper which continues to specialise in water-based metaphors to depict the refugee ‘invasion’) you can also read more about the role of the media in Europe’s refugee crisis here.
Public and Political Attitudes towards Chinese Refugees, 1939 – 1940
One example of British anti-refugee attitudes towards Chinese refugees can be found in a letter to the South China Morning Post written by Mrs Mackie in September 1939. She writes of the ‘palatial’ refugee camp at King’s Park, where she was ‘amazed to see so many well-fed, lazy, contended, youths and maidens waiting for the next meal being served’. Mrs Mackie goes on to contrast the fate of British residents, who were ‘bled’ at every store and squeezed by high rents. It’s true that Hong Kong’s rapid population growth caused a sharp increase in rents, and food controls were also put in place at this time as a war measure. However, this lopsided comparison of the economic fortunes of refugees and the British expatriate population was, of course, more than highly inaccurate, although it’s a sentiment we can recognise in public discourse today. I’ve written more about the Chinese refugee camps here and here, which were far from palatial.
Such attitudes were not restricted to Hong Kong’s polite society. Below is an excerpt of a Legislative Council debate from August 1940, when the Finance Committee grilled the Director of Medical Services, Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, on the Chinese ‘refugee problem’ and the financial burden of the camps. I’ve highlighted certain words in bold to demonstrate how language was used to mitigate official responsibility for refugees and question their status as genuine refuge seekers loyal to Hong Kong (such racial ideas were also propagated by the political classes in Britain about Jewish refugees). Finally, you will see how refugees were diminished to the economic status of vagrants and ‘destitutes’, categories which elicited fears of sex, procreation and a long-term, growing refugee population (see Mr. Paterson: ‘do destitutes procure more destitutes?’). The debate raises important questions about Hong Kong’s immigration legislation, a policy amended in 1940, as well as who was, and who was not deemed a true ‘Hong Konger’. Of course, it’s a contentious question that continues to be discussed in Hong Kong today.
Following the Council, a meeting of the Finance Committee was held, the Colonial Secretary presiding. Votes totalling $969,412, contained in Message No. 8 from H.E. The Officer Administering the Government, were considered. Item 114.―5, Charitable Services:―23, Relief of Refugees, $288,000.
HON. MR. DODWELL Have we any record as to how long these refugees are with us. We cannotkeep them forever. Do they come and go or are we keeping them for years?
THE DIRECTOR OF MEDICAL SERVICES A careful record is kept of all refugees admitted to Government camps. We keep a card for each one with his name, place of origin, occupation, and so on. Investigations are made as to whether their villages or towns are actually in the fighting zone. If they are not, a sub-committee of the camp committee proceeds to make arrangements to repatriate them. There is a turnover in the camps every day.
HON. MR. DODWELL What surprised me was that Chinese refugee orphans were evacuated. Is it not a fact that since we had a scare in the Colony the refugees at Fanling disappeared entirely?
THE DIRECTOR OF MEDICAL SERVICES I am sorry to say that is not so. Some proportion of them did actually go back to China, but many were taken into the urban areas, including the Italian Convent.
HON. MR. PATERSON Are the sexes segregated or do the destitutes procure more destitutes?
THE DIRECTOR OF MEDICAL SERVICES The living huts are arranged on the basis of children, orphaned children, family huts and old derelicts, male or female. With the exception of several hundred children transferred from Po Leung Kuk to the King’s Park camp, the majority of the refugees have been here for only a short time. There are, of course, a number of Hongkong destitutes who cannot be sent back to China.
HON. MR. SHIELDSHave you any power to stop destitutes from coming to the Colony?
THE CHAIRMAN I would like notice of that question. We have, of course, a quick way of getting rid of vagrants, but at present there are no laws to stop destitutes coming in except the $20.
HON. MR. SHIELDS I always understood that under the agreement under which we took over the Colony there should be no interference in the coming and going of Chinese. We are up against a very difficult problem with this influx, which may be with us for a long time. Something should be done.
THE CHAIRMAN This question is at this moment being very carefully investigated by Government. We have an officer working specially on it, and he has just put up a plan which, I hope, will be brought into activity within the next few weeks.
HON. MR. DODWELL Is it a fact that a number of these refugees evade going to the camps and try to get into the Colony and become vagrants?
THE DIRECTOR OF MEDICAL SERVICES It is a fact that there are quite a number of refugees who come to the Colony and sleep on the streets. We try to pick them up at night and put them in the camps. Of course they know this is one way to repatriate them.
For further reading, see: Legislative Council Debate, 29 August 1940, page 132
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.