Blogroll: Recommended Reads

In recent years, more and more blogs have appeared online exploring the historical and political context of the refugee plight, both then and now. There’s also been an increasing interest in the history of Hong Kong, especially via nostalgic Facebook groups or politically active Twitter accounts.

Here’s a few of my recommended (online) reads:

Refugee History

This blog boasts an impressive panel of experts who seek to find evidence-based solutions to the current refugee crisis. Posts cover book reviews, news about forced migration and probing historical essays. Recent articles include: ‘Victims of Decolonisation? The French Settlers of Algeria’ and ‘Belonging and Alienation in the Greek Return to Imbros’. You can follow Refugee History for conference highlights and other academic updates via @RefugeeHistory.

The Refugee Research Network

This excellent and wide-ranging Canadian blog covers several bases, from educational courses on offer around the world (certificates and PhD programmes), a scholars network to an excellent and user friendly research database which pools articles from all corners of the web. Articles are wide-ranging and cover the plight of refugees and displaced persons in Gaza, Kenya and Lebanon, among many other places.

The Hong Kong History Project

Not to be confused with The Hong Kong Heritage Project, this excellent resource should be a first port of call for both budding and experienced Hong Kong history enthusiasts. It features a comprehensive historiography on Hong Kong history compiled by historian Vaudine England, much of it focused on race and identity, as well as guest blogs from PhD candidates around the world.


This blog has been a staple for Hong Kong history researchers since it was first launched in 2006 by the indefatigable David Bellis. With thousands of pages of research sourced and uploaded by David and his team of volunteer netizens, this blog has been invaluable for my own research. Highlights include census lists, GPS maps, oral histories and much, much more.

Far East Currents

This blog is the brainchild of Dr Roy Eric Xavier, whose aim is to: ‘understand the roles that Portuguese-Macanese people played in the development of Macau, Hong Kong and other regions of southeast Asia, and their migration to other countries after World War II’. Roy has interviewed hundreds of Macanese, Portuguese-Eurasians and others who have lived or worked in Macao. Many of these interviews are featured on his blog or are available on YouTube.

China Rhyming

Having read ‘Midnight in Peking’; Paul French’s bestselling investigative thriller about the murder of a 19 year old English girl in Beijing’s ‘bad lands’, I’ve been a fan ever since. His blog, China Rhyming, covers a ‘gallimaufry of random China history and research interests’, and is well worth a read. As French (and Twain) say, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme’.

And finally …

Here’s a few of my favourite Twitterstorians you might want to follow:

@jypersian is an active Twitterstorian, based in Australia, who posts mainly about post-war migration to Australia. @petergatrell is a giant in the field of refugee studies. He regularly posts about his work and other developments in the field. @hongkonghistory, The Hong Kong History Project’s Twitter feed, is a valuable resource for Hong Kong related conferences and general Hong Kong related news and info. Finally, @vischina, administered by Professor Robert Bickers at Bristol University, gives a glimpse into the collection of 20,000+ digitised images of China (1850 – 1950) which have been painstakingly collected by the Visualising China team.

The Parsees: Hong Kong’s Disappearing Community

This article was originally written for the Hong Kong Heritage Project’s Past & Present magazine in 2019, and chronicles the history of the Parsee community in Hong Kong. I’ve also previously written about Hong Kong’s Indian and Portuguese communities on this blog.

Hong Kong has always been home to an eclectic mix of people and cultures; a quick survey of the city’s history will show the valuable contributions of numerous ethnic and national groups from all corners of the globe. One of the first settlers to arrive in Hong Kong after it was occupied by the British were Parsees from India who pioneered trade routes along the China Coast. The Parsee community originally came from Persia but were forced to flee and subsequently built businesses in the booming ports of Bombay and Calcutta. They acted as middlemen to the British and became successful bankers crucial to the early success of HSBC and the Chartered Bank of India. The Parsee contribution to Hong Kong far outweighs the small size of the community. Among their lasting legacies are road names (Mody Road, Kotewall Road and Bisney Road) the Star Ferry (founded by Mithaiwala Dorabjee Naorojee), social clubs and the University of Hong Kong. Parsees have even influenced Hong Kong’s linguistic heritage with the widespread use of the word ‘Shroff’; a Parsee family name. Today, Hong Kong’s Parsee community, a distinct ethnic and religious group, stands at an estimated 200 people. With only 100,000 Parsees worldwide – their numbers rapidly diminishing – this illustrious community is at risk of dying out. In 2009 The Hong Kong Heritage Project spoke to Ruby Master, the community’s first female trustee in Hong Kong, to find out more about her life story and the wider history of Parsees and Zoroastrianism in Hong Kong.

Ruby Master was born in Hong Kong in 1926. Her family history reflects the general pattern of Parsee settlement in Hong Kong, which started as an offshoot of the older Canton settlement. Ruby’s grandfather established a trading company in Canton in 1910 trading silks and spices while her granduncle worked for the law firm Johnston Stokes and Masters. Ruby’s father was brought into the family business in 1917. When the family office relocated to Hong Kong in 1925, he migrated south along with his young wife who became the youngest Parsee woman in the colony. The family lived on Wyndham Street, known as ‘Malacca’ by the Chinese for its ubiquitous Indian presence. Ruby remembers that the houses on Wyndham were much like the shop houses in Singapore today, ‘you would have your office on the ground floor or shop on your ground floor and you lived on the upper floors’. Ruby attended the Italian Convent School, today’s Sacred Heart Canossian College, with other Indian, Portuguese and Chinese girls. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong on 8 December 1941, many of her school friends fled Hong Kong. After the British surrender, the Indian community, along with the Portuguese, Eurasians and other neutral and Axis nationalities, were not interned in civilian camps but were instead free to live ‘at liberty’ as Third Nationals, sometimes in their own homes. This proved to be an illusory freedom as economic collapse, rampant inflation, scant rations and American bombing raids made life hard on the other side of the barbed wire fence.

Ruby, who was fifteen at the time of the invasion, reflects that ‘we had shortages of food, fuel everything.  It was hard … all our bank accounts were frozen and if we managed to live through the four years it was by selling bit by bit whatever valuables we had’. For a time Ruby was able to continue her schooling, though the Italian Convent School was soon closed by the Japanese. Life ‘in town’ was dominated by a strict curfew and Ruby rarely ventured outside the Wyndham Street area, though she spent afternoons at the Ruttonjee and Schroff households, who lived close by. Ruby’s war was mostly experienced from inside the family home, where she would help with housework and bake chapatis and bread, which were not freely available on the outside. Many Parsees were active during the Japanese Occupation. Jehangir Ruttonjee and his son Dhun were arrested for the help they gave to oppressed people in Hong Kong, other Parsees were arrested for the help they gave to the British. Several Parsee homes, most notably that of the Pavris family, were used to house Parsees who had been deprived of their own homes. In 1945 Ruby heard that the war was coming to an end thanks to a cousin who owned a (banned) shortwave radio. When the Japanese surrendered, she was jubilant. The Master family joined the crowds and watched Admiral Harcourt and his fleet land at Blake’s Pier at the end of August: ‘we were all on the waterfront waiting to cheer them, oh that was a wonderful day’.

Hong Kong victory celebrations 9 October 1945
Hong Kong Victory celebrations, October 1945. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

After the war Hong Kong became the largest centre for Parsees in the region when Parsees from Shanghai joined Shanghainese entrepreneurs and others leaving China. In the 1940s and 1950s Ruby worked for her father’s firm exporting cotton yarn to India and Pakistan. Along with other young people in the Indian community she enjoyed an active social life as Indian Regiments were stationed in Hong Kong and the ships of the Indian Navy hosted parties and galas from 1945 onwards. Charitable work has always been an important part of the Zoroastrian religion and Ruby became more deeply involved in the wider community with active roles in the Indian Women’s Club, where she was one of the first members to join in 1957, and the Hong Kong Girl Guides. In the 1980s and 1990s the demographics of the community changed again as Parsees came from overseas to work in large multinational firms. Many longstanding Parsees sought British citizenship and relocated to second homes worldwide as the 1997 Handover approached. Ruby decided to stay put in Hong Kong and was invited to the Handover ceremony on 30 June 1997 when ‘the heavens opened up’. She watched the parade in sodden shoes as the rain pounded the ceremony, her cheeks flecked by tears. ‘We’ve prospered here, we loved Hong Kong and this was our only home’. Today, Ruby’s home is still Hong Kong, where she lives with her extended family. The Parsee community remains close knit, and members meet for Navroze, the Persian New Year, or other festivals at the Zoroastrian Building in Causeway Bay. Ruby believes this sense of community is vitally important, especially as their numbers dwindle. ‘Once a year or so we even have little trips to Shanghai or to Macau or wherever … this way we get the community together’.

Special thanks to Ruby Master for sharing her life history with The Hong Kong Heritage Project.




Russian Refugees in Hong Kong

This article was originally written for The Hong Kong Heritage Project’s Past & Present magazine in 2019, and features the stories of non-Jewish and Jewish Russian refugees in Hong Kong during the mid-twentieth century.

Russians first arrived in China in the early twentieth century after the Bolshevik Revolution led to the collapse of the Russian Empire. More than a million loyalists, known as White Russians (in contrast to the Reds), fled the country. Around 300,000 migrated to nearby China, especially the treaty ports of Harbin, Tianjin and Shanghai. Harbin had been a de-facto Russian colony since 1898 – administered by Russian engineers who operated the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER) – and the headquarters-in-exile of the Russian Orthodox Church. Early twentieth century Harbin was a haven for political refugees of all stripes, a multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan city, with winding boulevards named after Russian writers and distinctive onion domed churches. Life for these early Russian emigres was comfortable but took a turn for the worse in 1924, when China officially recognised the Soviet Union, rendering White Russians stateless. In 1931 the Japanese occupied Manchuria and the ‘CER zone’, as it was known, became increasingly lawless. In the early 1930s, many Russians left Harbin. Youngsters such as Dr Solomon Bard (who was Jewish), founder of Hong Kong’s Antiquities and Monuments Office, fled Harbin for the safety of Hong Kong, while Luba Estes (née Skvorzov) and her family went to Shanghai.

Luba was born in Harbin in 1931 ‘both a refugee and stateless’ to a Russian Christian Orthodox family. Her father, Alexander Skvorzov, was an engineer with the CER. His father had been Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Harbin, appointed by the Tsarist government. In the mid-1930s the Skvorzovs, like many White Russian families, left Harbin. Not long after arriving in Shanghai they were forced to seek a new haven when the city was bombarded by the Japanese in 1937. During the bombardment, thousands of British nationals were evacuated to Hong Kong by the British government. As stateless Russians, the Skvorzovs were not evacuated but were able to leave the city thanks to an offer of employment from the Hongkong Engineering & Construction Company (HKECC), a Kadoorie owned business based in Hong Kong. Alexander was hired as a Structural Engineer in a senior managerial role and his family were housed in Kadoorie Avenue, a quiet tree-lined street in Mong Kok. Luba’s mother and father enjoyed an active social life and often mixed with other Russian families, many of whom lived in Kowloon Tong, close to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian community was always tight knit. Like many foreign communities in Hong Kong, they clung closely to their culture, language and food. Hong Kong was also a highly stratified society both before and after the war, and it was still considered taboo for a British officer or civil servant to marry a Russian woman in the 1950s.

A.V Skvorzov joined HKVDC, with daughter Luba Estes wearing school uniform c. 1939
Luba Estes with her father, Alexander Skvorzov, wearing HKVDC uniform, Hong Kong, 1939

In December 1941 the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, when Luba was only ten years old. Alexander served as an officer in the Hong Kong Volunteers Defence Corps (HKVDC). As an engineer he was trained to destroy bridges and roads. Luba remembers the first day of the invasion. She was getting ready to go to school when she heard the distant sound of bombing:

‘I was terrified and could see from a balcony of our house on Kadoorie Avenue in Kowloon, carpet bombing by Japanese aircraft coming over us. That day, instead of going to school, my sister, Loula (Skvorzov) Ballerand, my mother, Lalia Skvorzov, and I stayed in a nearby air-raid shelter. At 9pm my father, in the blackout and in his HKVDC uniform, took us to The Peninsula Hotel where an evacuation centre was being organised for families to leave the mainland.’

Alexander was captured by the Japanese and placed in a P.O.W. camp at Sham Shui Po and later transferred to Argyle Street. As stateless nationals the rest of the family were not interned. They were ‘at liberty’, moving from house to house under dangerous conditions and with no consular protection. Nearly six months later, in May 1942, Luba, her mother and sister were able to leave Hong Kong for Shanghai on the S.S. Tainan Maru. Luba remembers the heartache of leaving her father behind, and the unknown that awaited them in Shanghai:

‘Our departure from Hong Kong was a traumatic and heart wrenching event for my mother, my sister and for me. Before our departure, my mother was given permission to scribble a one-page open letter to my father in the presence of Colonel Isawa Tokunaga in his office. He permitted us to wave goodbye from a window in his office looking at my father from a distance.’

On their arrival in Shanghai, the Skvorzovs initially lived with Russian friends. It was to be one of many temporary homes over the next three years and three months. After the war, Luba returned to Hong Kong where she was reunited with her beloved father. As an amateur artist, and at great personal risk, he made a series of Chinese ink drawings depicting life in camp (in 2005 the sketches were published as ‘Hong Kong Prisoner of War Camp Life’). After the war life quickly returned to normal. The family moved back to Kadoorie Avenue. Alexander resumed his work at HKECC, working on various engineering and architectural projects which reflected the economy’s shift from trade to a manufacturing base. Luba attended King George V school (known as KGV) and enjoyed an active social life, attending high society balls at The Peninsula Hotel.

Luba Estes waves goodbye (right side) at Kai Tak airport, c. 1951
Luba waves goodbye to camera, Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong, 1952

In 1952 the family left Hong Kong for the United States, where Luba lives today. As the Skvorzovs were leaving Hong Kong, thousands of Russians flooded into the colony. It is estimated that around 20,000 White Russian refugees passed through Hong Kong from China in the years after 1949. An SCMP article written in 1965 depicted these refugees as curious oddities: ‘to many residents in the colony these refugees have become quite a familiar sight as they stroll in the streets dressed in their quaint 19th century Russian peasant costumes. But tourists still stop and stare in wonderment at the billowing trousers and high laced boots of the men and the ankle-skirted kerchiefed women’. Like the Skvorzovs, these refugees would not stay in Hong Kong. They lived in temporary boarding houses and hotels paid for by the newly established United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Council of Churches while waiting to board flights for Australia, Canada, and the United States. By the 1980s the White Russian community of Hong Kong had all but disappeared.

Special thanks to Luba Estes for sharing her life history and family photographs with The Hong Kong Heritage Project

References – thanks to: Stuart Heaver, Christopher DeWolf, Professor Peter Gatrell and Stefanie Scherr


Hong Kong’s Border Controls, the IRO and Resettlement for European DPs

I recently came across a letter from G. Findlay Andrew, Chief of the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) Far East office, to the Chief of Police in Hong Kong, D.W. Macintosh. The letter was written in 1950, when the Hong Kong Government instituted new border controls between China and Hong Kong in an attempt to limit the number of Chinese refugees entering the colony. Findlay Andrew was anxious to ensure that the IRO’s Resettlement and Repatriation Programme for European displaced persons (DP’s) would continue as normal despite the new Special Emergency Measures introduced in 1950. The IRO promises to honour Hong Kong’s new regulations, but also asks for leniency and exemption.

Findlay’s letter is illuminating in a number of ways. Firstly, we see the extent of the IRO’s involvement in European DP matters in Hong Kong (the IRO was founded in 1948 when it took over from UNRRA. In 1952 its operations ceased and the IRO was replaced by today’s UNHCR). The IRO helped thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees leave China from 1948 to 1952, many transited through the port of Hong Kong, which Findlay refers to as a ‘distribution centre’. Secondly, the IRO’s close working relationship with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and Horace Kadoorie in particular, is revealed. Thirdly, the letter shows the complexities of migration for non-Chinese and non-British ‘alien’ DP’s from China. As described below, there were bureaucratic nuances for each type of migration, whether individual, group or mass. I’ve written about the complexity in which Russian ‘refugee transients are onforwarded’ to their destinations here. We also glean that surprisingly, very few DP’s ever set foot in Hong Kong. Many were detained on ships and were not permitted to land on shore. Finally, as we’ve seen elsewhere in this blog in relation to Chinese refugees, the colonial government was loath to take on any social welfare responsibilities for DP’s, hence the IRO’s commitment to ‘provide the necessary accommodation and maintenance’.

For further information on the IRO’s work in China with Chinese displaced persons and Cold War politics, see Meredith Oyen’s article ‘The Right of Return’.

Here’s the letter below.


Letter from G. Findlay Andrew to D.W. Macintosh, 9 May 1950

As you are aware the IRO has during the past two years had a very large number of transients pass through the colony en route to the countries which have granted them reception visas. Due to the present development of events in China, Hong Kong has become increasingly a distribution centre from which the refugee transients are onforwarded to their destinations. No repatriate or resettler is brought out of China under the auspices of the IRO unless they have a valid destination visa. Their movements, however, have to be influenced by the following factors: –

  • Their departure from China has to be within the validity period of their ‘exit’ permit.
  • Their arrival at destination has to be before the expiration of their visa.

Generally speaking the movements fall under three categories:

  1. Individual movements with IRO Travel Certificate
  2. Group movements under direct IRO and / or American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee auspices. These are usually composed of groups of several hundred persons. The group of 260 who passed through on the S.S. General Gordon on the 4th Is a good example of such a movement.
  3. Mass movements none of which has, or is likely, to pass through Hong Kong.

The individual movements carry along the lines of ordinary transients who submit their individual applications for transit visas and conform to all details to the Government’s requirements. The Group movements are usually dealt with under a ‘bloc’ transit visa and this operation is dealt with under the discretion of the IRO, combined in the case of the Jewish DPs, with the AJJDC. These are usually ship to plane movements. There have been exceptions, however, when suitable surface transport has been available. In this latter case it has meant the group having to be kept in Hong Kong till the sailing of the oncarrier. During this period of detention the IRO has provided full maintenance with accommodation ashore or afloat and has assumed the responsibility for the departure at first opportunity.

With the reduced number of passenger vessels calling at this port together with very heavy advanced bookings, surface onforwarding is becoming increasingly difficult and it is increasingly apparent that IRO will have to rely more on aircraft for future movements. Where the numbers of any groups are sufficient to warrant the charter of a plane the problem will be simplified but where transients have to wait for schedule passenger planes there may be the necessity of a short stay-over in the colony.

I have set forth in detail the foregoing as a background for the following requests which are the main purpose of this letter –

  1. That under the new regulations the Resettlement and Repatriation Programme of the IRO may continue to receive the sympathetic cooperation of the Police and Immigration authorities of the Colony.
  2. That if, and when, unexpected happenings occur, such as the delay of a sailing or flight, due consideration may be given to the assurances and guarantee of the International Refugee Organisation. During such enforced delays the IRO will provide the necessary accommodation and maintenance.
  3. On the other hand, I would give you the assurance of the International Refugee Organisation, Far East Mission’s sincere desire to conform, in spirit as well as in the letter, with every requirement of the regulations. I know that in expressing this wish, I can also speak for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee which is represented in the colony by Horace Kadoorie.

Hong Kong: 1941

A large part of my thesis slog involves trying to understand Hong Kong on the eve of war. So I was delighted to come across a diary which reveals the social, political and economic life of the British colony in 1941, including attitudes towards the evacuation scandal, the treatment of British and Canadian soldiers, refugee humanitarianism and race relations between the Chinese and British in the period immediately preceding the fall of Hong Kong. I’ll be using this diary, which was written by a Brit, to write about the lives of Jewish soldiers immediately before the Japanese invasion in future blog posts.

But first, here’s a glimpse of Hong Kong in November 1941. As historian Philip Snow observed, the colony certainly coasted into the war with its ‘serenity unimpaired’:

‘The evacuation last year has not unduly interrupted the social life of the Colony, and the ballrooms of the principal hotels are still full in the evenings. I understand that within the past few years there has been a closer co-operation between Europeans and the Chinese though naturally old prejudices are hard to eliminate.

There is little or no shortage of food, clothing, etc., and as yet no rationing. But the cost of living has naturally increased considerably due to increased cost of production, shipping charges and the various local measures of war taxation (which include a salaries tax, but no income tax).

Even before the War there were few stage plays, and we now have to rely on amateur performances, usually given in aid of charity. Next week one local club is giving ‘The Trial of Mary Dugan’ and there will be three performances. Variety and other concerts are given from time to time to the troops, in aid of charity, or both. Shanghai gets American and occasional British films at about the same time as we get them in London. We get them a couple of months later.

For those of you interested in the history of civilian internment in Hong Kong, I recommend 99-year old Barbara Anslow’s diary, since turned into the book ‘Tin Hats and Rice’, which paints a vivid portrait of life as a POW in the Stanley Civilian Internment Camp.