The International Tracing Service and the ‘Legacies of Political Humanitarianism’

Last night I attended a fascinating talk at London’s Wiener Library on the International Tracing Service (ITS), an agency established by the Western Allies during World War II to locate and reunite persons missing as a course of the hostilities. Historian Dr. Jennifer Rodgers described how and why anxieties about the possession of and access to the archives by various state and non-state actors defined the ITS and its mandate. The ITS was one of the most contested humanitarian services of the post-war world, and Dr Rodgers’ research shows how the agency was exploited by various parties to steer post-war agendas, win hearts and minds and to negotiate the history of Third Reich crimes.

I was interested to learn how humanitarianism was used as a soft power tool and a means of cultural diplomacy, and to discover the ways in which the management of the archive reinforced Cold War borders to the detriment of Nazi victims.

In tandem, Dr Rodgers addressed how archives have long influenced politics and social memory. It is worth remembering that those who control the archive control the past, as well as aspects of the future.

You can follow the ITS archive on Twitter here and learn more about Dr. Rodgers’ work here. There is also an excellent (free) exhibition that tells the little-known history of the ITS and the search for Holocaust survivors called ‘Fate Unknown: The Search for the Missing after the Holocaust’ now on display at the Wiener Library.


Finding Hong Kong History

Today’s blog post is a brief overview of where and how to find Hong Kong history online. I’ll save the list of archives for another day!

First of all, the Old Hong Kong Newspapers web page on the Hong Kong Public Libraries website is an excellent resource for anyone looking for primary source material on Old Hong Kong. You can search within a wide selection of Chinese and English language newspapers, including the China Mail and the Hong Kong Daily Press, by entering key words in the search engine.

Speaking of newspapers, you can also purchase access to the South China Morning Post Historical Archive, with the first issue stretching back to the newspaper’s founding in 1903. Although there is a paywall (which doesn’t come cheap), the search engine is powerful and the newspapers easier to download than on the Public Libraries website.

Now let’s turn to government records. Of course, the Public Records Office, with its excellent Carl T Smith Collection (and recently updated website), should be the very first port of call for any Hong Kong historian. But for those working outside of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Government Reports Online, a Hong Kong University Library digital initiative, is the next best thing. It provides digital access to four major government publications, namely: the Administrative Report, Hong Kong Hansard, Hong Kong Sessional Papers and Hong Kong Government Gazette. Simply type in a key word, set the date parameters, and off you go.

You can also download council meetings of the Legislative Council from 1858 until 1997 here.

Blogs and websites administered by historians and enthusiasts are another excellent resource. Over at the crowd-sourced and award winning Gwulo website, you can find obscure links to all corners of the internet, anecdotal evidence, memoir, photographs, GPS tagging and more. Its strength lies in the site’s comments section, where relatives and old Hong Kongers regularly post messages and recollections of people, places and events, allowing users to trace the lives of the most marginal figures in the darkest corners of Hong Kong’s history. Similarly, check out Tony Banham’s Hong Kong War Diary for everything on the 1941 defence of Hong Kong and the ensuing occupation. Brian Edgar’s thoughtful blog traces his family’s history and along the way examines race, war and colonialism in Hong Kong through an academic lens. The Hong Kong History Project blog, a relatively recent newcomer to the Hong Kong blogging scene, has all kinds of useful information including a must-read annotated bibliography by historian Vaudine England and a directory of academics working at universities around the world. The project is based at the University of Bristol and aims to encourage new research into Hong Kong’s politics, society, culture and economy.


Empire of Humanity

After a six month maternity sabbatical I’m finally back at work on the ole’ PhD. What better way to return to the thesis (and this blog) than to read Empire of Humanity by Michael Barnett. As I grapple with the dynamics of humanitarianism in inter-war Hong Kong, Barnett’s pioneering study reveals the ambiguities of the international humanitarian order and gives much needed clarity to a discipline all too often guided by mythology and absolutist and binary arguments.

Empire Humanity

Barnett’s seminal book opens with the assertion that ‘all communities get their history wrong, and the humanitarian community is no exception’. He recounts the humanitarian ‘origin story’ through its original hero, Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman and activist whose ‘life transformative’ experience at the Battle of Solferino in the mid-nineteenth century resulted in his moral awakening, and eventually, in the formation of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions. In the twentieth century, as traditional histories recount, the destruction and longevity of the First World War led to a surge in private voluntary relief organisations, including Save the Children, an organisation still prominent today. After 1918, states established the first of many international humanitarian organisations, among them the High Commission for Refugees, a largely ineffectual organisation during the Jewish refugee crises of the 1930s. After the Second World War, against the backdrop of a decolonised world, many organisations originally created for exclusively European based relief extended their scope and mandate to the rest of the world. As Barnett says, ‘humanitarianism had gone global’.

In the post Cold-War period, many historians look to the 1990s as a break with the non-political and impartial humanitarianisms of the past, towards a world where humanitarian organisations adopted the role of state builders, advancing the foreign policy interests of the west. It’s a watershed decade of moral corruption, when humanitarian agencies enter the murky and morally taboo nexus of politics. Barnett rejects this interpretation and turns away from binary classifications of humanitarianism as ‘ethics versus politics’. Humanitarians and humanitarianism, he argues, were politicised well before the 1990s. Instead, Barnett calls for a more complex, and morally complicated, understanding of humanitarianism. He writes that ‘humanitarians must get their hands dirty, they must make difficult choices and compromises as they live the credo that the perfect should never be the enemy of the good’. In other words, the imperfect world in which humanitarians live and operate often means that they can’t, and don’t, practice what they preach. Barnett takes a global view of humanitarianism and critically examines the convergence of geopolitics, capitalism and ethics, exploring the ways in which these shape contemporary understandings of the humanitarian mission. He argues that humanitarianism has become increasingly public, hierarchical and institutionalised, and that paternalism, for good or bad, has played an important part throughout its history.

Barnett explores the inherent tensions of humanitarian history through six central arguments, which I’ve summarised below:

  1. Humanitarianism is a creature of the world it aspires to civilise: the moral vision of humanitarians is limited by culture, circumstance and contingency. The phase of Imperial Humanitarianism (nineteenth century to World War Two) was limited by colonialism, commerce and civilising missions. Barnett concedes that humanitarian actors do exert agency in that they often reflect upon their actions and attitudes
  2. We live in a world of humanitarianisms, not humanitarianism: humanitarians define ‘humanitarianism’ against their goals and constraints. How do humanitarians conceptualise their own humanitarianism?
  3. Humanitarian ethics are simultaneously universal and circumstantial: any humanitarian ethic is rooted in contemporary notions of humanity and victimhood.
  4. Humanitarianism is defined by the paradox of emancipation and domination: humanitarianism operates in the best tradition of emancipatory ethics. It aspires to keep people alive, expand their opportunities, and give them greater control of their fates. Yet any act of intervention, no matter how well intended, is also an act of control, as well as an exertion of power. Control and care is partly paternalism. Barnett argues that paternalism is not simply an unsavoury legacy of the nineteenth century, but instead represents the best and worst of humanitarianism today
  5. Humanitarianism both undermines and advances moral progress: although the notion of ‘progress’ is heavily contested as both Euro-centric and a by-product of the civilising mission, the concept of ‘community’ must also include the mutual obligations and mutual responsibilities of its members
  6. Humanitarianism is about meeting the needs of others and meeting our own needs: what motivates humanitarian actors? Is it power and superiority? Or are we driven by guilt, religious redemption, or to prove our goodness to ourselves, and to others? Barnett turns away from these facile explanations and instead focuses on moments of atonement. He argues that the act of giving to strangers is as much about ourselves, and that it is within this central paradox that the ambiguities of humanitarianism are best conveyed. Could it be that our needs drive the actions that benefit others? Food for thought as I embark upon my next chapter!

Barnett, Michael ‘Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism’, 2011 (Cornell University Press)


The Jewish Recreation Club (Hong Kong)

Architectural drawing for the new Jewish Recreation Club, 1950

The Jewish Recreation Club (JRC) of Hong Kong was founded in 1905 as a modest one-roomed building. Sir Elly Kadoorie later offered to pay for the expansion of the building, which was enlarged in 1909. The JRC opened its doors to Jews of every nationality and helped foster friendships among people of diverse backgrounds and cultures. In the early years of the club, members enjoyed tennis, croquet and bowls played in grounds adjacent to the Ohel Leah Synagogue. Although at first the club was closed for games on Saturday (the Sabbath – the day of rest), leisure activities became so popular that the rule was relaxed.

During the 1930s, when war in Europe and China loomed, leisure and social pursuits gave way to community service. Iraqi Jewish refugees fleeing the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai in 1937 and European Jewish refugees escaping Nazism in 1938 were temporarily housed in the club. In December 1941, the Japanese invaded Hong Kong. The JRC survived the Japanese Occupation until two weeks prior to the termination of hostilities, when Japanese forces pulled the club down.

Record 7
Programme for the Purim Ball, held at the Jewish Recreation Club, 1950

The club was eventually rebuilt in 1949. The Purim Ball, held on 11 March 1950, was one of the first social events held in the new club building. Purim is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the salvation of the Jewish people from Haman in ancient Persia, a story recounted in the biblical book of Esther.


The Kadoorie Family

Formerly merchant farmers of Jewish origin, the Kadoorie Family settled in Baghdad, Iraq many centuries ago, and were amongst the leaders of their community. Silas Kadoorie, prominent philanthropist and patriarch of the Kadoorie Family, was married to Reemah Yacoob Elaazar Yacob in the nineteenth century. She was related to the Sassoon Family and together they had one daughter and six sons. In 1845, Elias Sassoon, son of David Sassoon, pioneered the settlement of Baghdadi Jews to the Far East.

In the late 1870s, Eleazar Silas (Elly) Kadoorie, son of Silas Kadoorie, followed this trend and left his family home to seek his fortune. He travelled to Hong Kong via Bombay to serve as a clerk in E. D. Sassoon & Co., arriving in Hong Kong in May 1880. Elly’s elder brother, Moshi, who had preceded him, was also employed in Sassoon’s and later, in 1883, he was joined by his younger brother Ellis. Elly left Hong Kong and was transferred to North China as the Deputy Manager of Sassoon’s branch in Wuhu (Anhui Province) and later moved to Ningbo. During an outbreak of plague, Elly withdrew a barrel of disinfectant without permission  and for this he was reprimanded. He later left the company and returned to Hong Kong, where his brother, Moshi, gave him HK$500 to start anew. With this money, Elly set himself up as a broker, establishing “Benjamin, Kelly and Potts” with his partners, George Potts and Sassoon Benjamin, which soon became the premier brokerage house in Hong Kong; representing the small man’s interest. This firm was to play an important role in promoting China Light and Power Co. Ltd. (China Light) as a successful local company. Both Elly and Ellis used the name “Kelly” in the early years of their business careers, but resumed their original surname in 1901. Whilst Ellis was to remain a bachelor all his life, Elly married Laura Mocatta in 1897. A keen diarist, painter and adventurous traveller, Laura hailed from the prestigious Mocatta Family, a Jewish family originally from Spain. Among other activities, they operated as the sole bullion dealers for the Bank of England’s first century of operation in the 1600s and were one of the early Jewish families to establish themselves in England along with the Montefiores and others. Together, Laura and Elly had three sons; Lawrence and Horace, and Victor who died in infancy.

In the course of time, both Elly and his brother Ellis did much to promote the expansion of trade and industry in Hong Kong and Shanghai. In 1911, Elly’s family moved to Shanghai, where he made his fortune trading in Malayan rubber, later focusing on Shanghai based business and industrial ventures. The brothers would go on to invest in many successful companies such as the Peak Tramways Co. Ltd., Hong Kong’s pioneering transport system, The Hongkong Hotel Co. (later to become The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, Ltd.) and China Light, the sole electricity supplier to Kowloon and the New Territories, as well as the Shanghai Gas Co. Ltd. and the Shanghai Land Investment Co. Ltd. In 1919, Elly’s Shanghai home on 161 Bubbling Well Road (West Nanjing Road) caught fire, and Laura tragically lost her life by returning to the house to rescue the governess. In 1922, Ellis passed away. Elly became a China Light Director in 1928 and was invited to take a seat on The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels board in the same year. Both Elly and Ellis received a number of honours and awards throughout their careers, including knighthoods.