In the 1950s Hong Kong became a base of international humanitarianism as NGOs opened offices in the colony to help assuage the Chinese refugee crisis. The newly formed United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) dispatched a mission to Hong Kong in 1952 – its original remit was actually to help Europeans displaced in China (see letterhead above). Other organisations were founded to help Chinese refugees who were, according to the UNHCR deputy commissioner James Read, ‘living in the most primitive circumstances … their houses are shacks and lean-tos, put together from a few pieces of wood and corrugated iron … sanitary arrangements are non-existent’. These included voluntary organisations rooted in Hong Kong’s Chinese communities, Kaifong Associations, global Christian missions and politically influenced secular NGOs, which dispensed housing, food and sanitation for Hong Kong’s growing refugee population.
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.
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
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.