Refugee Employers

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been compiling a list of Hong Kong companies that employed Jewish refugees. As I discover more employers, several questions crop up: did they hire Jewish refugees because of their skills, or as a humanitarian gesture? What were the hiring practices of the time? To use Catherine Ladds’ term, how were refugees able to navigate and exploit the ‘imperial circuits’ used by mobile Europeans in China?

To answer these questions, I need to begin with the employers themselves. Here’s a little background on the companies I have found so far:

The Comptoir Anglo-Continental hired several Jewish refugees. This company is proving particularly elusive, although I believe it was a British bank.

Post-publishing note: I’ve since discovered that Hans Diestel, a Jewish refugee escaping the bombardment of Shanghai in 1937, was hired by The Comptoir Anglo-Continental in Hong Kong in around June 1938. He was also the Joint-Secretary of the Jewish Refugee Society. Could he have been responsible for hiring several Jewish refugees?

Gilmans & Co. was another firm that employed Jewish refugees. It’s listed in Solomon Bard’s Traders of Hong Kong: Some Foreign Merchant Houses, 1841 – 1899 (1993) as one of the oldest firms in China, founded by Richard James Gilman. In its early years, the company exported tea and silk and imported textiles, it also played an important role in the formation of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, today’s HSBC. Although the company floundered in China, it survived in Hong Kong and diversified into the motor car trade. Its legacy can be seen in Hong Kong’s street names: Gilman’s Bazaar and Gilman Street.

Post-publishing note: Paul Braga, friend and business associate of the Kadoories, was a senior manager at Gilmans in the 1930s. M.H. Rackusan, a member of the Ohel Leah Synagogue, also worked here. Could they have collaborated to hire Jewish refugees in the firm?

Carlowitz & Co. was the only German entity to employ Jewish refugees, although this is partly explained by the fact that many German companies did not return to Hong Kong after the First World War. The founder Richard von Carolwitz was born in Dresden. Carlowitz & Co. started life as a shipping and merchant house in Canton, and later branched out into insurance in the various treaty ports of China.

Edgar Laufer

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Edgar Laufer, pictured 1948

Edgar Laufer (1917 – 2010) was one of three Jewish refugees employed at China Light & Power (CLP) by Lawrence Kadoorie in the 1930s, and possibly the only Jewish refugee scientist in Hong Kong. His career in the company spanned 42 years (1938 – 1980) and began in CLP’s Chemical Services Department where he set up the lab at Hok Un Power Station. Edgar later joined Head Office in 1958 and became an integral member of management, working on the Esso partnership and the Scheme of Control amongst other high profile projects.

Edgar left Berlin in June 1937 to study chemistry and Chinese at the Lingnan University in Canton with funds sent to him by a friend in the United States, choosing China thanks to his childhood fascination with the stamps sent to him by his uncle, Dr. Bethold Laufer, curator of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Although he never spoke of his escape from Nazism during his lifetime, Edgar described his feelings of loss in a letter to the Colonial Secretariat in 1940: ‘I have always, for impersonal reasons, been most strongly opposed to National  Socialism and all it stands for. When I was disenfranchised as a Jew, I considered myself no longer a German citizen’. Whilst studying in Canton, Edgar was introduced to Lawrence Kadoorie, then Director of CLP by Herbert Samuel, the company statistician. Edgar’s late uncle was known to the family as he had corresponded with Horace Kadoorie on the subject of ancient Chinese ivories. In 1938 Edgar spent his summer holidays in Hong Kong, visiting friends and working for CLP on a part-time basis. He fled China in October 1938 when Canton fell to the Japanese military and the university was moved to Hong Kong, temporarily utilizing the University of Hong Kong as its base. Laufer described the flight in an interview in 2007:

‘I went and studied in Canton, but the Japanese invaded Canton, they’d come south of Burma, but I think in the autumn of ’38, which was when we had to flee from Canton quite suddenly … I don’t remember the details, it meant taking a boat to some part of Guangdong from Canton on the river and then taking a bus to Macau, and eventually taking the boat, overnight boat from Macau to Hong Kong.’

In November 1938 Edgar was employed by CLP on a part-time basis to undertake research on coal and water. He was able to bring his brother and his parents, Thodore Laufer and Kela Carry Laufer, to safety from Berlin to Hong Kong with the help of Lawrence Kadoorie. Edgar later arranged for his brother to leave for Chicago to continue his studies at the Hebrew Theological College. In October 1939 Lawrence Kadoorie proposed a loan of $100 a month to financially support Edgar and his family: ‘the reason for doing this and not requesting help from the (Jewish Refugee) Society is that the boy has a proud nature and will I know endeavor to the best of his ability to repay the loan as soon as he possibly can’.

Following his graduation in 1940, Edgar set up the first chemical lab at CLP’s Hok Un Power Station. During the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong he was at liberty due to his German nationality and he helped deliver care packages to British internees in Stanley Internment Camp. Libby Sharpe, who as a baby was interned in the camp with her mother, described Edgar’s kindness:

 ‘Edgar did a wonderful job. He went from camp to camp, he brought my father the news that I was born, and he brought back … the only thing my father had, and goodness how he had it, was a bar of chocolate, so he sent a bar of chocolate back through Edgar to my mother.’

Edgar was nationalized as a British citizen in 1947 and continued to dedicate his time and energy to CLP’s success. In the 1970s he helped collect information on CLP’s history for Nigel Cameron’s book ‘Power’, which told the story of CLP. He retired to England in the 1980s and passed away in 2010.