Dr Jean (Eugene) Frommer

Jewish doctors were among the first targets of Nazi persecution when in April 1933 restrictions were placed on the number of physicians in German National Health Insurance practices. Deprived of their profession at home, physicians sought to enter the medical practice abroad, mainly in Britain and the United States. It was a task complicated by regulations that gave local doctors certain privileges. In Britain for example, ‘alien’ doctors needed to study and re-qualify but this did not automatically confer the right to practise nor did it mean a place on the General Medical Council register. Humanitarian support from individuals in Britain sat uneasily with restrictionism from professional bodies such as the Medical Practitioner’s Union which took an anti-alien line for fear of foreign competition.

In Hong Kong, as in Australia and Canada, refugee physicians were also met with anti-competitive legislation. Medical practitioners seeking to register and practise in the British colony needed to adhere to the Medical Registration Ordinance (1935). The ordinance gave preference to degree holders and professors from the University of Hong Kong and persons already registered in British dominions. For foreign doctors holding degrees, licences or diplomas from Europe, the United States or Japan, their qualifications needed to be recognized as ‘entitling to registration by the General Council of Medical Education and Registration of the United Kingdom.’ According to the 1939 Register of Medical and Surgical Practitioners, there were no European medical practitioners registered in Hong Kong except those who had qualified in Italy, with whom Britain had reciprocal medical qualification arrangements. The majority of Hong Kong’s registered physicians therefore qualified in Hong Kong or in England and Scotland, although there was also a sizeable minority with qualifications from Japan.

Aid to China Must Go On, China Defence League newsletter, 1 October 1939

One of the few European Jewish refugee physicians to secure a place on Hong Kong’s medical register in the 1930s was Dr Jean (Eugene) Frommer, a Hungarian physician. He was able to do so as a graduate of the University of Pisa in Italy, which as we have seen had a reciprocal arrangement with Hong Kong. Dr Frommer practised in Florence until anti-Semitic legislation forced him to seek refuge in the Far East. After his arrival in Hong Kong, Dr Frommer worked as a surgeon in hospitals for wounded Chinese soldiers in China, on which he reported: ‘the Chinese soldiers are more courageous than European troops. I could perform operations without using anaesthetics. In the interior their morale is excellent and they are not only holding their ground but are driving the Japanese back’. Dr Frommer was sent by the South West China Relief Organisation to Kangchow, Kiangsi to bring back Rewi Alley, a New Zealander and adviser to the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives, who was suffering from typhoid. He also worked at the Cue Lup Hospital at Shekki, where ambulances full of wounded soldiers came rolling in from the front every day: ‘the Japanese have tried three times to occupy Shekki, burning villages and bombing civilians as well as troops. But wounded soldiers coming into hospital have refused operations in order to get back to the front line again. One soldier with a bullet lodged in his hip flatly refused to have it removed by an operation as he said it would keep him too long away from the front’. On three occasions Japanese planes came to Shekki whilst Dr Frommer was stationed there.

According to the Biographical Dictionary of Medical Practitioners in Hong Kong, Dr Frommer opened his own private practice in Kowloon in 1941. He was married to Iram Frommer, Lady Medical Officer for the Hong Kong Government and also a Hungarian Jewish refugee.

Further reading

  1. Hong Kong Medical Registration Ordinance (1935)
  2. Collins, Kenneth, ‘European Refugee Physicians in Scotland, 1933-1943’, Social History  of Medicine 22 (2009)


Edgar Laufer

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.


Refugee Musicians

Several Jewish refugees worked as musicians at Hong Kong’s famous Gloucester Hotel

In Shanghai, German and Austrian refugees were successful in forging a cultural life of their own replete with newspapers, Viennese cafes and Yiddish theatre troupes as they sought to recreate the cultural practices of their homelands in new, temporary and alien environments. The arrival of these refugees also enhanced Shanghai’s western music scene. Refugee musicians fell into two groups: amateur and professional. Whilst the former performed in Shanghai’s dance halls, cabarets and bars as an alternative means to survive, professional musicians attempted to enter Shanghai’s serious world of music with some success, at least until Pearl Harbour. Refugee composers and artists performed with the Municipal Orchestra and found jobs as music teachers. They also formed chamber music groups, musical ensembles and a light opera company.

Although Hong Kong’s (western) cultural scene was seen as less developed than metropolitan Shanghai, musicians were still in high demand. The Sino-Japanese conflict had created a housing crisis and social problems in Hong Kong but also provided a tremendous boost to the economy as foreign trade was diverted through the colony, bank’s relocated their headquarters and the huge influx of refugees created a boom in land sales and government revenues. Despite the Chinese refugee crisis, the outbreak of war in Europe and hostilities in China, there was an attitude of ‘business as usual’ in Hong Kong as galas were held at The Peninsula Hotel and cafes and dance halls were as crowded as ever. The memoirs of Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke recall the care-free British attitude following the fall of Canton ‘… the pleasures of life appeared to suffer little interruption … in the evening there was the endless exchange of dinner parties, drinks and dancing in the big hotels’. The German and Austrian refugees employed as musicians in Hong Kong’s top-tier hotels and restaurants were of a professional calibre but due to their small numbers they were unable to organize a distinct musical community to rival that of Shanghai. Most were recruited directly from Shanghai and performed in bands together with other refugees. Some had been highly successful in their native Austria and Germany but were grateful for the lesser opportunities afforded in Hong Kong, which meant survival and a livelihood.

Of the 94 refugees registered as enemy aliens from September 1939 to August 1940, 64 were employed by Hong Kong firms or managed their own business interests in the colony. Of this group, nine were engaged as musicians. Adolphe ‘Aaron’ Landau, a French citizen from Shanghai and subscriber to Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue, employed seven refugees at two of his restaurants: Jimmy’s Kitchen and the Parisian Grill. Landau partnered with Shanghai-based Jimmy James to open a Hong Kong branch of ‘Jimmy’s Kitchen’ in 1928, a popular western style restaurant with branches in Shanghai. Landau employed several German and Austrian refugees as managers and cashiers of his restaurants in Hong Kong and procured professional musicians directly from Shanghai. He entered into a bond of $7,000 at the Colonial treasury on behalf of at least three of these refugees, all of whom were musicians. Landau’s employment of husband-wife partnerships and the undertaking of government bonds on behalf of refugees indicate a clear humanitarian motive.

A further five professional musicians were employed by the Gloucester Hotel in 1938-1939. Opened in 1932, the hotel restaurant was installed with a special sprung dance floor that became a popular destination for Hong Kong’s wealthy residents and tourists. Mary’s father was employed by the hotel in 1939. In Vienna he worked as a professional musician: ‘he had his own band at times, played for the opera and as a young boy he was part of the Viennese choir boys’. The family left Vienna for Shanghai in November 1938 when Viktor’s saxophone was confiscated by the Nazis. Once in Shanghai friends helped him purchase new instruments and Viktor soon secured a job at Hong Kong’s Gloucester Hotel: ‘he was able to obtain a yearly contract in Hong Kong to join a band, which he did. We did, we left in April of 39’ for Hong Kong. And that was, we thought, we found heaven. And he was very happy working there and we had a nice place to live and I went to a lovely school and it was very nice.’ Other refugee musicians were also able to procure jobs in Hong Kong: ‘In the band there were three other, or four, three or four other families that were also refugees only they were able to join the band on their way to Shanghai, because we went through Hong Kong on our way to Shanghai but we, we just had to double back’.