Biographies of Hong Kong’s Early Jews

Recently I’ve been doing some digging into the history of Hong Kong’s most interesting historic Jewish figures. As you can see, not all were Baghdadi as the historiography would have you believe!

1. Emanuel Raphael Belilios (1837-1905), Sephardi

Belilios looking the dapper gent in Vanity Fair magazine, 1910. c. Wikipedia

Belilios arrived in Hong Kong in 1862 and established the business E.R. Belilios & Co., trading opium. He was chairman of HSBC in 1876 and served on the Legislative Council from 1881 to 1890. He was committed to education and founded the Belilios School for Boys in 1900.

2. Governor Sir Matthew Nathan (1862 – 1939), British

Governor Sir Matthew Nathan. c. Wikipedia

Matthew Nathan was born in London in 1862, the second son of Jewish parents. He was the first and only Jew to be appointed Governor of Hong Kong (1904 – 1907), representing a major milestone for the colony’s early Jewish community. During his tenure as Governor he pioneered the early development of Kowloon with the opening of Nathan Road, today a major thoroughfare, and developed the Kowloon-Canton Railway project which connected Hong Kong to China via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He also actively promoted education – particularly in technical fields – as he had a background and interest in engineering.

3. Lord Lawrence Kadoorie (1899 – 1993), Baghdadi, born in Hong Kong

Lawrence Kadoorie, right, in Central District, Hong Kong, 1950s. c. HKHP

Lord Lawrence Kadoorie was born in Hong Kong in 1899. He became partner of the Sir Elly Kadoorie & Sons in 1927 and expanded the family’s interests into textiles and manufacturing. He was CLP’s longest serving Chairman and was integral to the long-term success of the company, pioneering China’s first nuclear power station at Daya Bay. He was the first Hong Kong individual to be granted a peerage as Baron of Kowloon in 1981. Together with his brother Sir Horace Kadoorie, he established the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association to help Chinese refugee farmers in 1951. His interests included photography, sports cars and Chinese works of art.

4. Dr Solomon Bard (1916-2014), Russian from Harbin

Dr solomon Bard
Dr. Solomon Bard was the Chairman and sometime conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. c. SCMP

Dr Solomon Bard was born in Siberia, Russia and he moved to Harbin, China as a child with his family. He came to Hong Kong to study medicine in 1934 and served as a medical officer during the Battle of Hong Kong. He became the Director of the University Health Service of the University of Hong Kong in 1956 and was the first Executive Secretary of the new Antiquities and Monuments Office in 1976. He held various high-profile positions in arts and culture, and made significant contributions to the Hong Kong Museum of History. Dr Bard was also the Chairman of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and a talented violin player.

5. Harry Odell (1896 – 1975), Russian from Shanghai

Unfortunately I can’t find a picture of Odell so an image of the State Theatre, founded by Odell, will have to do. c. The Hollywood Reporter

Harry Odell arrived in Hong Kong in 1921 and married Sophie Weill, whose family owned the prestigious jewellers ‘Sennet Freres’. He fought in the Battle of Hong Kong and was interned in a POW camp. After the war, Odell started a film distribution business and became Hong Kong’s first impresario. He lobbied the government for a permanent auditorium and as a result, the Hong Kong City Hall was built. His MBE was awarded in honour of his contribution to Hong Kong’s cultural life.


The Battle of Shanghai, 1937

Death and destruction in Shanghai: exterior of the Cathay Hotel after the bombing raid of August 14, 1937. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In August 1937, during the Battle of Shanghai, 4,000 British men, women and children were evacuated to Hong Kong by order of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Some 200 British and Iraqi Jews were amongst the evacuees. Iraqi Jews had a confused and complicated status in China, where most sought British protection. As Maisie Meyer has shown, the British policy of naturalization was inconsistent and largely dependent on economic, social and humanitarian considerations including the status, wealth and position of Iraqi Jews (in the 1920s and 1930s around one third of Shanghai Sephardim were recognized as British subjects).[1]

The British government’s evacuation selection process, as well as shipping priorities and funding for specific evacuee groups, demonstrated its narrow understanding of British identity as influenced by religion and race, as well as the legal privilege attached to British status. The 1937 British refugee crisis also parallels the evacuation of British women and children from Hong Kong to Australia in the summer of 1941, which was also executed along racial lines. During my visit to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee archive in New York, I came across the following article which recounts the impact of the bombing raids on the Jewish community and their dispersal across Asia – including to Hong Kong.

Shanghai in the Shadows (October 1937)

Jews are bearing their full measure of suffering in war-torn Shanghai, where they are faced with a truly desperate situation. Refugee members of the community whose homes were in the Northern District have seen there possessions reduced to ashes, and others fear that looters have been busy in their absence. These people are now without means of subsistence or employment, for most of them owned shops, cafes and small factories, and among them are German Jews, now refugees twice over, they were just beginning to establish themselves in Shanghai when the new upheaval overwhelmed them.

The refugees are receiving aid from the local ‘Shelter House’ which is doing excellent work, and from other organisations, or have been taken in by friends, but their position is an unhappy one, for the community has been very hard hit by the present crisis. However, together with funds collected in Shanghai, there have been contributions from Jews in Kobe, Manila and elsewhere.

Apart from the refugees, other Jews who left for Shanghai for a brief summer vacation to Tsingtao Dairen, Japan or Kuling are stranded, as ships bringing as few people as possible to Shanghai and they write frantically for permission from the authorities to return, both of which are very difficult to obtain. A third group consists of Jews who left for Hong Kong. Approximately 200 hundreds Jews availed themselves of the opportunity afforded by the British authorities and were evacuated to Hong Kong, where they are being cared for as far as possible by the local Jewish community. However, the island is overcrowded, and many inconveniences have to be borne.

During the air-raids over the Settlement on August 14 and 23, six Jews were killed and several injured. Among the injured was a Jewess newly arrived from Kalgan who expected to find safety in Shanghai. On Yom Kippur, the evening service was conducted to the accompaniment of an air-raid, with a crescendo of loud and successive explosions, and the whine of aeroplane engines as an undertone. It was with heartfelt emotion and earnestness that prayers were offered up for a new year of peace among nations.[2]

[1] Meyer, Maisie, From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai (Lanham, 2003), 194 – 195

[2] The Jewish Chronicle, 29 October 1937

Hong Kong’s Early Jews

Subscribers to Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue, 1941

Not much has been written about Hong Kong’s Jewish community in the 1930s. Who were they and what was the size of the community?

The first Jews to arrive in Hong Kong were not affiliated with the Sassoons as is commonly thought, but were British and Australian merchants. Samuel H. Cohen was an adventurer from Sydney, Australia and arrived in Hong Kong in 1844 soon after it had become a British colony, whilst Jacob Phillips, a businessman from Birmingham, arrived in 1843 or 1844. In 1845 Elias David Sassoon opened an office in Canton, which marked the beginning of Sassoon interests in China. Many Jews who moved to Hong Kong from Iraq or India in the second half of the nineteenth century did so because of the employment opportunities afforded by the Sassoons in the tea and opium trade under the auspices of the British Empire. By 1900, there were 165 Jews living in Hong Kong, the majority of whom were Baghdadi.

With the development of Shanghai and the expansion of trade and industry in north China in the inter-war years, many Baghdadi Jews left for Shanghai. In the 1930s the arrival of Jewish refugees from Shanghai, Harbin and Europe – notably Iraqi, Russian, German and Austrian individuals – increased the size and plurality of the community, but Baghdadi Jews remained disproportionally influential. As Caroline Pluss has shown, the cultural hybrid identities of Baghdadi Jews in Hong Kong allowed them to access a myriad of Baghdadi, Jewish diasporic and British colonial networks and resources, thereby maximizing their cultural, economic and social capital in the colony.

The size of Hong Kong’s Jewish community in the 1930s can be inferred from various sources including eyewitness accounts and community records. Walter Buchler, a visitor to Hong Kong in 1936, noted that there were no more than 100 Jews in the colony. The first report of the Hong Kong Jewish Refugee Society was circulated to 136 Jewish individuals in December 1938, although it was felt that the appeal ‘has not reached every Jewish resident owing to the absence of a complete register’. The list may also have been sent to recent German and Austrian refugee arrivals. In a memorandum dated 1946, Lawrence Kadoorie estimated that there were 100 Jews in Hong Kong immediately before the war, of whom approximately 70% were Ashkenazi and 30% Sephardi. The records of the Ohel Leah Synagogue help shed further light on the extent of the community. The Statement of Accounts for December 1934 lists 45 male subscribers, whilst the statement for January 1939 lists 42 male members and 17 female members. Lawrence’s estimate of a community of around 100 persons in 1940 – 41 therefore seems accurate.


Fortress Hong Kong?

As part of my MPhil research I’m examining the obstacles and challenges faced by Central European refugees wishing to gain entry into Hong Kong before the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe by looking to the immigration ordinances that governed refugee policy and the relationship between Hong Kong and Britain.

I recently found a case at The National Archives (UK – TNA) that helps shed light on the British-Hong Kong relationship as well as the visa process which refugees needed to navigate in order to gain entry into Hong Kong. Dr. Frederick Reiss was a professor of dermatology at the National Medical College in Shanghai, and Chairman of the Medical Board for the Committee for Assistance of European Refugees in Shanghai under the direction of Michael Speelman (hence it was also known as the Speelman Committee). By September 1939 Reiss was President of the European Emigrants’ Associated Hospitals Committee in Shanghai and also head of the Shanghai Leprosorium. As a refugee from Nazi Germany, Reiss was one of many thousands who found refuge in Shanghai. However his first port of call was not the ‘Paris of the Orient’ – as Shanghai was then known – but rather the British colony of Hong Kong.

Committee for the Assistance of European Refugees in Shanghai
Committee for the Assistance of European Refugees in Shanghai, letterhead

I located Reiss’ file purely by chance whilst looking through the individual files held in the TNA series: Colonial Office – Records of the Colonial Office, Commonwealth and Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, Empire Marketing Board, and related bodies.  I remembered the name ‘Reiss’ from correspondence held in the HKHP Archive, as he was close friends with the Kadoories (most probably through the Speelman Committee connection). Reiss was born in Jerusalem on 26 September 1896 and lived and worked in Germany, most recently at the University Skin Clinic of Berlin, from whom he had procured a reference (written in German and kept as part of his file now held at the TNA). He moved to Paris on 26 August 1938 and by the time of his application to Hong Kong through the city’s British Passport Control Officer, he was living with his brother-in-law, Kahnheimer, also a refugee from Germany. Having escaped Nazi persecution in Germany, Reiss’ ultimate aim was to establish a medical practice in Hong Kong.

Dr Frederick Reiss’ reference, dated 23 November 1933


Kahnheimer secured the help of Mr. Blacklock, a solicitor who was to smooth the visa-procurement process. Blacklock wrote direct letters and sought appointments with the Eastern Department at the Colonial Office in Whitehall, thereby circumventing the usual visa procedure, a move which greatly displeased the civil servants assigned to his case. In a memo written in August 1938, one official writes: ‘Dr. Reiss’ friends have been rather troublesome, and if they only carried out the usual procedures for obtaining visas, etc. instead of trying to short circuit them through this office, it would have been a good deal more rapid and much easier for them (and incidentally for me!).’ By January 1939, correspondence between two colonial officials shows that a subordinate was advised not to send Blacklock’s letters to Hong Kong as it may imply Britain’s interference in this case, which they were at pains to deny: ‘send only the Passport Control form. Mr. Blacklock’s letter makes a lot of assumptions and we should not lead Hong Kong to believe that Colonial Office have promised ‘sympathetic’ consideration. And tell F.O. we are referring to Hong Kong’.

Clearly, Colonial Office officials were keen to demonstrate to both Hong Kong and the Foreign Office that no undue influence was exerted on Hong Kong’s immigration decisions. Such decisions, they noted, should be made under the auspices of Hong Kong’s Immigration and Passport Ordinance once the individual was in possession of a valid passport duly visaed by a ‘competent British authority’. But what became of Reiss? Did he succeed in procuring the Hong Kong visa? Probably not, although it becomes difficult to trace Reiss’ movements in the first half of 1939 as the outcome of his application is not recorded in the TNA file. The final application decision would have been made in Hong Kong as his case was sent to the Hong Kong Government on 3 February 1939. My guess is that Reiss’ application was turned down in Hong Kong and so he made the move directly to Shanghai (an interesting history of Newfoundland and their response to Jewish refugees makes the case that many applications from doctors were rejected on the basis of professional competition, see Paul Bartrop’s False Havens for further details).

As we have already seen, by September 1939 Reiss was already acting President of the European Emigrants’ Associated Hospitals Committee in Shanghai, and also head of the Shanghai Leprosorium. In November 1939, Reiss and his wife are mentioned in a letter by Philip Samuel (based in Shanghai) writing to his mother and father in England: ‘On Saturday I gave my first informal party – 5:30 to the Metropole Cinema to see the Chinese produced film ‘Lady Precious Stream’; then dinner and dancing at this hotel. My party comprised the Wilsons and Dr. and Mrs. Frederick Reiss, who had also entertained me at their flat. He is a celebrated Shanghai skin specialist, and she (Hungarian) is most artistic – her hobbies including floral arrangements a la Japonnaise and the running of the Jewish Refugee women’s workshops.’      

Eyewitness: Hong Kong on the eve of War

Last week I visited the University of Southampton to read the papers collected during the lifetime of Hon. Philip Ellis Herbert Samuel (1900-c.1992), today housed at Hartley Library’s Special Collections. With 6.5 million manuscript items and 50,000 printed books, the library is home to one of the largest Jewish archives in Western Europe, and so well worth a visit. I was first notified about the collection a couple of years ago by a historian friend researching life in 1930s Hong Kong for an upcoming book. She kindly revealed the close links between the Hong Kong Heritage Project (the archive of the Kadoorie family) and the P.E.H. Samuel collection housed at Southampton. Samuel was employed as the confidential office manager of Sir Elly Kadoorie & Sons in both Shanghai and Hong Kong during the period 1939 – 1941. His papers provide a vivid first-hand account of the day-to-day workings of various Kadoorie businesses and also depict Hong Kong British-Jewish society on the eve of the Japanese Occupation.

Samuel was the son of British political royalty: his father, Herbert Louis Samuel, first Viscount Samuel, was the leader of the Liberal Party in Britain from 1931 – 1935 and the first High Commissioner of Palestine in 1920 – 1925. His letters to his mother, Beatrice, and father, Herbert, are often touching and affectionate, showing signs of a close familial bond. Samuel’s letters and diaries also shed light on a number of important and controversial historical events in Hong Kong on the cusp of war, including the evacuation of British women and children (for more information and first-hand accounts of the evacuation see Vivian Kong’s excellent blog), the Chinese refugee crisis, military training of volunteers and racial discrimination in the ill-fated Immigration Department – this is also covered in more detail in my blog post here.

Samuel arrived in Shanghai from Southampton in August 1939 to work for the Kadoorie family. He was met by Horace Kadoorie at Hong Kew and stayed for several weeks at Marble Hall, the family’s palatial Shanghai home, before settling into the arguably just-as-luxurious Palace Hotel. Samuel was soon introduced to another side of Shanghai, a city that had long been home to extremes of both rich and poor, as he had arrived in the midst of a Chinese, Russian and European refugee crisis. He describes his initial contact with refugees from Central Europe following a visit to a refugee ‘camp’ with Horace Kadoorie in August:

‘This camp is housed in a well-built school building with plenty of light and air, but they have to sleep in bunks (upper and lower) so as to house the maximum number. Apart from 16,000 refugees from this source, there are in Shanghai many thousands who previously came from Russia, and over a million Chinese who have come into the Settlement and French Concession and the area known as ‘Greater Shanghai’ as a result of Sino-Japanese hostilities. I hope to see more of those camps and of the Schools during my present stay in Shanghai’.

Horace Kadoorie with Miss Smith and William Deman
William Deman (teacher at SJYA School), Miss Smith and Horace Kadoorie

As someone with a keen background in volunteering and social work, Samuel immediately showed a natural interest in supporting Horace Kadoorie in the day-to-day management and operation of the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association (SJYA), an organisation established to provide aid and education to these Jewish refugees. In one of his many letters home, Samuel describes the charitable work undertaken by the Kadoorie family:

‘The problem of the refugees here is terrific. Hundreds of them are being fed by Sir Elly and his sons; and thousands – including grown-ups – are receiving education, either general or in English and in business or other subjects to fit them to take up a new career. It is not only in the provision of money and guidance that they excel. They have accurate means of discovering the needs of individual cases of hardship, and will often personally provide soup or cod liver oil to someone who is in sore need. Consumption is very general among these refugees owing to under-nourishment: so they have presented a fine X-ray installation to one of the hospitals here on condition that a free examination is made of any refugee who may be suffering from T.B.’

Following eight months in Shanghai, Samuel was transferred to Hong Kong on 20 April 1940. He was initially lodged in the Peninsula Hotel and later moved to 31 Kadoorie Avenue in August 1940 following an invitation to share the home of W.R. Lambert, manager of the E.D. Sassoon office in Hong Kong, whose wife and two sons had been evacuated to Australia. Samuel worked as the office manager of the Hong Kong branch of Sir Elly Kadoorie and Sons, then housed on the second floor of St George’s Building. Samuel soon became active in Hong Kong’s social and religious life. He subscribed to Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue and began attending lectures at the Jewish Recreation Club organised under the auspices of the newly formed Hong Kong Jewish Youth Association. The talks were given by individuals in Hong Kong’s small Jewish community: in April Dr. H. Talbut gave a lecture on Sigmund Freud and in the following month Mrs. J.N. Frenkel spoke on the topic of ‘The Problems of Modern Youth’ –  a perennially fashionable topic it would seem! Samuel became firm friends with many in the Hong Kong Jewish community and was especially fond of E.M. Raymond, with whom he often went walking in Repulse Bay, an area noted for its natural beauty.

Peninsula in the early days
The Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong pictured soon after its opening in 1928

Importantly, Samuel also encountered several European Jewish refugees including Edgar Laufer who hailed from Berlin and worked as the Chief Chemist at China Light and Power, as well as a mystery Viennese refugee couple and their 16-year-old daughter who Samuel treated to a night at the cinema in June 1940. In September 1940 Samuel informed his parents that he had started military training as a volunteer under Major Harry Owen Hughes. In the same letter he also described in detail the activities of the SJYA, excusing his letter’s diversion to Shanghai by explaining: ‘I side-tracked myself on this aspect of social work as there is nothing comparable to it in Hong Kong where the Jewish community is small and refugees from Europe have been expelled.’ As Samuel had made clear, by September 1940 many Jewish refugees had already left Hong Kong for Shanghai. I’ll be writing about the background to this as well as the internment and expulsion of the refugees in an upcoming blog post.