The Jewish Recreation Club (Hong Kong)

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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.

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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.

Hong Kong’s Early Jews

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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.

 

A History of Jews in Hong Kong, 1946

I’m currently reviewing the historiography of European refugees in Hong Kong. Much of the literature on wider Hong Kong Jewry was written in the 1980s following the establishment of the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society (JHS) in 1984. The aim of the society was to establish a library of Sino-Judaic studies, document the Hong Kong Jewish experience and publish widely on the subject. Working to this brief, the Past Chairman of the JHS, Dennis Leventhal, wrote and edited a number of monographs including ‘Faces of the Jewish Experience in China‘ (1990) which explored the community’s Baghdadi roots and decried the paucity of adequate internal records by which to tell the story of Hong Kong Jewry. Due to this lack of internal records, many historians have relied on accounts written by Lawrence Kadoorie (Lord Kadoorie), who is considered both an authoritative and rare eye-witness of this era. The Kadoorie Memoir of 1979, published as a monograph by the JHS in 1985, is an oft cited source of information on Hong Kong Jewry, as is his Review of Community Affairs published in the same year.

So I was delighted to come across an unpublished and previously unseen account written by Kadoorie only a few years after the Jewish refugees of 1938 had arrived in Hong Kong. Kadoorie may have been prompted to record his memories of the wider Jewish community in part due to the destruction of the Jewish Recreation Club during the Japanese Occupation. Here is the account in full, written in May 1946. As you can see in the second to last paragraph, Kadoorie mentions the 24 Jewish refugee families who settled in Hong Kong before the War:

The first official record of Jews coming to Hong Kong was when the British founded the Colony in 1841 and the merchant firm of Sassoons, then established in Canton, opened an office here. For many years after that, the Jewish Community consisted chiefly of Sephardic Jews from Baghdad, who had moved up through India to the Far East.

From 1900 onward, the Community grew and prospered considerably. A Synagogue ‘Ohe Leah’ was built in 1901 by Sir Jacob Sassoon and given to the Community. Later, in 1909, Sir Elly Kadoorie presented a club to the Community (which club was completely demolished during the Japanese Occupation 1941/45). A Jewish Cemetery was established very early in the existence of the Jewish Community.

About 1924/25 trade deteriorated, and Shanghai took the place of Hong Kong as the centre of commerce; many offices moved north and the Jews moved with them, leaving a comparatively small community preponderatingly Sephardic.

Immediately before the War (1941) there were approximately 100 Jews, about 70% Ashkenazi and 30% Sephardic. When hostilities came, the British Jews were interned, some as members of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and others as civilians in Stanley Camp. Those who were neutral found life very difficult; a few were able to get away to Macao where the British Consul looked after them.

European Jewish refugees were not allowed free entry into the Colony unless jobs were found for them. Pre-war there were 24 refugees who had work; all except for one family had come from Shanghai.

After the War (1945) the Community dwindled down to about 55 people. An effort has been made to re-establish community life by re-opening the Jewish Club in a building formerly used as a house for the Hazan, which was donated to the Community by the late Mr. J.E. Joseph. A number of British and American servicemen have made use of the building, but due to lack of transportation and post-war conditions, few civilians attend.