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.

The Stowaways and the S.S. Catherine

Central District and Hong Kong harbour, captured 1946 – 1947 by Hedda Morrison

“Lying in the harbour, awaiting a buyer, is an 800-ton wooden steamship the S.S. Catherine, which has made a thrilling trans-Pacific voyage from Seattle to Hong Kong in just under five months. The ship brought 8,000 pieces of timber for Hong Kong’s saw mills from Tacoma”. – China Mail, July 15 1947

In July 1947 the China Mail reported on the perilous trans-Pacific journey of the S.S. Catherine, a ship so damaged it had been twice abandoned by its original crew, calling for officers to be flown in from Seattle to complete its journey to Hong Kong. Thrilling though this journey was, the above excerpt disguises the most fascinating aspect of the ship’s voyage – the story of the three stateless Jewish refugee stowaways who boarded the S.S. Catherine in Honolulu only to be returned to China.

Originally named the Whitney Ocean, the S.S. Catherine was built in Los Angeles in 1917 to carry timber across the West Coast of America. After World War Two, the ship was sold to French interests and made several trans-Atlantic crossings from Panama to France and back. Later it was taken over by a Panamanian firm and by 1947 was managed by The Login Corporation based in San Francisco.

The stowaways – Henry David (17), Kurt Hayman (26) and Herman Schulman (no age given) – were discovered on board the S.S. Gordon during a stopover in Honolulu. The ship had set sail from Shanghai and was en-route to the United States. Having no valid passports or visas, the men were apprehended by the U.S. Immigration Authorities who approached the Captain of the S.S. Catherine, flying under the Panamanian flag and also on a stopover in Honolulu, to return the stowaways to China as work-away crew. Unfortunately, the ship was not destined for China but rather the British colony of Hong Kong – and this misunderstanding would have profound implications for the three stateless refugees. The men were now faced with an arduous 40-day voyage from Honolulu to Hong Kong, one in which the crew subsisted on a meager diet of dry rice and corn beef, fresh water rationing and seawater baths. The ship had no wireless, quickly ran out of food and water and very nearly sank during the voyage.

Upon arrival in Hong Kong, the owners (The Login Corporation) tried to sell the vessel, but complications arose and the ship, which landed in Hong Kong in July 1947, languished in the harbour until at least April 1948 (correspondence from the HKHP Archive regarding the refugees’ and the ship’s fate comes to an abrupt end at this point, so it’s difficult to know whether the ship was sold on or eventually destroyed for scrap).

In August 1947 the refugees called on Albert Raymond and Lawrence Kadoorie, trustees of the local Jewish community in Hong Kong, to ask whether it was possible to work on shore. Albert and Lawrence promised to investigate and for a short time paid for their accommodation – first at the house of the ship’s Chinese steward and later (for Heymann only) the YMCA in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. Lawrence communicated with the police authorities to try and resolve the situation but soon learned that as the group were stateless (i.e. they held no passports), it was impossible to let them remain in Hong Kong. Although the authorities were said to be sympathetic, they could not give the necessary permission without starting a precedent described as a ‘detriment to the Colony’s interests’. Lawrence then contacted shipping companies in Hong Kong in the hope of allowing them to sign on to another ship, but his efforts came to naught as most ships were not willing to take mixed (European and Chinese) crews. In September 1947 the Captain of the S.S. Catherine left the ship and no pay was given to the men until December 1947. They were now effectively stranded in Hong Kong aboard a ship moored in the harbour, without permission to work or live on dry land.

Lawrence described the ongoing situation in a letter dated 2 December 1947 to his friend Harry Herbert, who was earlier stationed in Hong Kong during the refugee crisis of August 1946 when hundreds of stateless refugees were stranded in The Peninsula Hotel’s ballroom (to be explored in a later blog posting). Herbert was now living in New York and working for the National Jewish Welfare Board and so was perfectly placed to provide advice and support. Lawrence explained that the youngest (Henry David) held papers and a necessary affidavit to enter the States, whereas Schuaman and Heymann were operating under Panamanian engineer’s certificates. Theoretically the Panamanian consulate was responsible for the trio but as Lawrence noted, ‘somehow this does not work out in practice’, and so the Hong Kong Jewish community had taken on the responsibility of caring for the three stowaways.

Although the Hong Kong Jewish community supported the men as much as they could, money was often tight. The refugees often complained of a lack of food as they shared what little they had with others on board the ship. With the S.S. Catherine moored out in the harbour, trips ashore via sampan were costly at H$15.00 each. During this time all three were working hard – cleaning, painting, carrying out repairs to the pumps in the engine room – whilst receiving no pay.

The trio experienced many false starts and dashed hopes – on one occasion the ship was to leave to Palestine, on another to Bangkok, a third time to Shanghai and a fourth to Singapore, but in every instance these projects came to nothing. Enquiries were made by the Jewish community on the refugees’ behalf regarding the possibility of their return to China (final destination: Shanghai), but they soon abandoned hope as it became clear that the Chinese authorities would not grant the necessary visas.

The prolonged stay on board the ship soon took its toll  – Henry David suffered diphtheria whilst Schualman was tormented by jaundice. David was hospitalised at the cost of the Jewish community with treatment given by Dr. Ramler, a Hong Kong Jewish doctor.

By 15 January 1948, Kurt Heymann was able to sign on the Rock Mount, a British ship destined for Rio de Janeiro, from where the shipping company would repatriate him to Chile to join his brother. Meanwhile Henry David was in touch with the American Consulate and received an affidavit from his uncle in New York. Schualman, whose father was still in Shanghai, was anxious to go to New York to study at the Lubawitz Yishiva. By April 1948 only two refugees remained – Henry David and Schualman, and they continued to be supported by the Hong Kong Jewish community.

Nothing more is mentioned about the three stowaways after April 1948 – so it is difficult to know (without extensive research in other archives) whether Henry David and Schualman ever reached New York. The story of the three stowaways, stranded on a ship moored in the Hong Kong harbour for over six months, serves as an allegory for the insurmountable difficulties faced by stateless refugees in the post-war years. Despite community support, desperate attempts at repatriation overseas and the sheer audacity tempered by hard work from the refugees themselves, the visa system proved to be opaque and impassible, an unlucky lottery where the odds were never in their favour.