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.
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.
I’ve come across this interesting Report on Activities in the Far East by Leon Frieder, written in December 1938 about the work undertaken by various refugee aid committees in the port cities of Asia. Leon’s report covers Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, Colombo and Bombay. In this blog posting I cover the first three cities, and I’ll continue with Colombo and Bombay in a later posting.
Very few Jewish refugees are allowed to land at Hong Kong, but a relief committee with Sir Ellis Kadoorie at its head raised a few thousand dollars and sent some of it to Shanghai.
NB: I doubt that the author of the report visited Hong Kong during his trip. Sir Ellis Kadoorie passed away in 1922 and his brother, Sir Elly Kadoorie, was then based in Shanghai.
When I arrived in Manila, Mr. Frieder, the President of the Manila Jewish Relief Committee, told me that over 400 Jewish refugees had recently arrived and settled in Manila. Those who were destitute were taken care of by the Relief Committee, others have already secured positions and earning livelihood. When I asked help for the Relief Committee for Shanghai, it informed me that since it is short of funds and faced with many problems, it was not in a position to help. The committee in Manila is very active and it stated that a movement is underway at present among the Philippine government officials to permit 10,000 Jews to emigrate to the Philippines were an island is to be set aside for them. This proposition is not being presented to the United States government for its final approval so that a financial arrangement may be made to take care of this proposition.
NB: Leon refers to the Mindanao Plan, Mindanao being an island in the Philippines. The plan did not go ahead due to a lack of funding and disputes over land ownership.
A very active Jewish Relief Committee exists in the city with Mr. Harris at its head. Over a hundred Jewish refugees have recently settled in Singapore. The committee functions as follows: As no emigrant is permitted to land at Singapore unless he has a guarantee of employment by which he may earn at least 250 Singapore Dollars the committee has arranged to secure positions for these people before the arrival of the boat. When the boat docks, they find qualified workers to fill those positions from among the refugees. The latter then disembark at Singapore and the committee allows the guarantee of employment to the government stating that those selected will earn the stipulated sum per month. I am glad to report that over 100 persons have already been placed in jobs as a result of this method. I also wish to state that in December, Singapore sent 3,000 Chinese Dollars to Shanghai to help us and have promised further assistance in the future.
NB: for further information on Singapore, see Paul Bartrop, ‘False Havens: The British Empire and the Holocaust’ (1995)
View of the Jewish Cemetery in Hong Kong, taken in 2015
Tombstone of Joseph Edgar Joseph
Jewish community life formally began in Hong Kong in the mid-1850s with the opening of the Jewish Cemetery. The granting of land to Jews for burial purposes was the first official recognition of the Jewish community by the government. The cemetery is still in use today, flanked on either side by a Buddhist temple and its school. It is one of the only Jewish cemeteries in the Far East that remains in its original nineteenth century location.
Pictured left to right: tombstone of Joseph Edgar Joseph and a view of the Jewish Cemetery taken in 2015. For more information on the Jewish Cemetery in Hong Kong, please see the Jewish Historical Society website which includes a very useful burial list.
The Ohel Leah Synagogue (Hong Kong)
Hong Kong’s first formal synagogue was donated by Sir Jacob Sassoon and named after his mother Leah. It was built on land donated to the Jewish community by Sir Jacob and his brothers Edward and Meyer in 1902. The Ohel Leah was renovated in the 1990’s and is a rare example of a synagogue in Asia which has been in almost constant use for worship since it was first built.
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 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
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
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 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
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.
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).
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.
 Meyer, Maisie, From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai (Lanham, 2003), 194 – 195