Asylum-seeking Journeys in Asia: Refugees in Hong Kong and Bangkok

51BGzYfc1WL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Between 2008 and 2017, the number of refugees in Hong Kong and Bangkok increased by approximately 15% and 20% respectively.

Terrence Chun Tat Shum’s comparative study of refugees in these two bustling Asian cities provides a stark warning about the effects of prolonged displacement, societal exclusion and marginalisation, while examining the mechanisms that allow such exclusions to take place.

Shum’s ethnographic approach focuses on asylum-seeking journeys. It examines the process and events of refuge, as well as the social worlds of urban refugees. Hong Kong and Bangkok, he argues, are both places of limbo for refugees ‘haunted by terrifying memories of loss and seduced by a longing for resettlement and stability’.

‘Asylum-seeking Journeys in Asia’ gives voice to the modern refugee and their unique migration experiences. It enriches our understanding of asylum, the meaning of displacement and urban refugee livelihoods in an Asian context.


Wynne Ward and the 1940 Evacuation

My most recent blog posting discussed the internment of civilians at Stanley Internment Camp during the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong (1941 – 1945). Today’s posting investigates the evacuation of British women and children in 1940 through the story of Wynne Ward, who sadly passed away in 2017. This article was originally written for The Hong Kong Heritage Project’s Past & Present magazine. 

Wynne Ward was born in Hong Kong in 1917 and died in Stanley in 2017, making her one of Hong Kong’s longest living residents of British descent. The daughter of two Yorkshire emigres, Wynne’s father was Arthur Robert Fenton-Raven, the renowned architect who built King Yin Lei, a palatial mansion situated on Stubb’s Road which was a backdrop for films ‘Soldier of Fortune’ (1955) and ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’ (1955). Wynne spoke to HKHP in 2008 and gave vivid accounts of her pre-war colonial life, the evacuation of Hong Kong in 1940 and an invaluable insight into the social history of Britons in the city.

Up until the Second World War, Wynne lived with her parents and sister at Tsat Tsz Mui in North Point, then a rural enclave on Hong Kong Island. ‘It was all countryside in those days and nice beaches along the main road and we had a bungalow sort of halfway up a hill.’ Her life as a young woman there, though devoid of indoor sanitation, air conditioning, proper refrigeration and at constant risk of malaria and TB, was interspersed with carefree swimming parties and tennis lessons. On hot, sticky summer nights the family would sleep on the lawn in camp beds, protected only by mosquito nets. Wynne kept a donkey called Dennis and for a short time cared for a honey bear, a pet that was quickly returned to its original owner. ‘We had a job trying to get it back up to the hill, to the other house, but we eventually managed to get it back there by putting a honey tin in front of it and rattling it, and it could smell the sweetness’. Wynne vividly remembered the devastating typhoon of 1926, which caused one of the greatest floods in Hong Kong’s history. The typhoon ‘went on all night long’ and resulted in smashed windows and more than a dozen villagers taking refuge in the family home. School was at Central British School (CBS) where students would eat ‘very good curries’ for lunch. Along with other children from North Point, Wynne took the ‘school boat’ – the Tai Koo launch – to school every morning and back.

Wynne and her sister enthusiastically took part in the then colony’s vibrant social scene. As talented ballet and ballroom dancers they were often asked to perform ‘floor shows’ at glamourous balls. Tea dances were held every afternoon at the Hong Kong Hotel on Pedder Street, as well as The Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon and the Repulse Bay Hotel on the south side of the Island. The ladies would wear strings of cards around their wrists on which men could write their names for the privilege of a dance. ‘It was a different sort of existence altogether’ recalled Wynne, with one girl to every five men. Another important part of the social scene were the parties held on P&O ocean liners. They left for Britain every fortnight, transporting civil servants to Britain on ‘home leave’. Before the ship’s departure Wynne would enjoy on-board cocktails and a live band, and later, ‘streamers would be thrown down to the people who were waiting on the wharf’ in a classic colonial image of pre-Handover Hong Kong. Such social conventions and forms of entertainment were exported from Britain, and although they served to re-enforce cultural separation, they also engendered a ‘home away from home’.

Although many Britons in Hong Kong were undisturbed by the prospect of war in Europe and the Japanese advance in China, Wynne remembers the sudden departure of several naval officers to fight for the Allied cause in September 1939:

‘I remember when the war broke out between Germany and England. We had a tennis party on that day and we had a lot of Royal Naval officers up playing tennis, and suddenly it was announced on the radio and one of them said; ‘we’ve got to go now’. And some of them of course went off and we never saw again. They were killed.’

Wynne, her sister and mother were among the women of ‘pure European descent’ evacuated from Hong Kong in June 1940 when war against Japan became likely. Over one third of Hong Kong’s British population was sent to Australia in a highly contentious policy governed by colonial notions of ‘Britishness’ and shaped by categories of race and class. Wynne set sail on the Empress of Asia, first stopping in the Philippines for six weeks before reaching Sydney in Australia. During the war Wynne worked as a model and met her future husband, John Ward, a Royal Naval officer who later became managing director of Gammon in Hong Kong. Wynne’s father was interned in Stanley Civilian Internment Camp and emerged looking ‘terrible’ as ‘all skin and bone’.

After the war, Wynne and John returned to Hong Kong following a short stint in Britain and Singapore. They started a family and moved to Shek O, then settled in Stanley. On the weekends Wynne would frequent Hollywood Road, where she discovered ‘wonderful bargains’ in her search for Chinese antiques. She remembered the open nullah running down Peddar Street and the low-rise buildings of Central District. Wynne fondly recalled Maxims (now Landmark Building) where she would meet her friends for coffee – her social circle included such renowned figures as the philanthropist Noel Croucher. After the 1997 Handover she lamented the end of the British Empire in Asia. Wynne, who lived in Hong Kong most of her life, was certainly the product of a bygone colonial era, but she always called Hong Kong home.

For a list of evacuees and more information on the 1940 evacuation of Hong Kong, check out Vivian Kong’s excellent blog ‘1940 Evacuation of Hong Kong British Families to Australia’.

Blogroll: Recommended Reads

In recent years, more and more blogs have appeared online exploring the historical and political context of the refugee plight, both then and now. There has also been an increasing interest in the history of Hong Kong, especially via nostalgic Facebook groups or politically active Twitter accounts.

Here’s a few of my recommended (online) reads:

Refugee History

This blog boasts an impressive panel of experts seeking evidence-based solutions to the current refugee crisis. Blog posts cover book reviews, news about forced migration and probing historical essays. Recent articles include: ‘Victims of Decolonisation? The French Settlers of Algeria’ and ‘Belonging and Alienation in the Greek Return to Imbros’. You can follow Refugee History for conference highlights and other academic updates via @RefugeeHistory.

The Refugee Research Network

This excellent and wide-ranging Canadian blog covers several bases, from educational courses on offer around the world (certificates and PhD programmes), a scholars network to an excellent and user friendly research database which pools articles from all corners of the web. Articles are wide-ranging and cover the plight of refugees and displaced persons in Gaza, Kenya and Lebanon, among many other places.

The Hong Kong History Project

Not to be confused with The Hong Kong Heritage Project, this excellent resource should be a first port of call for both budding and experienced Hong Kong history enthusiasts. It features a comprehensive historiography compiled by historian Vaudine England, much of it focused on race and identity, as well as guest blogs from PhD candidates around the world.


This blog has been a staple for Hong Kong history researchers since it was first launched in 2006 by the indefatigable David Bellis. With thousands of pages of research sourced and uploaded by David and his team of volunteer netizens, this blog has been invaluable for my own research, too. Highlights include census lists, GPS maps, oral histories and much, much more.

Far East Currents

This blog is the brainchild of Dr Roy Eric Xavier, whose aim is to: ‘understand the roles that Portuguese-Macanese people played in the development of Macau, Hong Kong and other regions of southeast Asia, and their migration to other countries after World War II’. Roy has interviewed hundreds of Macanese, Portuguese-Eurasians and others who have lived or worked in Macao. Many of these interviews are featured on his blog or are available on YouTube.

China Rhyming

I’ve been a fan of Paul French since having read ‘Midnight in Peking’, his bestselling investigative thriller about the murder of a 19 year old English girl in Beijing’s ‘bad lands’. Paul’s blog, China Rhyming, covers a ‘gallimaufry of random China history and research interests’, and is well worth a read. As French (and Twain) say, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme’.

And finally …

Here’s a few of my favourite Twitterstorians you might want to follow:

@jypersian is an active Twitterstorian, based in Australia, who posts mainly about post-war migration to Australia. @petergatrell is a giant in the field of refugee studies. He regularly posts about his work and other developments in the field. @hongkonghistory, The Hong Kong History Project’s Twitter feed, is a valuable resource for Hong Kong related conferences and general Hong Kong related news and info. Finally, @vischina, administered by Professor Robert Bickers at Bristol University, gives a glimpse into the collection of 20,000+ digitised images of China (1850 – 1950) which have been painstakingly collected by the Visualising China team.

The Parsees: Hong Kong’s Disappearing Community

This article was originally written for the Hong Kong Heritage Project’s Past & Present magazine in 2019, and chronicles the history of the Parsee community in Hong Kong. I’ve also previously written about Hong Kong’s Indian and Portuguese communities on this blog.

Hong Kong has always been home to an eclectic mix of people and cultures; a quick survey of the city’s history will show the valuable contributions of numerous ethnic and national groups from all corners of the globe. One of the first settlers to arrive in Hong Kong after it was occupied by the British were Parsees from India who pioneered trade routes along the China Coast. The Parsee community originally came from Persia but were forced to flee and subsequently built businesses in the booming ports of Bombay and Calcutta. They acted as middlemen to the British and became successful bankers crucial to the early success of HSBC and the Chartered Bank of India. The Parsee contribution to Hong Kong far outweighs the small size of the community. Among their lasting legacies are road names (Mody Road, Kotewall Road and Bisney Road) the Star Ferry (founded by Mithaiwala Dorabjee Naorojee), social clubs and the University of Hong Kong. Parsees have even influenced Hong Kong’s linguistic heritage with the widespread use of the word ‘Shroff’; a Parsee family name. Today, Hong Kong’s Parsee community, a distinct ethnic and religious group, stands at an estimated 200 people. With only 100,000 Parsees worldwide – their numbers rapidly diminishing – this illustrious community is at risk of dying out. In 2009 The Hong Kong Heritage Project spoke to Ruby Master, the community’s first female trustee in Hong Kong, to find out more about her life story and the wider history of Parsees and Zoroastrianism in Hong Kong.

Ruby Master was born in Hong Kong in 1926. Her family history reflects the general pattern of Parsee settlement in Hong Kong, which started as an offshoot of the older Canton settlement. Ruby’s grandfather established a trading company in Canton in 1910 trading silks and spices while her granduncle worked for the law firm Johnston Stokes and Masters. Ruby’s father was brought into the family business in 1917. When the family office relocated to Hong Kong in 1925, he migrated south along with his young wife who became the youngest Parsee woman in the colony. The family lived on Wyndham Street, known as ‘Malacca’ by the Chinese for its ubiquitous Indian presence. Ruby remembers that the houses on Wyndham were much like the shop houses in Singapore today, ‘you would have your office on the ground floor or shop on your ground floor and you lived on the upper floors’. Ruby attended the Italian Convent School, today’s Sacred Heart Canossian College, with other Indian, Portuguese and Chinese girls. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong on 8 December 1941, many of her school friends fled Hong Kong. After the British surrender, the Indian community, along with the Portuguese, Eurasians and other neutral and Axis nationalities, were not interned in civilian camps but were instead free to live ‘at liberty’ as Third Nationals, sometimes in their own homes. This proved to be an illusory freedom as economic collapse, rampant inflation, scant rations and American bombing raids made life hard on the other side of the barbed wire fence.

Ruby, who was fifteen at the time of the invasion, reflects that ‘we had shortages of food, fuel everything.  It was hard … all our bank accounts were frozen and if we managed to live through the four years it was by selling bit by bit whatever valuables we had’. For a time Ruby was able to continue her schooling, though the Italian Convent School was soon closed by the Japanese. Life ‘in town’ was dominated by a strict curfew and Ruby rarely ventured outside the Wyndham Street area, though she spent afternoons at the Ruttonjee and Schroff households, who lived close by. Ruby’s war was mostly experienced from inside the family home, where she would help with housework and bake chapatis and bread, which were not freely available on the outside. Many Parsees were active during the Japanese Occupation. Jehangir Ruttonjee and his son Dhun were arrested for the help they gave to oppressed people in Hong Kong, other Parsees were arrested for the help they gave to the British. Several Parsee homes, most notably that of the Pavris family, were used to house Parsees who had been deprived of their own homes. In 1945 Ruby heard that the war was coming to an end thanks to a cousin who owned a (banned) shortwave radio. When the Japanese surrendered, she was jubilant. The Master family joined the crowds and watched Admiral Harcourt and his fleet land at Blake’s Pier at the end of August: ‘we were all on the waterfront waiting to cheer them, oh that was a wonderful day’.

Hong Kong victory celebrations 9 October 1945
Hong Kong Victory celebrations, October 1945. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

After the war Hong Kong became the largest centre for Parsees in the region when Parsees from Shanghai joined Shanghainese entrepreneurs and others leaving China. In the 1940s and 1950s Ruby worked for her father’s firm exporting cotton yarn to India and Pakistan. Along with other young people in the Indian community she enjoyed an active social life as Indian Regiments were stationed in Hong Kong and the ships of the Indian Navy hosted parties and galas from 1945 onwards. Charitable work has always been an important part of the Zoroastrian religion and Ruby became more deeply involved in the wider community with active roles in the Indian Women’s Club, where she was one of the first members to join in 1957, and the Hong Kong Girl Guides. In the 1980s and 1990s the demographics of the community changed again as Parsees came from overseas to work in large multinational firms. Many longstanding Parsees sought British citizenship and relocated to second homes worldwide as the 1997 Handover approached. Ruby decided to stay put in Hong Kong and was invited to the Handover ceremony on 30 June 1997 when ‘the heavens opened up’. She watched the parade in sodden shoes as the rain pounded the ceremony, her cheeks flecked by tears. ‘We’ve prospered here, we loved Hong Kong and this was our only home’. Today, Ruby’s home is still Hong Kong, where she lives with her extended family. The Parsee community remains close knit, and members meet for Navroze, the Persian New Year, or other festivals at the Zoroastrian Building in Causeway Bay. Ruby believes this sense of community is vitally important, especially as their numbers dwindle. ‘Once a year or so we even have little trips to Shanghai or to Macau or wherever … this way we get the community together’.

Special thanks to Ruby Master for sharing her life history with The Hong Kong Heritage Project.




The Jewish Recreation Club (Hong Kong)

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.