Chinese Refugee Camps

Following on from my earlier blog posting on the colonial legislation governing Chinese refugee camps, I’ve found a South China Morning Post article from March 1939 which details a new refugee settlement at Fan Uk Ling. I’ve reproduced it here in full:

Refugee Camp – New Settlement at Fan Uk Ling ready, Early Applicants.

The additional refugee camp which Government has been compelled by the further refugee influx to establish at Fan Uk Ling, between Sheng Shui and the border, has been rushed to completion and is filling rapidly. Work on the sheds began on Saturday and was completed on Wednesday night. Before the place was ready people were already entering, though there was no food for them. Food provision commenced with the formal opening yesterday. By last night there were 600 people in the camp and the number is expected to reach 2,000 very quickly. These refugees have been bivouacked along the border. Some have their cattle with them and the authorities are trying to persuade the men to take their cattle back to their homes across the border and resume work, leaving their women and children on this side. To meet the reluctance shown it has been suggested that the men might return to Hong Kong territory each night to sleep with their families, but so far there has been little response.

 

Incarceration and Detention

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Refugees were termed ‘squatters’ by Hong Kong government authorities in the 1930s. Pictured – an informal settlement at Wong Nei Chong, c. 1937 / 38.

As noted by Professor Peter Gatrell, incarceration has been a defining characteristic of the refugee experience throughout the ages.

Within the field of Hong Kong studies, much has been written about the plight of Vietnamese refugees, and in particular, their detention from 1982 onward in ‘closed camps’. Yet the incarceration of refugees in Hong Kong started well before this time. At the end of 1938, as Chinese refugees and defecting soldiers crossed the border from South China into Hong Kong to escape the Japanese invasion of Canton, Hong Kong established a number of refugee camps to accommodate its fast growing refugee population. As noted in his memoir, Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke (Hong Kong’s Director of Medical Services), persuaded the Governor of Hong Kong to build camps in part as a precautionary measure against epidemic outbreaks of cholera and other contagious diseases plaguing the colony.

A close reading of the Emergency Regulation (1922) amendments (April 1939) reveals the influence of race and notions of hygiene in the colonial treatment of Chinese refugees. Firstly, there was no autonomous or self-governing system in the camps, with ‘camp controllers’ closely monitoring and controlling all aspects of camp life, from the provision of food, types of entertainment permitted and a pass system to leave and enter the compound. Camp residents were described as ‘internees’ and the camp routine was heavily militarised. Here’s a look at the schedule featured in the April 1939 Government Gazette (which as you can see, includes roll call):

Refugee camp schedule

6AM: Reveille

7AM: Rollcall

8AM: Inspection of huts

8:30AM: Sick parade

9AM: Meals – first sitting

9:30AM – 3PM: Exercise, fire drill, educational and recreational activities

3PM: Inspection of huts

4PM: Meals – first sitting

7PM: All children under 7 years in bed

9PM: All to be in camp. Gates closed

9:30PM: Lights out

As we can see, an infant routine was fixed in the camp schedule, with a separate bedtime for children below the age of seven. The Gazette goes on to stipulate: ‘internees must at all times wear their identification tags on the front of their coats and dresses and the Camp Controller is authorised to prevent internees who fail to display such marks of identification from entering the huts … babies in arms and children may be exempted from this rule. In such cases the mother or guardian must carry the identification tags on her person, together with her own.’

Hygiene and so-called Chinese pastimes were also closely legislated and monitored in the camps, with stipulations such as: ‘No person shall spit in the camp or smoke in any hut’ and ‘The camp, the huts, and the latrines must be kept clean. No person shall wilfully disobey this rule’. Gambling too was barred. These legislative clauses were enacted in part to prevent epidemic outbreaks and fires, but also to control the day-to-day activities of a transient refugee population.

Dr Jean (Eugene) Frommer

Jewish doctors were among the first targets of Nazi persecution when in April 1933 restrictions were placed on the number of physicians in German National Health Insurance practices. Deprived of their profession at home, physicians sought to enter the medical practice abroad, mainly in Britain and the United States. It was a task complicated by regulations that gave local doctors certain privileges. In Britain for example, ‘alien’ doctors needed to study and re-qualify but this did not automatically confer the right to practise nor did it mean a place on the General Medical Council register. Humanitarian support from individuals in Britain sat uneasily with restrictionism from professional bodies such as the Medical Practitioner’s Union which took an anti-alien line for fear of foreign competition.

In Hong Kong, as in Australia and Canada, refugee physicians were also met with anti-competitive legislation. Medical practitioners seeking to register and practise in the British colony needed to adhere to the Medical Registration Ordinance (1935). The ordinance gave preference to degree holders and professors from the University of Hong Kong and persons already registered in British dominions. For foreign doctors holding degrees, licences or diplomas from Europe, the United States or Japan, their qualifications needed to be recognized as ‘entitling to registration by the General Council of Medical Education and Registration of the United Kingdom.’ According to the 1939 Register of Medical and Surgical Practitioners, there were no European medical practitioners registered in Hong Kong except those who had qualified in Italy, with whom Britain had reciprocal medical qualification arrangements. The majority of Hong Kong’s registered physicians therefore qualified in Hong Kong or in England and Scotland, although there was also a sizeable minority with qualifications from Japan.

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Aid to China Must Go On, China Defence League newsletter, 1 October 1939

One of the few European Jewish refugee physicians to secure a place on Hong Kong’s medical register in the 1930s was Dr Jean (Eugene) Frommer, a Hungarian physician. He was able to do so as a graduate of the University of Pisa in Italy, which as we have seen had a reciprocal arrangement with Hong Kong. Dr Frommer practised in Florence until anti-Semitic legislation forced him to seek refuge in the Far East. After his arrival in Hong Kong, Dr Frommer worked as a surgeon in hospitals for wounded Chinese soldiers in China, on which he reported: ‘the Chinese soldiers are more courageous than European troops. I could perform operations without using anaesthetics. In the interior their morale is excellent and they are not only holding their ground but are driving the Japanese back’. Dr Frommer was sent by the South West China Relief Organisation to Kangchow, Kiangsi to bring back Rewi Alley, a New Zealander and adviser to the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives, who was suffering from typhoid. He also worked at the Cue Lup Hospital at Shekki, where ambulances full of wounded soldiers came rolling in from the front every day: ‘the Japanese have tried three times to occupy Shekki, burning villages and bombing civilians as well as troops. But wounded soldiers coming into hospital have refused operations in order to get back to the front line again. One soldier with a bullet lodged in his hip flatly refused to have it removed by an operation as he said it would keep him too long away from the front’. On three occasions Japanese planes came to Shekki whilst Dr Frommer was stationed there.

According to the Biographical Dictionary of Medical Practitioners in Hong Kong, Dr Frommer opened his own private practice in Kowloon in 1941. He was married to Iram Frommer, Lady Medical Officer for the Hong Kong Government and also a Hungarian Jewish refugee.

Further reading

  1. Hong Kong Medical Registration Ordinance (1935)
  2. Collins, Kenneth, ‘European Refugee Physicians in Scotland, 1933-1943’, Social History  of Medicine 22 (2009)

 

Refugee Physicians and the Aid China Movement

In the 1930s Hong Kong was used as base for Communist and Nationalist activities in support of China’s plight against the Japanese. One key organisation in this fight was the China Defence League (CDL) established in 1938 and presided over by Madame Soong Ching-ling, Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s widow, the leader of the 1911 Revolution and the founder of the Chinese Republic. The CDL was in many ways an embodiment of the internationalist nature of the Free China movement in Hong Kong; with Chinese, New Zealanders, British and Americans working together on the CDL committee. The main function of the CDL was to provide medical and other forms of relief to the fighting fronts in China, particularly the guerilla areas set up behind Japanese lines by the Communists. With the help of leftist committees in Britain, Norway and the CDL in Hong Kong, 17 European doctors were recruited into the Medical Relief Corps (MRC) of the Chinese Red Cross. Known locally as the ‘Spanish doctors’ thanks to their work in the International Brigades in Spain, they were actually Jewish refugee volunteers who had escaped Nazism from Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania. They joined hundreds of young medical school graduates from China and the Chinese diaspora to bring relief to China’s soldiers.

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Members of the China Defence League. From left: Israel Epstein, Deng Wenzhao, Liao Mengxing, Soong Ching Ling, Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, Norman France and Liao Chenzhi. Photo courtesy of China.org

 

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Walter Freudmann (middle) was one of the so-called ‘Spanish doctors’ who worked in the Medical Relief Corps in China. Photo courtesy of DOW.

 

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Bishop Ronald Hall, photo courtesy of Christopher Hall

Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, a British Leftist, was integral to the recruitment of these Jewish refugees. She became involved as the CDL’s Honourary Secretary soon after moving from London to Hong Kong in 1938, and was known as ‘Red Hilda’ as much for her vibrant hair colour as her political sympathies. She was married to Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, the new Director of Medical Services, and the husband and wife duo formed part of a small coterie of western liberal progressives who supported the resistance efforts in China. Sympathy for China was pervasive in Britain’s political leftist circles, but also prevalent amongst Christian groups. The Anglican Bishop of Hong Kong, Ronald O. Hall, was highly active in providing aid to Chinese refugees and was also involved in the Chinese Red Cross. Much like Madame Soong and the Selwyn-Clarkes, he recruited Jewish refugees in China in support of the Free China movement, placing physicians in missionary hospitals and refugee camps across his See, which extended beyond Hong Kong and into southern China. Hall employed refugees such as Dr. Karl Hans Fritz Harth, who had a background in law and took charge of the Chinese Red Cross in Haiphong. He Anglicized his name to ‘Charles John Frederick Harth’ and converted to Anglicanism, later becoming secretary to Hall and warden of the Church Guest House in Hong Kong. He courageously defended St John’s Cathedral and its treasures during the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong.

At the cessation of hostilities in 1945 some Jewish refugee physicians stayed on in China, whilst others went on to new missions in South East Asia or rebuilt their lives in Europe, America and Australia.

Edgar Laufer

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Edgar Laufer, pictured 1948

Edgar Laufer (1917 – 2010) was one of three Jewish refugees employed at China Light & Power (CLP) by Lawrence Kadoorie in the 1930s, and possibly the only Jewish refugee scientist in Hong Kong. His career in the company spanned 42 years (1938 – 1980) and began in CLP’s Chemical Services Department where he set up the lab at Hok Un Power Station. Edgar later joined Head Office in 1958 and became an integral member of management, working on the Esso partnership and the Scheme of Control amongst other high profile projects.

Edgar left Berlin in June 1937 to study chemistry and Chinese at the Lingnan University in Canton with funds sent to him by a friend in the United States, choosing China thanks to his childhood fascination with the stamps sent to him by his uncle, Dr. Bethold Laufer, curator of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Although he never spoke of his escape from Nazism during his lifetime, Edgar described his feelings of loss in a letter to the Colonial Secretariat in 1940: ‘I have always, for impersonal reasons, been most strongly opposed to National  Socialism and all it stands for. When I was disenfranchised as a Jew, I considered myself no longer a German citizen’. Whilst studying in Canton, Edgar was introduced to Lawrence Kadoorie, then Director of CLP by Herbert Samuel, the company statistician. Edgar’s late uncle was known to the family as he had corresponded with Horace Kadoorie on the subject of ancient Chinese ivories. In 1938 Edgar spent his summer holidays in Hong Kong, visiting friends and working for CLP on a part-time basis. He fled China in October 1938 when Canton fell to the Japanese military and the university was moved to Hong Kong, temporarily utilizing the University of Hong Kong as its base. Laufer described the flight in an interview in 2007:

‘I went and studied in Canton, but the Japanese invaded Canton, they’d come south of Burma, but I think in the autumn of ’38, which was when we had to flee from Canton quite suddenly … I don’t remember the details, it meant taking a boat to some part of Guangdong from Canton on the river and then taking a bus to Macau, and eventually taking the boat, overnight boat from Macau to Hong Kong.’

In November 1938 Edgar was employed by CLP on a part-time basis to undertake research on coal and water. He was able to bring his brother and his parents, Thodore Laufer and Kela Carry Laufer, to safety from Berlin to Hong Kong with the help of Lawrence Kadoorie. Edgar later arranged for his brother to leave for Chicago to continue his studies at the Hebrew Theological College. In October 1939 Lawrence Kadoorie proposed a loan of $100 a month to financially support Edgar and his family: ‘the reason for doing this and not requesting help from the (Jewish Refugee) Society is that the boy has a proud nature and will I know endeavor to the best of his ability to repay the loan as soon as he possibly can’.

Following his graduation in 1940, Edgar set up the first chemical lab at CLP’s Hok Un Power Station. During the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong he was at liberty due to his German nationality and he helped deliver care packages to British internees in Stanley Internment Camp. Libby Sharpe, who as a baby was interned in the camp with her mother, described Edgar’s kindness:

 ‘Edgar did a wonderful job. He went from camp to camp, he brought my father the news that I was born, and he brought back … the only thing my father had, and goodness how he had it, was a bar of chocolate, so he sent a bar of chocolate back through Edgar to my mother.’

Edgar was nationalized as a British citizen in 1947 and continued to dedicate his time and energy to CLP’s success. In the 1970s he helped collect information on CLP’s history for Nigel Cameron’s book ‘Power’, which told the story of CLP. He retired to England in the 1980s and passed away in 2010.