The UNHCR’s First Mission to Hong Kong, 1952

UNHCR Hong KongIn the 1950s Hong Kong became a base of international humanitarianism as NGOs opened offices in the colony to help assuage the Chinese refugee crisis. The newly formed United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) dispatched a mission to Hong Kong in 1952 – its original remit was actually to help Europeans displaced in China (see letterhead above). Other organisations were founded to help Chinese refugees who were, according to the UNHCR deputy commissioner James Read, ‘living in the most primitive circumstances … their houses are shacks and lean-tos, put together from a few pieces of wood and corrugated iron … sanitary arrangements are non-existent’. These included voluntary organisations rooted in Hong Kong’s Chinese communities, Kaifong Associations, global Christian missions and politically influenced secular NGOs, which dispensed housing, food and sanitation for Hong Kong’s growing refugee population.

For further reading on this subject, I recommend:

Laura Madokoro’s new book (Elusive Refuge, Chinese Migrants in the Cold War, 2016) takes a comprehensive look at white settler immigration policy towards Chinese refugees during this era – I haven’t had a chance to read it as yet but it’s certainly on my ‘to read’ list!

 

 

Dr Solomon Bard (1916 – 2014) and the Battle of Hong Kong

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Dr Solomon Bard: a man of many talents

Dr. Solomon (Solly) Bard was born in Siberia in 1916. He received his early education in Harbin and Shanghai, and lived most of his working life in Hong Kong. He moved to Hong Kong in 1934 to study medicine at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) where he graduated in 1939. During the Second World War he served in the Hong Kong Volunteers Field Ambulance Unit. When the colony fell to the Japanese he was imprisoned in Sham Shui Po prisoner-of-war camp. After the war, Solly was appointed Director of the Student Health Service at HKU, and in 1976 to 1983 served as the Executive Officer of the Antiquities and Monuments Office. He occasionally served as the conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and later became its Chairman.

Below is an excerpt of an oral history interview with Dr Bard in which he discusses his memories of the Battle of Hong Kong.

The Japanese landed at Mirs Bay and at any moment the invasion, the attack on Hong Kong, was expected. They were massing at the border at Lo Wu and it was no surprise whatsoever when I was told to report to the headquarters to be deployed on the morning of the 8th of December. And just as I gathered my kit together, I could hear explosions, and I said to my wife – we were only two and a half months married – I said Sophie, I think the war has started. I got my kit and I reported to headquarters. The war had started.  Kai Tak was attacked and the Japanese had crossed the border.

Very shortly after the hostilities began, I was transferred to Mount Davis, because Mount Davis came under heavy shelling and bombing. Mount Davis had a battery, a regular Royal Artillery Battery of about a hundred and thirty personnel and they were expecting to have casualties. And the medical headquarters, that’s a part of the whole field ambulance, the headquarters decided that they needed a Medical Officer. And I was the nearest.

My position with Advanced Dressing Station was the nearest to Mount Davis and so I received orders to proceed to Mount Davis and spend the rest of the fighting here at Mount Davis. So, in fact, since the landing took place right at the other end of the island – we were on the west end at Mount Davis – we never had contact with the Japanese, except shells and bombs, and that came very heavily and a lot of it.

Jewish population of Hong Kong

As I collect more information on the lives of Jewish refugees in Hong Kong, it’s important to understand the extent of the colony’s existing Jewish population. Their exact numbers, however, have often proved elusive.

One valuable source of information is provided by the formidable Rev. Carl T Smith, one of Hong Kong’s most prolific historians. In his article ‘The early Jewish community of Hong Kong’ (1995), he compares data taken from China Directories, census reports and the Jewish encyclopaedia to give a more rounded picture of the existing community. I’ve typed up some of his findings below:

China Directories

*NB: directories do not list all residents, but individuals who have employment in a firm, shop or other business.

1872: 23 individuals

  • E.R. Belilios, 2
  • A.S. Cohen, broker, 1
  • Cohen, merchant, 1
  • C.C. Cohen & Co., 1
  • Landstein and Co., 2
  • D. Sassoon, Sons & Co., 6
  • E.D. Sassoon & Co., 6
  • Reuben Solomon, general broker, 1
  • J.A. Solomon, merchant, 2

1874: 18 individuals

  • E.R. Belilios, 1
  • C.C. Cohen & Co., 1
  • Landstein and Co., 1
  • D. Sassoon, Sons and Co., 5
  • E.D. Sassoon and Co., 7
  • Reuben Solomon, 1
  • A.J. Solomon, 2

 1875: 19 individuals

  • E.R. Belilios, 1
  • C.C. Cohen & Co., 1
  • Landstein and Co., 2
  • D. Sassoon, Sons and Co., 7
  • E.D. Sassoon and Co., 6
  • Reuben Solomon, 1
  • J.A. Solomon, 1

Jewish encyclopaedia:

  • 1882: 60 Sephardic
  • 1898: 150

Hong Kong census reports:

  • 1872: 40 total: European 17, Asian 24
  • 1876: 46 total: European 10, Asian 36
  • 1881: 71 total: European 22, Asian 49
  • 1901: 165 total: males 99, females 66
  • 1906: 155 total: males 88, females 67
  • 1911: 231 total: males 136, females 95

Note how early census reports categorise Jews as either ‘European’ or ‘Asian’. Historians working on Shanghai Jewry have written extensively about colonial / settler categorisations of Jews as defined by wealth, class and status, with more prosperous Jews described as ‘European’ and poorer sections of the community described as ‘oriental’ in official lists. Maisie Meyer and Jonathan Goldstein have also written about how ‘Sephardi’ was a preferred term as it denoted a European lineage. From the 1900s onwards, both males and females are listed in the census reports, which may reflect the migration of women to the colony as the men started to lay down their roots and settle in Hong Kong as a place of permanent residence.

Lord Kadoorie: Industrialist and Historian

Kadoorie Family Bio_Lawrence Kadoorie
A rare photograph of Lawrence Kadoorie in his youth

I’ve written elsewhere about Lawrence Kadoorie’s efforts to preserve and interpret Hong Kong’s Jewish history. Below is an excerpt from the Review of Community Affairs, written by Lawrence in 1986, on the early Jewish presence in Hong Kong:

The Jewish Community of Hong Kong was Sephardic in origin – most of the families having come from Baghdad via India. It was the practice of the Sassoons to bring their relatives out from the city to work for them in their firm, which firm was first established in Hong Kong in 1841. The Sassoon’s mess which housed their offices and residential quarters for their staff was situated where the new Hong Kong Bank Headquarters now stands. Legend has it that an uncle of mine, Moses Kadoorie, was the first person to import a stage coach to which he harnessed four China ponies driving in state from Central to the race course.

To the best of my knowledge, today the only remaining descendants of the Sassoons living in Hong Kong are the Kadoories and EZEKIEL Abraham, all of whose families are related and originated from Baghdad which until the First World War was part of the Ottoman Empire.

The first European Jewish families to settle in Hong Kong were mostly French from Alsace-Lorraine. Prominent amongst them was the family who established Sennet Freres, the leading Jewellers here for many years.

The original site intended for the Synagogue was on a piece of land between MacDonnell Road and Kennedy Rod overlooking Garden Road which, at the time, was just above Hong Kong’s business district.

Due to pressure from Mr. Bellilios, a then leading member of the Community, the land was exchanged for the present site, at Robinson Road, which was then considered the more desirable residential area of Hong Kong. I, myself, was born in a house on Robinson Road known as ‘Terra Verde’.

At that time, Government did not impose a specific Building Covenant on new sites. My father purchased an area adjoining ‘Terra Verde’ upon which he built six tennis courts and a summer pavilion. When asked how he intended to fulfil the Building Covenant, he pointed to the Summer House. As a result, all future Building Covenants were made more specific.

From Harbin to Beverly Hills: Russian-Jewish Refugee Transit via Hong Kong, 1950

 

I recently came across a file in a UK archive that chronicled the post-war migration of an elderly Russian-Jewish couple from Harbin, China, to the United States from May 1950 to December 1950. Although the couple had lived in Harbin for the past twenty years, life in China was becoming increasingly difficult. Harbin was under Soviet occupation in 1945 until 1947, when Jewish community leaders were arrested and sent to the Soviet interior, while other stateless nationals were pressured to return to Russia by Soviet agents. The Communist Party came to power in China in 1949 and it soon became clear that life could not continue as it had before. The couples’ son, Leonard, and his young family had already left Harbin and were living in the States, where they were anxiously waiting to be reunited. The hardships faced by this family sheds light on the complexity of post-war migration and the use of Hong Kong as a transit hub for stateless Russians and Jewish refugees.

At the end of World War Two, thousands of Displaced Persons used Hong Kong as a transport hub to reach other destinations, such as Australia, Israel, or South America. DP’s also attempted to reach the colony to make use of its consular facilities as American Embassies and consulates in China started to close their doors after 1949.

The Russian couple planned to apply for a U.S. visa as well as a visa to Ecuador, where immigration control was less strict. Using South America as a base, they could then re-apply for another U.S. visa. Crucially though, the couple could not accept a permanent resettlement visa to any other country, or they would be excluded from the Displaced Persons Act (for China Refugees). After much wrangling, the couple were able to leave Harbin and travel south to the port city of Tientsin (today’s Tianjin), the site of a once vibrant Jewish community. In Tientsin they visited the British Crown Consulate, where they needed to prove they had:

  1. An assurance from Hong Kong that an onward passage was secured from Hong Kong to Ecuador
  2. The address of the person whose house they could stay at while in Hong Kong
  3. A letter of assurance from a local transport company (such as Butterfield & Swire) that their departure tickets from Hong Kong had been reserved and paid for by someone in Hong Kong.

Once the British Consulate had interviewed the couple, they would verify the information with their sponsors in Hong Kong. It was a long waiting game.

Leonard wrote to his parents warning them of the challenges that lay ahead: ‘I was told, however, that the British authorities are very strict about letting anybody to Hong Kong and require sponsors and a guarantee that the visitors would not be a public charge’. The family’s Hong Kong sponsor was keen to help but he noted that the Hong Kong Police were ‘sticky’ when it came to in-transit refugees and that finding accommodation would be a challenge due to the colony’s ever-growing refugee population.

The Hong Kong branch of the International Refugee Organisation further described the bureaucratic entanglements involved:

  1. ‘Very little can be done until actual Ecuadorian visas arrive
  2. The visas, or photostatic copies, should be immediately forwarded to [the couple] in Tientsin
  3. On the basis of 2 and 3 above, the British Consulate in Tientsin will issue a Hong Kong transit visa. The Immigration Authorities here may call you by phone to confirm your guarantee, accommodation and on-forwarding passages before giving Tientsin permission to issue the visas
  4. When the [couple] arrive in Hong Kong, they will proceed to the American Consulate and try to ascertain how long it will take for their US visas to come through
  5. I have written a letter to the Immigration Authorities … requesting at least 60 days in transit be given to persons coming to Hong Kong for the purpose of further processing their USA visas. Assuming the Immigration Authorities accept my request favourably, there should be no difficulty in the [couple] remaining here until their visas are granted, only as long, of course, as the Ecuadorian visas are valid
  6. Since the [couple] have been registered with IRO and declared eligible for legal and political assistance only, their case would be covered in my letter to Immigration
  7. I suggest the blue completed personal history forms be forwarded to the American Consulate to be placed in the [couple’s] visa application dossier.’

At the end of an arduous year spent anxiously waiting for visas, chasing bureaucrats and living out of a battered suitcase, the couple finally left China via Hong Kong and set sail for Beverly Hills. Once settled in the U.S., they sent a postcard and a family photograph to their Hong Kong sponsor thanking him for his help and generosity. The photograph showed the couple smiling. The sun was shining. They were surrounded by Leonard’s dogs and their grandchildren.