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’s 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 who seek to find evidence-based solutions to the current refugee crisis. 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 on Hong Kong history compiled by historian Vaudine England, much of it focused on race and identity, as well as guest blogs from PhD candidates around the world.

Gwulo

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. 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

Having read ‘Midnight in Peking’; Paul French’s bestselling investigative thriller about the murder of a 19 year old English girl in Beijing’s ‘bad lands’, I’ve been a fan ever since. His 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.

 

 

 

Hong Kong: 1941

A large part of my thesis slog involves trying to understand Hong Kong on the eve of war. So I was delighted to come across a diary which reveals the social, political and economic life of the British colony in 1941, including attitudes towards the evacuation scandal, the treatment of British and Canadian soldiers, refugee humanitarianism and race relations between the Chinese and British in the period immediately preceding the fall of Hong Kong. I’ll be using this diary, which was written by a Brit, to write about the lives of Jewish soldiers immediately before the Japanese invasion in future blog posts.

But first, here’s a glimpse of Hong Kong in November 1941. As historian Philip Snow observed, the colony certainly coasted into the war with its ‘serenity unimpaired’:

‘The evacuation last year has not unduly interrupted the social life of the Colony, and the ballrooms of the principal hotels are still full in the evenings. I understand that within the past few years there has been a closer co-operation between Europeans and the Chinese though naturally old prejudices are hard to eliminate.

There is little or no shortage of food, clothing, etc., and as yet no rationing. But the cost of living has naturally increased considerably due to increased cost of production, shipping charges and the various local measures of war taxation (which include a salaries tax, but no income tax).

Even before the War there were few stage plays, and we now have to rely on amateur performances, usually given in aid of charity. Next week one local club is giving ‘The Trial of Mary Dugan’ and there will be three performances. Variety and other concerts are given from time to time to the troops, in aid of charity, or both. Shanghai gets American and occasional British films at about the same time as we get them in London. We get them a couple of months later.

For those of you interested in the history of civilian internment in Hong Kong, I recommend 99-year old Barbara Anslow’s diary, since turned into the book ‘Tin Hats and Rice’, which paints a vivid portrait of life as a POW in the Stanley Civilian Internment Camp.

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.