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.

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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.

 

 

Vietnamese Refugees in Hong Kong

Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, courtesy of http://www.vietnameseboatpeople.hk

Over 213,000 Vietnamese refugees sought refuge in Hong Kong during the years 1975 – 2000.

Several historians have examined the internment and legal status of ‘sur place’ Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, a place of first asylum and transit to the west during the 1980s. Much of the literature on this topic was written in the 80s. While Chan and Loveridge write about the psychological trauma endured by ‘in-transit’ refugees held in camps and transit centres, Tsoi, Yu and Lieh-Mak interviewed refugee children in Hong Kong to better understand the impact of violence on apprehension and fear. Bousquet compares the state of limbo endured by the refugees as ‘that of the prisoner of war who waits out an unchosen and uncertain present’. 

More recently, Carina Hoang, a Vietnamese refugee who arrived in Hong Kong in the 1970s after the fall of Saigon, launched a comprehensive website on the topic which can be found here. The site is part of her PhD research at Curtin University and includes photographs, oral histories with refugees and those ‘on the other side of the fence’ as well as art work created by refugees in camp. I was privileged to see Carina speak in Hong Kong at our oral history meeting a few years ago, and look forward to reading her thesis when published.

 

Finding Hong Kong History

Today’s blog post is a brief overview of where and how to find Hong Kong history online. I’ll save the list of archives for another day!

First of all, the Old Hong Kong Newspapers web page on the Hong Kong Public Libraries website is an excellent resource for anyone looking for primary source material on Old Hong Kong. You can search within a wide selection of Chinese and English language newspapers, including the China Mail and the Hong Kong Daily Press, by entering key words in the search engine.

Speaking of newspapers, you can also purchase access to the South China Morning Post Historical Archive, with the first issue stretching back to the newspaper’s founding in 1903. Although there is a paywall (which doesn’t come cheap), the search engine is powerful and the newspapers easier to download than on the Public Libraries website.

Now let’s turn to government records. Of course, the Public Records Office, with its excellent Carl T Smith Collection (and recently updated website), should be the very first port of call for any Hong Kong historian. But for those working outside of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Government Reports Online, a Hong Kong University Library digital initiative, is the next best thing. It provides digital access to four major government publications, namely: the Administrative Report, Hong Kong Hansard, Hong Kong Sessional Papers and Hong Kong Government Gazette. Simply type in a key word, set the date parameters, and off you go.

You can also download council meetings of the Legislative Council from 1858 until 1997 here.

Blogs and websites administered by historians and enthusiasts are another excellent resource. Over at the crowd-sourced and award winning Gwulo website, you can find obscure links to all corners of the internet, anecdotal evidence, memoir, photographs, GPS tagging and more. Its strength lies in the site’s comments section, where relatives and old Hong Kongers regularly post messages and recollections of people, places and events, allowing users to trace the lives of the most marginal figures in the darkest corners of Hong Kong’s history. Similarly, check out Tony Banham’s Hong Kong War Diary for everything on the 1941 defence of Hong Kong and the ensuing occupation. Brian Edgar’s thoughtful blog traces his family’s history and along the way examines race, war and colonialism in Hong Kong through an academic lens. The Hong Kong History Project blog, a relatively recent newcomer to the Hong Kong blogging scene, has all kinds of useful information including a must-read annotated bibliography by historian Vaudine England and a directory of academics working at universities around the world. The project is based at the University of Bristol and aims to encourage new research into Hong Kong’s politics, society, culture and economy.