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.

 

 

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The Language of Refuge

dinner-time
A group of men eat lunch in Hong Kong, c.1937

As part of my research on the refugee experience in Hong Kong I’ve been looking more closely at public attitudes towards specific refugee groups, including Chinese refugees who fled for the relative safety of Hong Kong after the Japanese invasion of Canton in October 1938.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, public attitudes towards refugees over the past 70 years have remained more or less constant, with public sympathy and hostility spiking and dipping dependent on the media news cycle. Today, media antagonism towards such groups continues to play an important role in shaping black and white stereotypes of refugees as angels or devils: either deserving of refuge as ‘genuine’ asylum seekers (a term that also comes with its own baggage since the press campaigns of the 1990s) or as ‘benefit scroungers’ and illegal immigrants. A visual Prezi presentation examines the evolving language and discourse used by the Daily Mail before and after the Alan Kurdi tragedy (a paper which continues to specialise in water-based metaphors to depict the refugee ‘invasion’) you can also read more about the role of the media in Europe’s refugee crisis here.

Public and Political Attitudes towards Chinese Refugees, 1939 – 1940

One example of British anti-refugee attitudes towards Chinese refugees can be found in a letter to the South China Morning Post written by Mrs Mackie in September 1939. She writes of the ‘palatial’ refugee camp at King’s Park, where she was ‘amazed to see so many well-fed, lazy, contended, youths and maidens waiting for the next meal being served’. Mrs Mackie goes on to contrast the fate of British residents, who were ‘bled’ at every store and squeezed by high rents. It’s true that Hong Kong’s rapid population growth caused a sharp increase in rents, and food controls were also put in place at this time as a war measure. However, this lopsided comparison of the economic fortunes of refugees and the British expatriate population was, of course, more than highly inaccurate, although it’s a sentiment we can recognise in public discourse today. I’ve written more about the Chinese refugee camps here and here, which were far from palatial.

Such attitudes were not restricted to Hong Kong’s polite society. Below is an excerpt of a Legislative Council debate from August 1940, when the Finance Committee grilled the Director of Medical Services, Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, on the Chinese ‘refugee problem’ and the financial burden of the camps. I’ve highlighted certain words in bold to demonstrate how language was used to mitigate official responsibility for refugees and question their status as genuine refuge seekers loyal to Hong Kong (such racial ideas were also propagated by the political classes in Britain about Jewish refugees). Finally, you will see how refugees were diminished to the economic status of vagrants and ‘destitutes’, categories which elicited fears of sex, procreation and a long-term, growing refugee population (see Mr. Paterson: ‘do destitutes procure more destitutes?’). The debate raises important questions about Hong Kong’s immigration legislation, a policy amended in 1940, as well as who was, and who was not deemed a true ‘Hong Konger’. Of course, it’s a contentious question that continues to be discussed in Hong Kong today.

FINANCE COMMITTEE

Following the Council, a meeting of the Finance Committee was held, the Colonial Secretary presiding. Votes totalling $969,412, contained in Message No. 8 from H.E. The Officer Administering the Government, were considered. Item 114.―5, Charitable Services:―23, Relief of Refugees, $288,000.

HON. MR. DODWELL Have we any record as to how long these refugees are with us. We cannot keep them forever. Do they come and go or are we keeping them for years?

THE DIRECTOR OF MEDICAL SERVICES A careful record is kept of all refugees admitted to Government camps. We keep a card for each one with his name, place of origin, occupation, and so on. Investigations are made as to whether their villages or towns are actually in the fighting zone. If they are not, a sub-committee of the camp committee proceeds to make arrangements to repatriate them. There is a turnover in the camps every day.

HON. MR. DODWELL What surprised me was that Chinese refugee orphans were evacuated. Is it not a fact that since we had a scare in the Colony the refugees at Fanling disappeared entirely?

THE DIRECTOR OF MEDICAL SERVICES I am sorry to say that is not so. Some proportion of them did actually go back to China, but many were taken into the urban areas, including the Italian Convent.

HON. MR. PATERSON Are the sexes segregated or do the destitutes procure more destitutes?

THE DIRECTOR OF MEDICAL SERVICES The living huts are arranged on the basis of children, orphaned children, family huts and old derelicts, male or female. With the exception of several hundred children transferred from Po Leung Kuk to the King’s Park camp, the majority of the refugees have been here for only a short time. There are, of course, a number of Hongkong destitutes who cannot be sent back to China.

HON. MR. SHIELDS Have you any power to stop destitutes from coming to the Colony?

THE CHAIRMAN I would like notice of that question. We have, of course, a quick way of getting rid of vagrants, but at present there are no laws to stop destitutes coming in except the $20.

HON. MR. SHIELDS I always understood that under the agreement under which we took over the Colony there should be no interference in the coming and going of Chinese. We are up against a very difficult problem with this influx, which may be with us for a long time. Something should be done.

THE CHAIRMAN This question is at this moment being very carefully investigated by Government. We have an officer working specially on it, and he has just put up a plan which, I hope, will be brought into activity within the next few weeks.

HON. MR. DODWELL Is it a fact that a number of these refugees evade going to the camps and try to get into the Colony and become vagrants?

THE DIRECTOR OF MEDICAL SERVICES It is a fact that there are quite a number of refugees who come to the Colony and sleep on the streets. We try to pick them up at night and put them in the camps. Of course they know this is one way to repatriate them.

For further reading, see: Legislative Council Debate, 29 August 1940, page 132

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.

 

Professor William (Wilhelm) Deman

Horace Kadoorie with Miss Smith and William DemanWhilst working through the World Jewish Congress (WJC) records at the American Jewish Archives, I became intrigued by letters written by Professor William (Wilhelm) Deman. Although Professor Deman did not transit through Hong Kong, his plight tells us much about the Kafkaesque difficulties faced by refugees in the immediate post-Holocaust and post-war world – when immigration barriers and quota restrictions remained firmly in place – as well as refugee decisions to leave Shanghai, contentions surrounding repatriation vs. resettlement, and finally, the schisms within the refugee community itself. I’m also interested in Professor Deman as a refugee humanitarian actor. He ran the Gregg School of Business in Shanghai, a valuable training centre for refugees, as well as the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association club, founded by Horace Kadoorie. From 1947 to 1949, Professor Deman was also the Secretary of the Association of Small Quota Committees, formed to agitate for the rights of so-called ‘small quota’ individuals from Austria, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Lithuania and Turkey to enter the U.S.

First, a little background on the bureaucratic impasse faced by those from ‘small quota’ countries in Shanghai. President Truman’s directives on immigration in December 1945 gave two-thirds of quotas for all countries for one year to Germany under blanket corporate affidavits. This measure was good news for German Jews in Shanghai hoping to enter the U.S. Adversely, it also split families, for example a German-born woman married to an Austrian or Polish man could not emigrate to America as a couple. To illustrate the difficulties faced by ‘small quota’ individuals, the total number of quotas allotted to Shanghai for Poles, Czechs, Romanians and Hungarians for the year 1947 to 1948 amounted to only 220. As Marcia Ristaino has written, the Displaced Persons Act of June 1948 was a further blow for Shanghai’s refugees. It centred on clearing Austria, Germany and Italy of DPs, and consequently, Shanghai was forgotten.

Professor Deman wrote regularly to Kurt Grossman, the WJC representative in New York, on the issue of small quota emigration. His letters become increasingly desperate as the economic and political climate in China disintegrates, anti-foreign sentiment takes hold, and the Communists approach Shanghai. Deman’s letters also articulate the desires of some 1,314 refugees to emigrate to the States. They speak of a universal yearning to be reunited with surviving family members and describe how professional, middle aged refugees had learned English in Shanghai, meaning that both their familial and professional lives were tied to the United States. The letters also give a very raw insight into the psychological impact of waiting and of the ruin of lives lived with uncertainty.

The Association of Small Quota Committees emerges as a highly organised and resourceful organisation, demonstrating that refugees were not passive victims of circumstance but highly engaged with the changing tides of international politics and immigration legislation. Committee members write pleading letters to the head of the U.S. Visa Section, the State Department, and even President Truman. They are vocal and imaginative in devising strategies to enter the U.S. – opting for temporary evacuation to Japan, Hawaii or Cuba – and often reject suggestions from the WJC, including evacuation to Samar Island on the Philippines.The organisation also acts as a conduit of information for the WJC, who have no representatives on the ground in China (their China Section is made up of refugees), and the data they provide is used as the basis  for WJC bulletins.

At the beginning of 1949, as the British, French and American governments evacuate their civilians from China, the situation becomes increasingly desperate and this sparks a schism within the refugee committee, a rebellion led by Professor Deman. He becomes disillusioned with futile hopes of resettlement and opts for repatriation. In February 1949, he sets sails on the S.S. Meigs to San Francisco, where he takes a sealed train to New York. Refugees are allowed to meet with friends and family for one hour on Ellis Island before taking a second ship to Italy where they continue their journeys.

Kurt Grossman writes an account of his 60-minute meeting with Professor Deman at Ellis Island. In many ways his eloquent prose captures the desperate plight of refugees across the globe:

‘May I say a word about the procedure which the United States authorities have applied in handling these transports. The Jewish refugees arrive in San Francisco and then are taken under rigid supervision through the United States without allowing anybody to leave either the transport or Ellis Island. The relatives, among them brothers, sisters, and children, are permitted to see their kin for not quite one hour. The psychological effect must be a devastating one. The most depressing scenes take place. From Ellis Island the people can see the Statue of Liberty but the solemn words engraved therein remain just words and the promise they convey remains unfulfilled. Technically and according to regulations everything is in order, but from a human point of view, the treatment of the Jewish refugees coming from Shanghai is cruel. It is obvious that people who have not seen each other for ten years find 40 to 50 minutes inadequate. Departing from Ellis Island, after being with those refugees for one hour, leaves you with a lump in your throat.’

 

 

 

Immigration Control (2)

IMG_8918
Hong Kong’s so-called ‘Problem of People’ is discussed in the 1956 Hong Kong Annual Report

I’ve discussed the inception and failure of Hong Kong’s first Immigration Department in 1940 here. In this blog posting I’ll be looking at the complexities of immigration control in the 1930s and what this meant for Chinese and foreign refugees.

Early immigration control in Hong Kong followed in the footsteps of British policies of deportation, registration and banishment but was also passive and shaped by external events in China beyond the control of the colonial government. Until 1950 Chinese immigrants enjoyed virtually free access to Hong Kong because of its status as an entrepot for the market of China. Freedom of movement was deemed crucial for agents, buyers and itinerant traders, and labourers were needed for large-scale projects such as land reclamation schemes. The colonial authorities considered the people of Hong Kong and China closely linked by family, social and cultural ties. Politically, Hong Kong was also more than willing to adopt the status of a ‘safe haven’ from the perceived corruption and instability of China, as presented in the government’s Hong Kong Annual Report (1956): ‘for her part, Hong Kong took pride in her role as a safe and well-ordered sanctuary and she welcomed all who sought asylum, on the sole condition that they did not continue whatever struggle they were engaged in from within her borders’.

Despite this professed guarantee for ‘all who sought asylum’, the Sino-Japanese War led to changes in Hong Kong’s immigration policies. The fall of Canton in 1938 led to a mass influx of refugees in Hong Kong, some of whom brought capital and business whilst others were eventually housed in squalid refugee camps. Unlike previous refugee flows into Hong Kong, the population showed no sign of migrating back to China. Overcrowding led to an outbreak of cholera and a forced vaccination scheme, as well as fears for the defence of Hong Kong as a ‘fortress colony’ amidst the Japanese advance. The Immigration Control Ordinance (1940), imposed immigration control for the first time on persons of the Chinese race from the Mainland of China. Due to institutional corruption, administrative failures and the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong, the new Immigration Department did not survive the war and in 1945 responsibility for immigration reverted back to the police. Prior to 1940 therefore, Chinese refugees were not subject to immigration control. German and Austrian Jewish refugees on the other hand were required to possess a valid passport and visa for Hong Kong, a guarantee of employment and to show that they would not become a charge on public funds.

[1] See: Chan, Johannes, Immigration Control in Hong Kong: An Interdisciplinary Study (2004) and Ku, Agnes, Immigration Polices, Discourses and the Politics of Local Belonging in Hong Kong (1950 – 1980) (2004)