The Language of Refuge

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.


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)

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)



Immigration Control (1)

Queue for water, Hong Kong, c. 1935

Immigration is often a hotly contested and divisive topic that crosses political and ethnic affiliations. The catalyst for the large-scale movement of people is often war and persecution, with political, economic and environmental push factors. Conversely, economic opportunity and pre-existing social communities are the factors that pull migrants away from homesteads. The fate of the displaced and the extent of immigration control has been the subject of recent intense debate across the political spectrum in Europe, where a refugee crisis looms large, but also in Hong Kong, where the right of abode issue was preceded by a decade of legal battles and protests that still simmer on today. Hong Kong has a long history of refuge, and arguably, its modern history can be viewed as a rolling history of immigration (think the refugee influxes that followed China’s Tai Ping rebellion in 1861, the 1911 Revolution, Japanese Occupation of Shanghai in 1937 and the ensuing civil war).

The question of Hong Kong’s history of immigration is central to the fate of Jewish refugees transiting through post-war Hong Kong. As we’ve seen in earlier blog posts, this refugee movement was the result of the extreme violence and persecution meted out by the Nazi regime in Europe. The history of immigration, and conversely, the exclusion and inclusion of certain groups, can tell us a great deal about the formation of identity, nationalism and how people and governments view the ‘other’. It can also tell us about refugee experiences in Hong Kong and also adds to the debate about whether more could have been done within the British Empire to help Jewish refugees both before and after the Holocaust. This blog post will look at the context of immigration control in Hong Kong before 1945.

Much has been written on the subject of immigration control in the 1930s and the failure of the United Kingdom and the United States to do more to save Jews from the Holocaust. I’m currently reading Louise London’s Whitehall and the Jews, 1933 – 1948, which takes a dim view of the British Government’s approach to Jewish suffering, arguing that policy was calculated primarily according to Britain’s self-interest and that humanitarian aid to Jews was assigned a much lower priority than the maintenance of severe restrictions on alien immigration to the United Kingdom. London states that the policy was shaped by circumstance, but its limits were defined by self-interest.

In a similar way, the history of Hong Kong’s immigration control policy can also be seen as reactive, permissive, and shaped by circumstance.

Immigration control in Hong Kong has a comparatively recent history. Until 1950, immigrants from the Mainland of China enjoyed virtually free access to Hong Kong. Pragmatism rather than nationalism was the call of the day, and immigration policies followed suit as passive tools of administration shaped by external political events beyond the control of Hong Kong. The first restrictions on travel were imposed in 1923 when persons (other than those of the Chinese race) entering Hong Kong were required to hold travel documents or visas. Prior to this, the Travellers Restrictions Ordinance (1915) gave authorities the power to inspect all ships upon arrival and required persons of non-Asiatic race and all Indians to report to a police station within 12 hours of their arrival. The Registration of Persons Ordinance (1916) introduced a registration system with the police, which again exempted ‘persons of Chinese race’. The Deportation Ordinance (1917) further empowered the governor to deport undesirable elements, particularly non-British subjects. The exemption of Chinese persons from these early edicts reflects Hong Kong’s labour needs and also the fact that once political or economic turmoil had died down in China, migrants often returned home. Immigration control was further developed in 1934 by the Immigration and Passports Ordinance, which set out nine categories of ‘undesirable immigrants’ who may be refused permission to land by sea. There was no such exemption for those who arrived by land, which was the main route of entry for migrants from Mainland China, via the New Territories. Again the ordinance exempted persons of Chinese race from requiring a valid travel document or visa.

The immigration scene changed with the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 and the fall of Guangzhou in 1938. A mass influx of refugees entered Hong Kong and unlike on previous occasions, they didn’t seem to be making the move back to China. On 6 June 1940, the Hong Kong Government appointed a committee to ‘reduce excess population and control immigration’. A few days later (21 June) the Report of the Excess Population Committee was produced. The committee’s terms of reference were clearly economically and socially driven: ‘in view of the fact that the number of the poor population in Hong Kong was higher than is desirable both from the point of view of defence and public health, to consider … what immediate steps should be taken’. The authors of the report made clear the undesirability of assimilating this new group of refugees, and chief amongst their concerns were issues of food security in a time of war, public health fears and considerations of Hong Kong’s military defence as a fortress colony. Amongst their recommendations they cited the need for a ‘Bona fide Hong Kong Resident’ certificate of identity, the establishment of formal points of entry, both on land and on sea, increased powers for the courts to recommend the deportation of convicted aliens, refugee camps to be removed from Hong Kong Island and Kowloon and to north of the defence line in the Kowloon hills, and importantly, for refugees to be sent back to China as soon as hostilities had ceased. Clearly the authors of the report did not think it was Hong Kong’s responsibility to care for these refugees. There was also a suggestion to encourage food distribution centres to areas outside of the colony to avoid attracting new refugees, sadly a political call familiar across much of Europe today.

As a result of the report, S.M. Middlebrook, Administrative Officer of Malaya, was employed by government to draw up a scheme for the regulation of immigration. He recommended the establishment of an Immigration Department to take over the duties of the Police Passport Office and this was duly opened as the Immigration Office on 18 November 1940. The Immigration Control Bill was published on 9 November 1940 which for the first time imposed immigration controls over ‘persons of the Chinese race’, and decreed that persons without relevant travel documents, visas or entry permits, frontier passes or certificates of resident would not be permitted to land or to remain in Hong Kong. Importantly, immigration control was only imposed at the time of entry, and if persons entered without detection, it was not an offence to remain in Hong Kong without permission.

And yet almost as soon as the department was established it seemed to close its doors, with immigration again controlled by the police in the post-war years. Indeed, an Immigration Department was only successfully (and continuously) established in Hong Kong some twenty years later, in 1961. Why was this? The Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong in December 1941 certainly takes the lion’s share of the blame, but the office was beset early on by a number of problems, including poor bureaucratic management, misinformation in the Hong Kong press, unsuitable employees, to downright corruption. The Hon. M.K. Lo (one of the authors of the Excess Population Committee report) made clear the level of public distrust in a Legislative Council debate a few months after the department had been established (February 1941): ‘apart from the question of administrative machinery there have been numerous complaints of sheer rudeness and offensive conduct on the part of the officers of this Department. ‘civil servants will be civil servants’ may be a familiar witticism, but I suggest that it embodies a wholesome admonition to which civil servants in Hong Kong should pay serious heed.’ A report into the failures of the Immigration Department pinpointed government failings in appointing an unsuitable Immigration Officer (Mr. Forrest, who was rendered ill from the stress of running the shambolic department), criticised the passport photograph monopoly instituted by Forrest, his policy of excluding local candidates and the lack of proper financial machinery. Another major problem was misinformation in the Hong Kong press, with headlines reading: ‘All Chinese residents must apply for certificates of residence’ and from the SCMP: ‘Immigration check. All residents of colony are to have identification documents’. Small wonder then, as the report stated, that the new office was swamped with applications, many of which need never have been made.

Immediately after the war, traffic across the border in each direction remained unrestricted. Post-war immigration was not top of the government’s agenda, which had more pressing rehabilitation issues to attend to, and Hong Kong was keen to maintain friendly ties with China, which had emerged from the war as an ally. This position soon changed with civil war in China and the establishment of the PRC in 1949, when Hong Kong soon became a place of refuge once more.