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