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.




Edgar Laufer

Edgar Laufer, pictured 1948

Edgar Laufer (1917 – 2010) was one of three Jewish refugees employed at China Light & Power (CLP) by Lawrence Kadoorie in the 1930s, and possibly the only Jewish refugee scientist in Hong Kong. His career in the company spanned 42 years (1938 – 1980) and began in CLP’s Chemical Services Department where he set up the lab at Hok Un Power Station. Edgar later joined Head Office in 1958 and became an integral member of management, working on the Esso partnership and the Scheme of Control amongst other high profile projects.

Edgar left Berlin in June 1937 to study chemistry and Chinese at the Lingnan University in Canton with funds sent to him by a friend in the United States, choosing China thanks to his childhood fascination with the stamps sent to him by his uncle, Dr. Bethold Laufer, curator of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Although he never spoke of his escape from Nazism during his lifetime, Edgar described his feelings of loss in a letter to the Colonial Secretariat in 1940: ‘I have always, for impersonal reasons, been most strongly opposed to National  Socialism and all it stands for. When I was disenfranchised as a Jew, I considered myself no longer a German citizen’. Whilst studying in Canton, Edgar was introduced to Lawrence Kadoorie, then Director of CLP by Herbert Samuel, the company statistician. Edgar’s late uncle was known to the family as he had corresponded with Horace Kadoorie on the subject of ancient Chinese ivories. In 1938 Edgar spent his summer holidays in Hong Kong, visiting friends and working for CLP on a part-time basis. He fled China in October 1938 when Canton fell to the Japanese military and the university was moved to Hong Kong, temporarily utilizing the University of Hong Kong as its base. Laufer described the flight in an interview in 2007:

‘I went and studied in Canton, but the Japanese invaded Canton, they’d come south of Burma, but I think in the autumn of ’38, which was when we had to flee from Canton quite suddenly … I don’t remember the details, it meant taking a boat to some part of Guangdong from Canton on the river and then taking a bus to Macau, and eventually taking the boat, overnight boat from Macau to Hong Kong.’

In November 1938 Edgar was employed by CLP on a part-time basis to undertake research on coal and water. He was able to bring his brother and his parents, Thodore Laufer and Kela Carry Laufer, to safety from Berlin to Hong Kong with the help of Lawrence Kadoorie. Edgar later arranged for his brother to leave for Chicago to continue his studies at the Hebrew Theological College. In October 1939 Lawrence Kadoorie proposed a loan of $100 a month to financially support Edgar and his family: ‘the reason for doing this and not requesting help from the (Jewish Refugee) Society is that the boy has a proud nature and will I know endeavor to the best of his ability to repay the loan as soon as he possibly can’.

Following his graduation in 1940, Edgar set up the first chemical lab at CLP’s Hok Un Power Station. During the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong he was at liberty due to his German nationality and he helped deliver care packages to British internees in Stanley Internment Camp. Libby Sharpe, who as a baby was interned in the camp with her mother, described Edgar’s kindness:

 ‘Edgar did a wonderful job. He went from camp to camp, he brought my father the news that I was born, and he brought back … the only thing my father had, and goodness how he had it, was a bar of chocolate, so he sent a bar of chocolate back through Edgar to my mother.’

Edgar was nationalized as a British citizen in 1947 and continued to dedicate his time and energy to CLP’s success. In the 1970s he helped collect information on CLP’s history for Nigel Cameron’s book ‘Power’, which told the story of CLP. He retired to England in the 1980s and passed away in 2010.


Refugee Voices

Peter Pulbver and family
Peter Pulver (pictured, centre, outside The Peninsula Hotel, 1946) was stranded in Hong Kong for five months until he was able to make the journey to Sydney, Australia with his family.

Last night I gave a presentation to staff and students at the King’s College London history department on the topic of ‘micro histories and oral histories’, which, as I’ll explain in a moment, was particularly fitting as I seek to document Jewish refugee experiences in Hong Kong.

Professor Tony Kushner has long advocated local and micro approaches to refugee studies (see Refugees in an Age of Genocide, (1999)). His methodology places refugees at the centre of historical narratives, allowing the reader to understand individual experiences of events such as the Holocaust and the lives of dislocated populations before and after the Second World War.

Everyday histories are all too often cast aside in favour of macro approaches, which focus on events on a national or international scale. The problem with relying solely on this method of interpretation is that by ignoring human agency, we risk reducing refugee movements to mass human tidal waves knocked from one place to the next by seismic events, much like tiles in a pack of dominos.

Oral history is of course crucial to the documentation of local and micro histories. By privileging life stories, the discipline gives those ‘hidden from history’ an opportunity to be heard, whilst providing new insights and perspectives into the past. Much like other archival records including diaries, manuscript collections and press cuttings, oral histories need careful interpretation. The fallibility of memory, interviewees unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) exaggerating or omitting key events and the blurry line connecting public memory (as read in newspapers) with personal memory, are but some of the knots oral historians need to untie when conducting interviews. I hesitate to call these particularities ‘problems’, as what is not said is often just as important as what is said, and a keen historian will be able to unpick these discrepancies.

Many interviews were conducted with ex-Shanghai refugees in the 1980s and 1990s, which continue to be used by historians today. Steve Hochstadt’s Exodus Shanghai (2012) is one of a long(ish) line of books that stitches together disparate oral history accounts to tell the story of refugee experiences in Shanghai, usually covering the period 1938 – 1945. Useful as these may be for historians looking to record the escape to, and survival in, Shanghai, the chronological focus of many of these interviews proves problematic as I seek to document short-term refugee experiences in Hong Kong. Since many refugees stayed for a matter of weeks or days in the colony and in a merely transitory capacity, any Hong Kong experiences may be treated as a mere footnote in the wider excitement and anticipation of the voyage to a new home. Compounding this is the difficulty of finding individuals who transited through Hong Kong at all. In the hope of finding such stories, I will look to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as well as the HKHP Archive, which acquired a large collection of such interviews from the United States in 2010.

Following the end of my presentation I received some useful feedback and insights into potential new avenues of research that look beyond micro, local and oral history approaches. Many drew a parallel with the current Syrian refugee crisis and the wider pre and post-Holocaust Jewish refugee crisis – for which the rhetoric remains dangerously, and depressingly, familiar (see this Daily Mail cartoon). One member of the audience raised a particularly interesting point about transitory refugee encampments that become permanent or semi-permanent over time, perhaps due to political stalemate or, in the case of the Jewish refugees, their stateless identity and post-war transport problems. A modern-day equivalent can be seen at the Calais migrant camp known as ‘the Jungle’ where many Syrian, Sudanese and Afghan refugees subsist, whilst a historic Hong Kong example is that of the Vietnamese refugees kept in ‘closed camps’ during the 1970s – 1990s as they sought re-settlement or residency. In these and other cases, despite the ad-hoc or non-existent accommodation, sanitation and medical infrastructure in place, some semblance of community and an informal economy started to take root. This can also be seen in the case of the Jewish refugees from Shanghai who arrived in Hong Kong at the tail end of July 1946 for a week’s transit to Sydney. When a ship scheduled to transport the refugees to Australia was diverted by the Australian Government, their Hong Kong stay soon turned into weeks and months, and the refugees’ ad-hoc accommodation in two ballrooms of The Peninsula Hotel took on a more permanent feel.

Another particularly pertinent question focused on official Hong Kong reactions to the Chinese refugee crisis post 1949, and the potential contrast with attitudes and policies towards Jewish refugees as well as their comparative experiences. To understand this more fully I will need look to look to the mandate of the Hong Kong branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 1951 onwards, its role in the wider Chinese refugee crisis and the governorship of Sir Alexander Grantham, in office 1947 – 1957. A topic for a future post, perhaps!