Russian Refugees in Hong Kong

This article was originally written for The Hong Kong Heritage Project’s Past & Present magazine in 2019, and features the stories of non-Jewish and Jewish Russian refugees in Hong Kong during the mid-twentieth century.

Russians first arrived in China in the early twentieth century after the Bolshevik Revolution led to the collapse of the Russian Empire. More than a million loyalists, known as White Russians (in contrast to the Reds), fled the country. Around 300,000 migrated to nearby China, especially the treaty ports of Harbin, Tianjin and Shanghai. Harbin had been a de-facto Russian colony since 1898 – administered by Russian engineers who operated the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER) – and the headquarters-in-exile of the Russian Orthodox Church. Early twentieth century Harbin was a haven for political refugees of all stripes, a multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan city, with winding boulevards named after Russian writers and distinctive onion domed churches. Life for these early Russian emigres was comfortable but took a turn for the worse in 1924, when China officially recognised the Soviet Union, rendering White Russians stateless. In 1931 the Japanese occupied Manchuria and the ‘CER zone’, as it was known, became increasingly lawless. In the early 1930s, many Russians left Harbin. Youngsters such as Dr Solomon Bard (who was Jewish), founder of Hong Kong’s Antiquities and Monuments Office, fled Harbin for the safety of Hong Kong, while Luba Estes (née Skvorzov) and her family went to Shanghai.

Luba was born in Harbin in 1931 ‘both a refugee and stateless’ to a Russian Christian Orthodox family. Her father, Alexander Skvorzov, was an engineer with the CER. His father had been Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Harbin, appointed by the Tsarist government. In the mid-1930s the Skvorzovs, like many White Russian families, left Harbin. Not long after arriving in Shanghai they were forced to seek a new haven when the city was bombarded by the Japanese in 1937. During the bombardment, thousands of British nationals were evacuated to Hong Kong by the British government. As stateless Russians, the Skvorzovs were not evacuated but were able to leave the city thanks to an offer of employment from the Hongkong Engineering & Construction Company (HKECC), a Kadoorie owned business based in Hong Kong. Alexander was hired as a Structural Engineer in a senior managerial role and his family were housed in Kadoorie Avenue, a quiet tree-lined street in Mong Kok. Luba’s mother and father enjoyed an active social life and often mixed with other Russian families, many of whom lived in Kowloon Tong, close to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian community was always tight knit. Like many foreign communities in Hong Kong, they clung closely to their culture, language and food. Hong Kong was also a highly stratified society both before and after the war, and it was still considered taboo for a British officer or civil servant to marry a Russian woman in the 1950s.

A.V Skvorzov joined HKVDC, with daughter Luba Estes wearing school uniform c. 1939
Luba Estes with her father, Alexander Skvorzov, wearing HKVDC uniform, Hong Kong, 1939

In December 1941 the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, when Luba was only ten years old. Alexander served as an officer in the Hong Kong Volunteers Defence Corps (HKVDC). As an engineer he was trained to destroy bridges and roads. Luba remembers the first day of the invasion. She was getting ready to go to school when she heard the distant sound of bombing:

‘I was terrified and could see from a balcony of our house on Kadoorie Avenue in Kowloon, carpet bombing by Japanese aircraft coming over us. That day, instead of going to school, my sister, Loula (Skvorzov) Ballerand, my mother, Lalia Skvorzov, and I stayed in a nearby air-raid shelter. At 9pm my father, in the blackout and in his HKVDC uniform, took us to The Peninsula Hotel where an evacuation centre was being organised for families to leave the mainland.’

Alexander was captured by the Japanese and placed in a P.O.W. camp at Sham Shui Po and later transferred to Argyle Street. As stateless nationals the rest of the family were not interned. They were ‘at liberty’, moving from house to house under dangerous conditions and with no consular protection. Nearly six months later, in May 1942, Luba, her mother and sister were able to leave Hong Kong for Shanghai on the S.S. Tainan Maru. Luba remembers the heartache of leaving her father behind, and the unknown that awaited them in Shanghai:

‘Our departure from Hong Kong was a traumatic and heart wrenching event for my mother, my sister and for me. Before our departure, my mother was given permission to scribble a one-page open letter to my father in the presence of Colonel Isawa Tokunaga in his office. He permitted us to wave goodbye from a window in his office looking at my father from a distance.’

On their arrival in Shanghai, the Skvorzovs initially lived with Russian friends. It was to be one of many temporary homes over the next three years and three months. After the war, Luba returned to Hong Kong where she was reunited with her beloved father. As an amateur artist, and at great personal risk, he made a series of Chinese ink drawings depicting life in camp (in 2005 the sketches were published as ‘Hong Kong Prisoner of War Camp Life’). After the war life quickly returned to normal. The family moved back to Kadoorie Avenue. Alexander resumed his work at HKECC, working on various engineering and architectural projects which reflected the economy’s shift from trade to a manufacturing base. Luba attended King George V school (known as KGV) and enjoyed an active social life, attending high society balls at The Peninsula Hotel.

Luba Estes waves goodbye (right side) at Kai Tak airport, c. 1951
Luba waves goodbye to camera, Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong, 1952

In 1952 the family left Hong Kong for the United States, where Luba lives today. As the Skvorzovs were leaving Hong Kong, thousands of Russians flooded into the colony. It is estimated that around 20,000 White Russian refugees passed through Hong Kong from China in the years after 1949. An SCMP article written in 1965 depicted these refugees as curious oddities: ‘to many residents in the colony these refugees have become quite a familiar sight as they stroll in the streets dressed in their quaint 19th century Russian peasant costumes. But tourists still stop and stare in wonderment at the billowing trousers and high laced boots of the men and the ankle-skirted kerchiefed women’. Like the Skvorzovs, these refugees would not stay in Hong Kong. They lived in temporary boarding houses and hotels paid for by the newly established United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Council of Churches while waiting to board flights for Australia, Canada, and the United States. By the 1980s the White Russian community of Hong Kong had all but disappeared.

Special thanks to Luba Estes for sharing her life history and family photographs with The Hong Kong Heritage Project

References – thanks to: Stuart Heaver, Christopher DeWolf, Professor Peter Gatrell and Stefanie Scherr


Hong Kong’s Border Controls, the IRO and Resettlement for European DPs

I recently came across a letter from G. Findlay Andrew, Chief of the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) Far East office, to the Chief of Police in Hong Kong, D.W. Macintosh. The letter was written in 1950, when the Hong Kong Government instituted new border controls between China and Hong Kong in an attempt to limit the number of Chinese refugees entering the colony. Findlay Andrew was anxious to ensure that the IRO’s Resettlement and Repatriation Programme for European displaced persons (DP’s) would continue as normal despite the new Special Emergency Measures introduced in 1950. The IRO promises to honour Hong Kong’s new regulations, but also asks for leniency and exemption.

Findlay’s letter is illuminating in a number of ways. Firstly, we see the extent of the IRO’s involvement in European DP matters in Hong Kong (the IRO was founded in 1948 when it took over from UNRRA. In 1952 its operations ceased and the IRO was replaced by today’s UNHCR). The IRO helped thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees leave China from 1948 to 1952, many transited through the port of Hong Kong, which Findlay refers to as a ‘distribution centre’. Secondly, the IRO’s close working relationship with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and Horace Kadoorie in particular, is revealed. Thirdly, the letter shows the complexities of migration for non-Chinese and non-British ‘alien’ DP’s from China. As described below, there were bureaucratic nuances for each type of migration, whether individual, group or mass. I’ve written about the complexity in which Russian ‘refugee transients are onforwarded’ to their destinations here. We also glean that surprisingly, very few DP’s ever set foot in Hong Kong. Many were detained on ships and were not permitted to land on shore. Finally, as we’ve seen elsewhere in this blog in relation to Chinese refugees, the colonial government was loath to take on any social welfare responsibilities for DP’s, hence the IRO’s commitment to ‘provide the necessary accommodation and maintenance’.

For further information on the IRO’s work in China with Chinese displaced persons and Cold War politics, see Meredith Oyen’s article ‘The Right of Return’.

Here’s the letter below.


Letter from G. Findlay Andrew to D.W. Macintosh, 9 May 1950

As you are aware the IRO has during the past two years had a very large number of transients pass through the colony en route to the countries which have granted them reception visas. Due to the present development of events in China, Hong Kong has become increasingly a distribution centre from which the refugee transients are onforwarded to their destinations. No repatriate or resettler is brought out of China under the auspices of the IRO unless they have a valid destination visa. Their movements, however, have to be influenced by the following factors: –

  • Their departure from China has to be within the validity period of their ‘exit’ permit.
  • Their arrival at destination has to be before the expiration of their visa.

Generally speaking the movements fall under three categories:

  1. Individual movements with IRO Travel Certificate
  2. Group movements under direct IRO and / or American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee auspices. These are usually composed of groups of several hundred persons. The group of 260 who passed through on the S.S. General Gordon on the 4th Is a good example of such a movement.
  3. Mass movements none of which has, or is likely, to pass through Hong Kong.

The individual movements carry along the lines of ordinary transients who submit their individual applications for transit visas and conform to all details to the Government’s requirements. The Group movements are usually dealt with under a ‘bloc’ transit visa and this operation is dealt with under the discretion of the IRO, combined in the case of the Jewish DPs, with the AJJDC. These are usually ship to plane movements. There have been exceptions, however, when suitable surface transport has been available. In this latter case it has meant the group having to be kept in Hong Kong till the sailing of the oncarrier. During this period of detention the IRO has provided full maintenance with accommodation ashore or afloat and has assumed the responsibility for the departure at first opportunity.

With the reduced number of passenger vessels calling at this port together with very heavy advanced bookings, surface onforwarding is becoming increasingly difficult and it is increasingly apparent that IRO will have to rely more on aircraft for future movements. Where the numbers of any groups are sufficient to warrant the charter of a plane the problem will be simplified but where transients have to wait for schedule passenger planes there may be the necessity of a short stay-over in the colony.

I have set forth in detail the foregoing as a background for the following requests which are the main purpose of this letter –

  1. That under the new regulations the Resettlement and Repatriation Programme of the IRO may continue to receive the sympathetic cooperation of the Police and Immigration authorities of the Colony.
  2. That if, and when, unexpected happenings occur, such as the delay of a sailing or flight, due consideration may be given to the assurances and guarantee of the International Refugee Organisation. During such enforced delays the IRO will provide the necessary accommodation and maintenance.
  3. On the other hand, I would give you the assurance of the International Refugee Organisation, Far East Mission’s sincere desire to conform, in spirit as well as in the letter, with every requirement of the regulations. I know that in expressing this wish, I can also speak for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee which is represented in the colony by Horace Kadoorie.

Russian Jews of Tientsin

As you may have guessed from my previous blog entry, I’ve started to look more closely at Hong Kong’s role as a post-war transit port for Jewish refugees leaving China. Many of these refugees were Russians (either stateless / Soviet passport holders) from Harbin or Tientsin. You can read more about the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that governed these migrations in my blog post From Harbin to Beverley Hills.

I’ve found an interesting monograph written by Lazar Epstein, leader of ‘The Bund’ in China, Japan and the United States (you can find out more about Epstein here) which details the early beginnings of the Russian Jewish community in Tientsin and the exodus of this community from China in the early 1950s.

The Russian Jews of Tientsin, China 1900 – 1950 by Lazar Epstein (no date)

Our Russian Jews came to China from the Ukraine, from the areas around the Polish border and the biggest group of all, from Siberia, late in the nineteenth-century. Some among them were the Honourable Descendants Citiziens, whose parents had paid 1.500 rubbles for registration fees to be members of the First Guild of Merchants, thus acquiring the opportunity to live out of the Pale of Settlement which restricted Jews from travelling or living in any sea or river port or capital city in Russia. Others were descendants of the Cantonists (later known as the Nikolacvsky Soldati) a tragic group of Jewish men who earned their right to travel and settle freely after having served in the Tsar’s army for 25 odd years. The Cantonists were young Jewish boys required by the Tsars Alexander I (1801-1825) and Nicholas (1825 – 1855) to be gleaned from the Jewish community in most of the Pale of Settlement. It was decreed that Jewish communities should supply youngsters aged nine to twelve to be trained for prolonged Army service. This was an attempt to assimilate young boys based on the premise that Jewish children conscripted early into the military could be persuaded to adopt Christianity. They were provided instructions in drill and military training (usually in Siberia), rudimentary education and very strict discipline was maintained by threat of starvation and corporal punishment. At the age of 18 they were drafted into the regular Army where – if by then they had not converted to Christianity – they served for 25 years.

Jews who left Russia to go East left for the same reasons and at the same time that so many did go west. From our interviews we can establish that these reasons were: to escape conscription into the Army; to escape the pogrom which followed each crisis that Russia suffered, the defeat in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War and the failed revolution of the same year. Then the revolution of 1917 and the Civil war in 1921 precipitated further needs to escape. By mid 1930s there were about ten thousand Russian Jews in China. They lived a very self-centred life there, formed lasting ties with each other and it is a fascinating fact that now, almost twenty-five years after the community ceased to exist as a localised unit in China, its members are still very much aware of each others lives and form a kind of non-geographical unity despite the fact that they are scattered to the USA, Australia, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Hong Kong and Israel, countries which absorbed the immigrants from China since 1948.

With the occupation of Tientsin by the Japanese Military Dictatorship, the Chinese government ceased to exist, and the White Russians collaborated with the Japanese – in fact, instigated – the few examples of anti-Semitic experience that were to occur. As the Second World War ended, the civil war in China between the communists and the Kuomintang (Nationalist) increased in intensity. Fighting went on, although still some distance from Tientsin. Export and import business was no longer easy. Goods were very expensive, money was hugely inflated and people carried it in their suitcase in order to pay employees. We quote from a letter (anonymous) sent out from Tientsin on July 28, 1946: ‘The atmosphere in town is not good. Life is getting more and more expensive, taxation is hard to understand and consequently it is hard to plan your business. Labour is much more expensive than in the States – they just get you by the throat and you cannot help it. When I am not busy, I will make copies of Shanghai bills and you will see that hundreds of thousands of dollars there count for nothing. The situation with our citizenship turned out to be a washout, and burns me up. We are asked to forget that we are Jews and to remember that first we are Soviets, and I will be damned if I will conform to that. We stand a good chance to have our Jewish organisations such as school, hospital and club, turned into Soviet organisations, with Russians included. And you know what kind of Russians we have here, the kind we ran away from in Russia …’   

These words became reality very soon. People who were born in Russia and did not have foreign passports were notified that they had to take out Soviet citizenship. The Chinese government provided residents’ identification papers. People who had business with the USA started the trend of getting visas to get out. By 1948 the exodus had begun. People could still leave taking their belongings and their money. With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the first shiploads from China arrived in Israel – mainly young people in their early twenties, members of the Betar, the Macabees, graduates from the Tientsin Jewish school. The Communist takeover in Tientsin was actually swift and virtually bloodless – on the cold clear January 10th  of 1949. The Jewish School was very soon to be closed and Kunst was taken over to become the Soviet Citizens Club – a gathering place for Russian-speakers, Jews and others. Children from the Jewish school had little choice but go to the Soviet School to become Pioneers and members of the Komsomol and like their parents, to be Soviet citizens. The Chinese people or government really interfered very little in the lives of the Jews even at this juncture. It was the Soviets who completely took over.

In the early fifties it became very obvious that the permanence of the Jewish businessmen in Tientsin was no longer desirable or practical. Export regulations and heavy taxes practically paralysed the commercial activities. People’s investigative committees were looking into businessmen’s war-time deals, connections with the Japanese, money transfers or black-market exchange activities. China was going through the first san-fan u-fan (three-year, five-year self cleansing) period. One was expected to confess one’s own misdeeds or anyone else’s (usually the latter) to the government and many Chinese as well as foreign businessmen were arrested, others committed suicide, all worried. It was a period of great tension and again, those Russian Jews who
had visas, chose to leave as soon as they could. To Israel, Australia, Brazil.


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.