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.
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.
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