The Battle of Shanghai, 1937

Death and destruction in Shanghai: exterior of the Cathay Hotel after the bombing raid of August 14, 1937. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In August 1937, during the Battle of Shanghai, 4,000 British men, women and children were evacuated to Hong Kong by order of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Some 200 British and Iraqi Jews were amongst the evacuees. Iraqi Jews had a confused and complicated status in China, where most sought British protection. As Maisie Meyer has shown, the British policy of naturalization was inconsistent and largely dependent on economic, social and humanitarian considerations including the status, wealth and position of Iraqi Jews (in the 1920s and 1930s around one third of Shanghai Sephardim were recognized as British subjects).[1]

The British government’s evacuation selection process, as well as shipping priorities and funding for specific evacuee groups, demonstrated its narrow understanding of British identity as influenced by religion and race, as well as the legal privilege attached to British status. The 1937 British refugee crisis also parallels the evacuation of British women and children from Hong Kong to Australia in the summer of 1941, which was also executed along racial lines. During my visit to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee archive in New York, I came across the following article which recounts the impact of the bombing raids on the Jewish community and their dispersal across Asia – including to Hong Kong.

Shanghai in the Shadows (October 1937)

Jews are bearing their full measure of suffering in war-torn Shanghai, where they are faced with a truly desperate situation. Refugee members of the community whose homes were in the Northern District have seen there possessions reduced to ashes, and others fear that looters have been busy in their absence. These people are now without means of subsistence or employment, for most of them owned shops, cafes and small factories, and among them are German Jews, now refugees twice over, they were just beginning to establish themselves in Shanghai when the new upheaval overwhelmed them.

The refugees are receiving aid from the local ‘Shelter House’ which is doing excellent work, and from other organisations, or have been taken in by friends, but their position is an unhappy one, for the community has been very hard hit by the present crisis. However, together with funds collected in Shanghai, there have been contributions from Jews in Kobe, Manila and elsewhere.

Apart from the refugees, other Jews who left for Shanghai for a brief summer vacation to Tsingtao Dairen, Japan or Kuling are stranded, as ships bringing as few people as possible to Shanghai and they write frantically for permission from the authorities to return, both of which are very difficult to obtain. A third group consists of Jews who left for Hong Kong. Approximately 200 hundreds Jews availed themselves of the opportunity afforded by the British authorities and were evacuated to Hong Kong, where they are being cared for as far as possible by the local Jewish community. However, the island is overcrowded, and many inconveniences have to be borne.

During the air-raids over the Settlement on August 14 and 23, six Jews were killed and several injured. Among the injured was a Jewess newly arrived from Kalgan who expected to find safety in Shanghai. On Yom Kippur, the evening service was conducted to the accompaniment of an air-raid, with a crescendo of loud and successive explosions, and the whine of aeroplane engines as an undertone. It was with heartfelt emotion and earnestness that prayers were offered up for a new year of peace among nations.[2]

[1] Meyer, Maisie, From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai (Lanham, 2003), 194 – 195

[2] The Jewish Chronicle, 29 October 1937

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.’




Post-War Exodus: Records of the American Jewish Archives

I’m in the United States for a month to study the World Jewish Congress records held at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio, a swing state in the upcoming U.S. elections (Hilary has a 34% chance of winning Ohio according to today’s FiveThirtyEight forecast).

The World Jewish Congress (WJC) dates back to 1936 and was founded in Geneva, Switzerland to represent Jews around the world and advocate on their behalf to government and non-government organisations. The World Jewish Council was active in China through its Relief branch and China Section, established in 1945. It attempted to lobby the U.S. government to amend the 1948 DP Act which discriminated against those stranded in Shanghai from so-called ‘small quota’ countries, and approached government officials and Jewish communities in Australia and Canada with regards to refugee resettlement. The collection provides an insight into the incredibly complex plight of Jewish refugees in the immediate post-war and post-Holocaust world, a world which kept its pre-war immigration controls and quotas firmly in place (see for example Suzanne Rutland on the ‘subtle exclusions’ of the IRO and Australia).

The collection also raises wider questions surrounding resettlement and repatriation, refugee emigration decisions informed by age and profession, the question of Palestine – whose immigration policy was still controlled by the British until the establishment of the State of Israel (May 1948) – and Allied responses to refugees, the intense pressure on individuals still caught in Shanghai as the civil war raged on in China and the Communists approached the city, and finally, Chinese attitudes towards Jewish refugees and Europeans generally in post-colonial China.

The collection also chronicles the rise of a professionalised cadre of humanitarian refugee organisations, their relief efforts and the competition between agencies, which in Shanghai proper included the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

The Shanghai Municipal Council and Refugee Arrivals, 1938 – 1941

Image courtesy of Beth Hatefutsoth

As mentioned in my previous blog post, the Foyle Library holds an incredible and near complete collection of Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC) annual reports. During my visit to the library in October this year, I was particularly interested to see the SMC report for 1939, which describes the arrival of Jewish refugees from Europe and the SMC’s attempts to close Shanghai’s doors. Here’s the extract:

The majority of these refugees took up residence or lived in camps established in the Settlement area north of Soochow Creek. Various committees and organisations undertook the work of finding accommodation for them and the Council had also come to their assistance, several municipal buildings in the Eastern District being loaned for their use. As the situation became more and more serious, the Council asked the Consular Body to take all possible steps to prevent any further influx of European refugees into Shanghai and the various Consuls agreed to make representations to their respective governments in the matter, stressing the unfavourable conditions in Shanghai and the virtual impossibility of any large number of refugees gaining a livelihood. – SMC Report, 1939

Before we go on, a little context about the events preceding the SMC report is needed. Firstly, as to the wider history of Shanghai: in 1842, at the end of the Opium War, the British and Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanking, which forced China to open five ports, Shanghai being amongst them. ‘Miniature countries’ were created in Shanghai, with the British, French and Americans operating their own tax, justice and defence systems. The SMC governed the city’s International Settlement (composed of the Americans and British). July 1937 marked the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War which quickly spread to Shanghai. In her book ‘Voices from Shanghai: Jewish Exiles in Wartime China‘ (2008), Irene Eber quotes Parks Coble to illustrate the heavy civilian and army casualties, largely localised in Zhabei and Hongkou: ‘the bloody Battle of Shanghai would become the most intense conflict since Verdun in World War I’. By 1939, Shanghai was no longer the sparkling ‘Pearl of the Orient’ it had been at the start of the decade – with massive levels of inflation, an increase in lawlessness, precarious political situation as well as a huge Chinese homeless refugee population stretching the city’s resources to its very limits. Eber expounds that ‘the massive arrival of European refugees from the end of 1938 on must have seemed like the last straw to SMC officials’.

Another crucial, and often overlooked, aspect of the war was its impact on the passport control system historically handled by officials from the Nationalist government. With the outbreak of hostilities this system ceased to function and the practice was not reinstated by the Western powers for fear that the Japanese may want to have a say too. Passport controls lapsed and became an arbitrary process, with some shipping companies requiring a visa for entry to Shanghai, whilst others did not. As Eber acknowledges, this is a hugely important distinction that many historians have ignored, leading to the ‘visa-free’ misnomer. Thank you Irene for elaborating on this integral point.

But how were refugees reaching Shanghai from Austria and Germany? David Kranzler outlines the two major routes to the Far East, which depended on the period during which the escape took place:

By sea – end of 1938 to June 10 1940. Refugees would take a passage by train to Italy, where they would usually take the Italian Lloyd-Tristino line through the Suez and on to Shanghai via Singapore and Hong Kong.

By land – June 11 1940 to December 7 1941. When the Mediterranean was closed by Italy’s entry into the war in June 1940, the only way to reach Shanghai was the land route across Russia and Siberia.

With the large-scale arrival of refugees from December 1938, the SMC, as Eber notes, was ‘far from calm’. The council’s first response was to appeal to Jewish organisations in England, Europe and America to help discourage more refugees from arriving. It was also made clear that no funds would be contributed to support this population, the onus of which was placed on the newly created Committee for the Assistance of European Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (although, as we can see from the SMC extract above, accommodation was made available on loan).

Eventually a ‘permit system’ was implemented to stop this influx of refugees, whereby an entry permit or possession of money was required to enter Shanghai. I will outline the complex political, economic and cultural motivations behind this as well as the attitudes (and failures) of the various communities, committees and national interests, referenced in Kranzler’s ‘Japanese, Nazis and Jews’ (1976), in a later blog posting. The regulation was issued on October 22 1939 and as Eber notes, the outbreak of war in Europe would, in any case, have prevented German ships from docking in Shanghai. According to these new regulations, further immigration to Shanghai was limited to: persons able to show a deposit of US$400 as guarantee money; a resident’s immediate family; someone with a contract for a job in Shanghai; or the intended spouse of a Shanghai resident.

As a result of a loophole in the regulations (which allowed refugees to procure the necessary funds and leave for Shanghai without a permit) and as, in their view, too many refugees were still arriving in the city, the SMC created new requirements which necessitated both a permit and US$400, effective July 1 1940. In June 1940 Italy joined Germany in the war, thereby halting the flow of Italian carriers and again changing the picture – events had again overtaken SMC attempts to stem the flow of refugees. As Kranzler states, this spelled doom for the 2,000 potential immigrants with entry permits to the Foreign Settlements. New overland routes were worked out, but people in Germany had to start all over again with permit and transit visa applications. And so, with the exception of 1,000 Polish refugees who arrived in Shanghai in 1941 and a fortunate few hundred Jews able to enter under the new requirements, Kranzler writes, ‘the gates of the sole unrestricted haven for Jewish victims of Nazism were effectively closed’.


Voices from Shanghai: Jewish Exiles in Wartime China (2008), Eber, Irene

Japanese, Nazis and Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai, 1938 – 1945, Kranzler, David

FCO Historical Collection at Foyle Library


One of my first archive visits as part of the Hong Kong Refuge project was to the Foyle Special Collection Library. Housed at the entrance of the impressive Maughan Library, the main research library of King’s College London, the building was once (very aptly) home to the headquarters of the Public Records Office, known as the ‘strong box of Empire’.

King’s College London acquired the historical library collection of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on permanent loan back in 2007. The collection represents one of the most important historical acquisitions for the university and comprises over 80,000 items including books, periodicals and pamphlets spanning 500 years and touching all corners of the globe. The library was originally compiled as a tool of government so as to inform and influence British foreign and colonial policy. Luckily for the Hong Kong Refuge project, a portion of this collection therefore pertains to colonial era Hong Kong and the treaty port history of Shanghai.

The Shanghai series comprises 111 records, with the majority of the collection pre-dating 1945 (only four items are listed as post-1945). The major bulk of the collection is housed in the Foyle Library whilst modern and robust items have been transferred to the Maughan Library.

Early items within this collection include books written by missionaries, business records (such as deeds) for corporations including the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and the China Navigation Company (held by the Chinese Maritime Customs), reference books on China’s customs, history and traditions and information related to Shanghai’s treaty port history.

The annual reports of the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC) represent an important acquisition as the most complete set of SMC reports owned by any library outside of China. The Foyle Library holds annual reports for the years: 1871 – 76, 1877 – 1892, 1893 – 1899, 1907 – 1940 (1900 – 1906 are missing). See my blog posting on the 1939 report here.



The FCO collection also houses an important resource for Hong Kong historians, including early reference materials written by missionaries and Hong Kong government officials (including governors), correspondence on the Praya Reclamation Scheme between government officials and Sir Paul Chater (1880s), letters from Governor Bowen, general Hong Kong guide books (1930s) and a ‘Who’s Who of China’ as well as various maps (such as district zoning plans) and photograph collections.

Although the Hong Kong series is a more detailed and wide ranging collection, reflecting Hong Kong’s position as a colony until 1997, the FCO Historical Collection is an invaluable (and at present, little used) resource for scholars of both Hong Kong and Shanghai.