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.



From Strongroom to Seminar

img_4680Today I attended a fascinating conference titled ‘Strongroom to Seminar’ hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and The National Archives. The aim of the conference was to share strategies and ideas as to how to best engage students in the archival method.

The keynote speaker was Professor Jo Fox of Durham University, whose presentation was so good I thought I’d blog about it here!

Jo spoke about the shifting identity of the archive in the 21st Century and the importance, as well as the challenges, of introducing archives to students as part of a holistic pedagogic method in History Departments across universities. It’s a topic I feel strongly about and one we’ve taken seriously at The Hong Kong Heritage Project, where we’ve rolled out a number of innovative oral history and archive programmes for high school and university students.

Everyday Disappointments

One of the most thought-provoking aspects of Jo’s presentation was to touch on the uncertainty and instability of archival research. We’ve all experienced the gradual dissipation of hope and excitement as documents don’t quite yield the answers we expect – but how can be this be taught as part of a history module?

Jo argues that the process of archival study should shape the questions we ask of our sources, and that as historians we need to constantly re-frame our research questions in the face of everyday disappointments. It’s vital to teach students the value of historical problem solving and the difference between finding documents and finding useful documents. Each research journey is personal, and deeply affecting. Research invokes a spectrum of emotion – from boredom, excitement and frustration – feelings that can’t easily be taught as part of a course module. Jo offers practical solutions to this dilemma by turning to public history. A number of universities have recently offered hands-on modules in which students can critically engage – and indeed literally interrogate – their sources. For example, the 2011 Queen Mary University ‘Blair Government’ course introduced students to key players in the Blair cabinet, including Tony himself!

Digital Solutions?

Finally, Jo addressed another more recent challenge facing historians and the archival method – that of digitization. Digital copies of records are often touted as a cure-all to the dual problems of access and preservation. I know I’ve certainly been grateful for online collections that have saved the cost of a train ticket across the country or flights and accommodation abroad. But besides the problems faced by archives – the huge costs involved in digitisation programmes and the relentless pace of technological change – Jo argues that digitization comes at a cost for the end-user too. The sense of a collection’s materiality is being lost by a new ‘smash-and-grab’ culture in which students enter an archive, launch an eight-hour assault with a digital camera and return home to assess their booty. Something valuable is lost in this process. No longer do we spend days contemplating our sources and intellectually meandering through collections. The archive is now considered as a place to raid rather than to think. Similarly, when collections are accessed online, we not only lose the tactile enjoyment of the record but the sense of a collection’s provenance and accessioning history.  Jo asks whether digitization will prompt a change in the way in which we practice history in the twenty-first century, and I agree that it certainly calls into question the hallowed value placed on digitization in the profession today.



Fortress Hong Kong?

As part of my MPhil research I’m examining the obstacles and challenges faced by Central European refugees wishing to gain entry into Hong Kong before the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe by looking to the immigration ordinances that governed refugee policy and the relationship between Hong Kong and Britain.

I recently found a case at The National Archives (UK – TNA) that helps shed light on the British-Hong Kong relationship as well as the visa process which refugees needed to navigate in order to gain entry into Hong Kong. Dr. Frederick Reiss was a professor of dermatology at the National Medical College in Shanghai, and Chairman of the Medical Board for the Committee for Assistance of European Refugees in Shanghai under the direction of Michael Speelman (hence it was also known as the Speelman Committee). By September 1939 Reiss was President of the European Emigrants’ Associated Hospitals Committee in Shanghai and also head of the Shanghai Leprosorium. As a refugee from Nazi Germany, Reiss was one of many thousands who found refuge in Shanghai. However his first port of call was not the ‘Paris of the Orient’ – as Shanghai was then known – but rather the British colony of Hong Kong.

Committee for the Assistance of European Refugees in Shanghai
Committee for the Assistance of European Refugees in Shanghai, letterhead

I located Reiss’ file purely by chance whilst looking through the individual files held in the TNA series: Colonial Office – Records of the Colonial Office, Commonwealth and Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, Empire Marketing Board, and related bodies.  I remembered the name ‘Reiss’ from correspondence held in the HKHP Archive, as he was close friends with the Kadoories (most probably through the Speelman Committee connection). Reiss was born in Jerusalem on 26 September 1896 and lived and worked in Germany, most recently at the University Skin Clinic of Berlin, from whom he had procured a reference (written in German and kept as part of his file now held at the TNA). He moved to Paris on 26 August 1938 and by the time of his application to Hong Kong through the city’s British Passport Control Officer, he was living with his brother-in-law, Kahnheimer, also a refugee from Germany. Having escaped Nazi persecution in Germany, Reiss’ ultimate aim was to establish a medical practice in Hong Kong.

Dr Frederick Reiss’ reference, dated 23 November 1933


Kahnheimer secured the help of Mr. Blacklock, a solicitor who was to smooth the visa-procurement process. Blacklock wrote direct letters and sought appointments with the Eastern Department at the Colonial Office in Whitehall, thereby circumventing the usual visa procedure, a move which greatly displeased the civil servants assigned to his case. In a memo written in August 1938, one official writes: ‘Dr. Reiss’ friends have been rather troublesome, and if they only carried out the usual procedures for obtaining visas, etc. instead of trying to short circuit them through this office, it would have been a good deal more rapid and much easier for them (and incidentally for me!).’ By January 1939, correspondence between two colonial officials shows that a subordinate was advised not to send Blacklock’s letters to Hong Kong as it may imply Britain’s interference in this case, which they were at pains to deny: ‘send only the Passport Control form. Mr. Blacklock’s letter makes a lot of assumptions and we should not lead Hong Kong to believe that Colonial Office have promised ‘sympathetic’ consideration. And tell F.O. we are referring to Hong Kong’.

Clearly, Colonial Office officials were keen to demonstrate to both Hong Kong and the Foreign Office that no undue influence was exerted on Hong Kong’s immigration decisions. Such decisions, they noted, should be made under the auspices of Hong Kong’s Immigration and Passport Ordinance once the individual was in possession of a valid passport duly visaed by a ‘competent British authority’. But what became of Reiss? Did he succeed in procuring the Hong Kong visa? Probably not, although it becomes difficult to trace Reiss’ movements in the first half of 1939 as the outcome of his application is not recorded in the TNA file. The final application decision would have been made in Hong Kong as his case was sent to the Hong Kong Government on 3 February 1939. My guess is that Reiss’ application was turned down in Hong Kong and so he made the move directly to Shanghai (an interesting history of Newfoundland and their response to Jewish refugees makes the case that many applications from doctors were rejected on the basis of professional competition, see Paul Bartrop’s False Havens for further details).

As we have already seen, by September 1939 Reiss was already acting President of the European Emigrants’ Associated Hospitals Committee in Shanghai, and also head of the Shanghai Leprosorium. In November 1939, Reiss and his wife are mentioned in a letter by Philip Samuel (based in Shanghai) writing to his mother and father in England: ‘On Saturday I gave my first informal party – 5:30 to the Metropole Cinema to see the Chinese produced film ‘Lady Precious Stream’; then dinner and dancing at this hotel. My party comprised the Wilsons and Dr. and Mrs. Frederick Reiss, who had also entertained me at their flat. He is a celebrated Shanghai skin specialist, and she (Hungarian) is most artistic – her hobbies including floral arrangements a la Japonnaise and the running of the Jewish Refugee women’s workshops.’      

The Wiener Library, London

Dr Alfred Wiener
Dr Alfred Wiener

Next up on my whistle-stop tour of London archives is the Wiener Library, nestled opposite Russell Square and located in close proximity to Senate House and SOAS university. The Wiener Library has a fascinating history as an ‘eyewitness’ archive that recorded and documented Nazi atrocities from the 1920s onwards.

The library was originally founded by Dr Alfred Wiener in response to the surge of right-wing antisemitism in Germany and used as a device to monitor and collect information on the Nazi Party. Dr Wiener later fled Germany in 1933 and settled in Amsterdam, where he set up the Jewish Central Information Office at the request of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association.

Following the November Pogrom of 1938, Wiener made preparations to transfer his collection to the UK, which later served to help the British Government as it fought the Nazi regime. In the post-war years the library assisted the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trial, amassed early survivor testimony and helped to shape the emerging academic study of the Holocaust.

I first came across the Wiener Library at an archives conference hosted at the London Metropolitan Archives earlier in June. The Wiener Library came up again a few months later following an email exchange with an archivist at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany. I’d originally got in touch to gather more information about a series of records created by the Hong Kong branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) featured on the ITS website. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately for the prospect of any future Euro trips!) the ITS archivist kindly advised me that digitised copies of the UNHCR records were housed at the Wiener Library, having been donated by the Foreign Office in 2011. A couple of days later I braved the wind, rain and generally miserable London weather to take a closer look at the records held on the library’s computer terminals – and what I found was well worth the visit.

The library’s UNHCR records provide a near complete set of case files – over 80,000 in fact – created by the organisation’s Hong Kong branch from around 1951 onwards. The files pertain to individuals or families who stayed in Hong Kong or in the Asia region and include documents and application forms concerning assistance, resettlement and emigration to various countries. The collection has been catalogued by first name, surname and date of birth. The library staff kindly allow patrons to copy documents (onto Wiener Library USB’s to avoid viruses and malware) which means files can be taken home for closer analysis.

Unfortunately, the sheer quantity of records held in the UNHCR collection make it difficult to refine searches unless names are cross-referenced across archives or according to a pre-designated list. For example, not all of the individuals recorded as part of the collection may have transited through Hong Kong, and individually saving 80,000 documents onto a fair few USB’s is also no mean feat!

Needless to say, it’s clear that these records will be an invaluable resource for the Hong Kong Refuge project. The UNHCR collection includes official and administrative information on European Jewish and White Russian refugees exiting China, reports and memorandums written by the Kadoorie brothers (Lawrence Kadoorie, later Lord, and Horace Kadoorie, later Sir) and correspondence with the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) Philippines and Far East Branch and Shanghai Branch, as well as government departments such as the Hong Kong Immigration Department.

Now that the collection has been located, the hard work of sifting through the UNHCR files and pin-pointing the refugees who transited through Hong Kong begins.



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.