The Jews of Hong Kong, 1939

In the 1930s, the Jewish community of Hong Kong was small but diverse. Although the core of the community was made up of wealthy Jewish merchants from Baghdad, known as ‘Baghdadi Jews’, there was also a small contingent of Ashkenazi Jews who had escaped pogroms and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, as well as Russian Jews formerly from Harbin, Manchuria. Many left Harbin for Hong Kong after the Japanese occupation in 1932. They were joined by European Jews (mainly German and Austrian) in 1938 when Hitler’s persecution of the Jews intensified.

Record 3
List of Subscribers to the Oheal Leah Synagogue, 31 December 1939

As shown by the ‘List of Subscribers’ document (above), the Baghdadi community dominated Jewish life in Hong Kong. They were both its religious and social leaders and enjoyed close ties with the British ruling classes. Baghdadi families such as the Josephs, Kadoories, Gubbays, Abrahams and Raymonds were often closely related through family or business connections. The Sassoons are listed as the donors of the Synagogue, although by 1939 they no longer lived in Hong Kong. Subscribers such as Monia Talan (Russian), Harry Oscar Odell (Russian) and Dr. Siegfried Szarfstein Ramler (Polish) betray a small but significant non-Baghdadi presence.

During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong (1941 – 1945), Jewish residents were either interned as civilians, fought and died as part of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC), or were at liberty because of their German nationality (Germany being an ally of Japan). Jewish soldiers who died defending Hong Kong included Hebert Samuel (German of Polish origin), the statistician at CLP, and Samuel Liborwich (British) of the Middlesex Regiment.

Rescue in the Philippines

As with many countries across the world, the United States’ quota system of immigration severely limited escape routes for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism in the 1930s. Incredibly, it was the Philippines, a U.S. Commonwealth, that became a minor port of rescue in Asia for 1,200 refugees. In this blog posting I briefly explore the history of Jewish rescue in Manila and the networks of aid across the port cities of Manila, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

In collaboration with Philippine President Quezon and the U.S. High Commissioner Paul V. McNutt, the Frieder brothers, leaders of the Manila Jewish community, established an official refugee immigration programme that rescued 1,200 Jews from 1937 to 1941. It was a plan based on professions needed in the Philippines including doctors, engineers, mechanics and agricultural experts, amongst others. The trio went further and attempted to rescue tens of thousands of persecuted Jews by opening a major Jewish agricultural settlement on the island of Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines. Although other international agricultural settlement schemes had been proposed (such as British Guiana), the Mindanao Plan was the only such scheme to be seriously considered in Asia. The plan was initially mooted in the months following the failed Evian Conference of July 1938, organized to find a haven for European Jews escaping Nazi persecution, but ultimately failed due to local opposition, problems of land acquisition and funding, and the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines.

Originally from Cincinnati, the Frieder brothers owned the Helena Tobacco Factory in Manila which produced cigars for the U.S. market. They met with the Kadoorie brothers and other Jewish representatives in Hong Kong immediately before Kristallnacht (a violent pogrom in Nazi Germany) in 1938 to offer solutions to the growing refugee crisis most notably in Shanghai, where hundreds of refugees had already arrived. As reported in the meeting minutes, the Frieders were keen to forge links and co-operate fully ‘with the communities of Hong Kong and Shanghai in order to better the situation of these refugees’. Although the Frieders were American and the Kadoories were British, the diverse port communities of Hong Kong, Manila and Shanghai worked closely together, sharing knowledge and resources across the region in their attempts to elicit support and employment for refugees. During my trip to the States I was delighted to meet and interview Alice Frieder Weston, daughter of Alex Frieder, who kindly shared her memories of family trips to Hong Kong and visits to refugee centres in Shanghai with the Kadoorie brothers in 1940, demonstrating the interconnectivity of Port Jews.

For more information as well as oral histories, photographs and records on rescue in the Philippines, please visit the website of the 2013 documentary film: (a must watch!).

For further reading, I also recommend:

  1. Ephraim, Frank, Escape from Manila, From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror
  2. Kotlowski, Dean J., Breaching the Paper Walls: Paul V. McNutt and Jewish Refugees to the Philippines, 1938 – 1939



Hong Kong’s Early Jews

Subscribers to Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue, 1941

Not much has been written about Hong Kong’s Jewish community in the 1930s. Who were they and what was the size of the community?

The first Jews to arrive in Hong Kong were not affiliated with the Sassoons as is commonly thought, but were British and Australian merchants. Samuel H. Cohen was an adventurer from Sydney, Australia and arrived in Hong Kong in 1844 soon after it had become a British colony, whilst Jacob Phillips, a businessman from Birmingham, arrived in 1843 or 1844. In 1845 Elias David Sassoon opened an office in Canton, which marked the beginning of Sassoon interests in China. Many Jews who moved to Hong Kong from Iraq or India in the second half of the nineteenth century did so because of the employment opportunities afforded by the Sassoons in the tea and opium trade under the auspices of the British Empire. By 1900, there were 165 Jews living in Hong Kong, the majority of whom were Baghdadi.

With the development of Shanghai and the expansion of trade and industry in north China in the inter-war years, many Baghdadi Jews left for Shanghai. In the 1930s the arrival of Jewish refugees from Shanghai, Harbin and Europe – notably Iraqi, Russian, German and Austrian individuals – increased the size and plurality of the community, but Baghdadi Jews remained disproportionally influential. As Caroline Pluss has shown, the cultural hybrid identities of Baghdadi Jews in Hong Kong allowed them to access a myriad of Baghdadi, Jewish diasporic and British colonial networks and resources, thereby maximizing their cultural, economic and social capital in the colony.

The size of Hong Kong’s Jewish community in the 1930s can be inferred from various sources including eyewitness accounts and community records. Walter Buchler, a visitor to Hong Kong in 1936, noted that there were no more than 100 Jews in the colony. The first report of the Hong Kong Jewish Refugee Society was circulated to 136 Jewish individuals in December 1938, although it was felt that the appeal ‘has not reached every Jewish resident owing to the absence of a complete register’. The list may also have been sent to recent German and Austrian refugee arrivals. In a memorandum dated 1946, Lawrence Kadoorie estimated that there were 100 Jews in Hong Kong immediately before the war, of whom approximately 70% were Ashkenazi and 30% Sephardi. The records of the Ohel Leah Synagogue help shed further light on the extent of the community. The Statement of Accounts for December 1934 lists 45 male subscribers, whilst the statement for January 1939 lists 42 male members and 17 female members. Lawrence’s estimate of a community of around 100 persons in 1940 – 41 therefore seems accurate.


Asia Rescue

In recent years there has been a concerted effort to document the wider history of Asia Rescue independently from the history of Shanghai by looking to the ports of Manila and Kobe. Recent scholarship has examined the Philippines as a temporary place of refuge principally through the work of U.S. high commissioner Paul V. McNutt but also through memoir and documentary film.[1] Japan’s unlikely status as a safe haven has been appraised by Pamela Shatzkes, who has investigated the arrival of Germans, Austrians and Poles in Kobe before their onward migration to Shanghai. More ominously, Jewish experiences of internment have been surveyed in Indonesia.[2]

The documentary film Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust was released in 2013

Despite these attempts to write a more comprehensive history of Jewish refuge in Asia, a major gap in our understanding persists due to the absence of Hong Kong. One explanation for this scholarly neglect, especially regarding pre-war Hong Kong, is the question of refugee numbers. Historians estimate that between 16,000 to 20,000 Jews survived in Shanghai between the years 1938 – 1945, whilst in Manila this figure stood at 1,200 for 1938 – 1939, and in Kobe 4,608 refugees sought sanctuary during 1940 – 1941. The presence of large refugee communities and the length of their stay, particularly in Shanghai, have allowed historians to develop in-depth studies. In contrast, Hong Kong’s Jewish refugee population stood at a mere 100 persons between the years 1938 – 1940. When taken at face value and compared to the Asian ports of Shanghai, Manila and Kobe, these numbers appear minor and irrelevant. However, when set against Hong Kong’s existing Jewish population, estimated to have stood at 100 individuals in 1938, they take on greater significance.

The study of this small refugee group also allows us to enrich our understanding of the wider plight of Jewish refugees in the 1930s. As argued by Peter Gatrell, incarceration has been a defining characteristic of the refugee experience during the twentieth century. The undocumented history of internment of German and Austrian refugees in Hong Kong as ‘Enemy Aliens’ alongside potential Nazi sympathisers by colonial authorities contrasts with similar episodes in Britain and throughout the British Empire, and also provides points of comparison with the confinement of refugees in Shanghai’s Hongkew district and the emergence of camps in Hong Kong for Chinese refugees escaping the Sino-Japanese conflict in 1937. The British treatment of Jewish refugees within an Asian setting, the impact of colonial defence regulations and the changing parameters of immigration legislation in the years immediately preceding the Japanese Occupation have also yet to be explored. The visibility of refugees in the local press during their internment in La Salle College provides a rare insight into local attitudes towards Jews, aliens and refugees more widely. Furthermore, a number of refugees contributed to the long-term economic development of Hong Kong, the war effort in China, and for a short time were vibrant members of the local music scene. Such important contributions by refugees have yet to be fully documented.

Historians examining Hong Kong’s post-war refugee history have hitherto focused on Chinese, and more recently, Russian refugees, and the question surrounding the ‘Problem of People’ in the 1940s – 1950s. This literature explores themes concerning refugee identity and memory, colonial responses to refugees and the impact of international politics on refugee movements. Agnes Ku’s work on discourses of identity and immigration raise important questions about the making of the Hong Kong identity and categories of citizenship. Stefanie Scherr’s doctoral thesis on Russian refugee memory of Hong Kong uses the oral history discipline to gauge temporal understandings of transit and migration, whilst Glenn Peterson has explored attempts by the newly established UNHCR to extend its mandate beyond the European context to the plight of refugees in Asia within the context of the unfolding Cold War. By incorporating the presence of Jewish refugees within these histories, a comparative analysis of European, Chinese and Russian refugees in the realms of memory, identity and colonial responses is made possible, thereby enriching both Hong Kong and Shanghai’s refugee historiography.

[1] See Dean Kotlowski, Breaching the Paper Walls: Paul V McNutt and Jewish Refugees to the Philippines, 1938-1939, Diplomatic History Vol. 33 No. 5 (2009) and Goldstein and Kotlowski, The Jews of Manila: Manuel Quezon, Paul McNutt, and the Politics and Consequences of Holocaust Rescue in Manfred Hunter, ed. Between Mumbai and Manila: Judaism in Asia since the Foundation of the Israel (2013). For autobiographical accounts see Frank Ephraim, Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror (2003) and for documentary film see Rescue in the Philippines: Refuge from the Holocaust (2013)

[2] Rotem Kowner, The Japanese Internment of Jews in Wartime Indonesia and Its Causes, Indonesia and the Malay World, 38:112 (2010)

A History of Jews in Hong Kong, 1946

I’m currently reviewing the historiography of European refugees in Hong Kong. Much of the literature on wider Hong Kong Jewry was written in the 1980s following the establishment of the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society (JHS) in 1984. The aim of the society was to establish a library of Sino-Judaic studies, document the Hong Kong Jewish experience and publish widely on the subject. Working to this brief, the Past Chairman of the JHS, Dennis Leventhal, wrote and edited a number of monographs including ‘Faces of the Jewish Experience in China‘ (1990) which explored the community’s Baghdadi roots and decried the paucity of adequate internal records by which to tell the story of Hong Kong Jewry. Due to this lack of internal records, many historians have relied on accounts written by Lawrence Kadoorie (Lord Kadoorie), who is considered both an authoritative and rare eye-witness of this era. The Kadoorie Memoir of 1979, published as a monograph by the JHS in 1985, is an oft cited source of information on Hong Kong Jewry, as is his Review of Community Affairs published in the same year.

So I was delighted to come across an unpublished and previously unseen account written by Kadoorie only a few years after the Jewish refugees of 1938 had arrived in Hong Kong. Kadoorie may have been prompted to record his memories of the wider Jewish community in part due to the destruction of the Jewish Recreation Club during the Japanese Occupation. Here is the account in full, written in May 1946. As you can see in the second to last paragraph, Kadoorie mentions the 24 Jewish refugee families who settled in Hong Kong before the War:

The first official record of Jews coming to Hong Kong was when the British founded the Colony in 1841 and the merchant firm of Sassoons, then established in Canton, opened an office here. For many years after that, the Jewish Community consisted chiefly of Sephardic Jews from Baghdad, who had moved up through India to the Far East.

From 1900 onward, the Community grew and prospered considerably. A Synagogue ‘Ohe Leah’ was built in 1901 by Sir Jacob Sassoon and given to the Community. Later, in 1909, Sir Elly Kadoorie presented a club to the Community (which club was completely demolished during the Japanese Occupation 1941/45). A Jewish Cemetery was established very early in the existence of the Jewish Community.

About 1924/25 trade deteriorated, and Shanghai took the place of Hong Kong as the centre of commerce; many offices moved north and the Jews moved with them, leaving a comparatively small community preponderatingly Sephardic.

Immediately before the War (1941) there were approximately 100 Jews, about 70% Ashkenazi and 30% Sephardic. When hostilities came, the British Jews were interned, some as members of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and others as civilians in Stanley Camp. Those who were neutral found life very difficult; a few were able to get away to Macao where the British Consul looked after them.

European Jewish refugees were not allowed free entry into the Colony unless jobs were found for them. Pre-war there were 24 refugees who had work; all except for one family had come from Shanghai.

After the War (1945) the Community dwindled down to about 55 people. An effort has been made to re-establish community life by re-opening the Jewish Club in a building formerly used as a house for the Hazan, which was donated to the Community by the late Mr. J.E. Joseph. A number of British and American servicemen have made use of the building, but due to lack of transportation and post-war conditions, few civilians attend.