Eric Halpern and the Far Eastern Economic Review

Established in 1946, the Far Eastern Economic Review was a pioneering force in journalism providing cutting edge, in-depth investigative reporting and objective and clear analysis on Asia. Founded after the Second World War by Eric Halpern, an Austrian Jew, the magazine converted to a monthly publication in 2004 following acquisition by Dow Jones in 1986 (previously a minority shareholder). The final issue was printed in December 2009.

The Review was founded in 1946 by Eric Halpern, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, who initially settled in Shanghai and ran Finance and Commerce, a biweekly business magazine. He later moved to Hong Kong where he founded the weekly Review with backing from four key investors, focusing mainly on issues relating to China and Hong Kong. Leo Goodstadt, who I interviewed in 2013, takes up the story: ‘FEER was established by a man who had edited a publication in Shanghai and came to Hong Kong, where I’m not sure if he was even a native English speaker but it didn’t seem to make much difference, and he was quite friends with a well-known printer here … and the pair of them had this concept, and a couple of them went to the Kadoories and a couple of other businessmen and they set it up and they were going to have a Chinese partner who disappeared from folk memory but whose family are cousins of mine on the female side … there were four shareholders originally, so there was the printer, there was the Kadoories, there was Jardines and there was the Bank’.

Initially the magazine’s circulation was very low, estimated at around 15,000. In 1958 Dick Wilson was invited on board from the Financial Times as editor and publisher, operating out of Queen’s Building (today’s Mandarin Hotel). At that time there were no full time correspondents, only freelancers and contributors. In 1964 Wilson was succeeded as editor by Derek Davies, a Welsh journalist who had served in the British Foreign Office. During his 25 year tenure, coverage of South East Asia rapidly expanded and the magazine attracted a wider readership mainly from Malaysia and Singapore. The Review was known for the independence of its coverage, whether on the 1967 riots in Hong Kong or the Malaysian race riots of 1969. In 1972 the Review acquired its first staff correspondents outside of Hong Kong, marking a period of growth and expansion. For more than 60 years, Hong Kong was home to the Review, one of Asia’s finest media institutions.



Vietnamese Refugees in Hong Kong

Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, courtesy of

Over 213,000 Vietnamese refugees sought refuge in Hong Kong during the years 1975 – 2000.

Several historians have examined the internment and legal status of ‘sur place’ Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, a place of first asylum and transit to the west during the 1980s. Much of the literature on this topic was written in the 80s. While Chan and Loveridge write about the psychological trauma endured by ‘in-transit’ refugees held in camps and transit centres, Tsoi, Yu and Lieh-Mak interviewed refugee children in Hong Kong to better understand the impact of violence on apprehension and fear. Bousquet compares the state of limbo endured by the refugees as ‘that of the prisoner of war who waits out an unchosen and uncertain present’. 

More recently, Carina Hoang, a Vietnamese refugee who arrived in Hong Kong in the 1970s after the fall of Saigon, launched a comprehensive website on the topic which can be found here. The site is part of her PhD research at Curtin University and includes photographs, oral histories with refugees and those ‘on the other side of the fence’ as well as art work created by refugees in camp. I was privileged to see Carina speak in Hong Kong at our oral history meeting a few years ago, and look forward to reading her thesis when published.


The International Tracing Service and the ‘Legacies of Political Humanitarianism’

Last night I attended a fascinating talk at London’s Wiener Library on the International Tracing Service (ITS), an agency established by the Western Allies during World War II to locate and reunite persons missing as a course of the hostilities. Historian Dr. Jennifer Rodgers described how and why anxieties about the possession of and access to the archives by various state and non-state actors defined the ITS and its mandate. The ITS was one of the most contested humanitarian services of the post-war world, and Dr Rodgers’ research shows how the agency was exploited by various parties to steer post-war agendas, win hearts and minds and to negotiate the history of Third Reich crimes.

I was interested to learn how humanitarianism was used as a soft power tool and a means of cultural diplomacy, and to discover the ways in which the management of the archive reinforced Cold War borders to the detriment of Nazi victims.

In tandem, Dr Rodgers addressed how archives have long influenced politics and social memory. It is worth remembering that those who control the archive control the past, as well as aspects of the future.

You can follow the ITS archive on Twitter here and learn more about Dr. Rodgers’ work here. There is also an excellent (free) exhibition that tells the little-known history of the ITS and the search for Holocaust survivors called ‘Fate Unknown: The Search for the Missing after the Holocaust’ now on display at the Wiener Library.

Finding Hong Kong History

Today’s blog post is a brief overview of where and how to find Hong Kong history online. I’ll save the list of archives for another day!

First of all, the Old Hong Kong Newspapers web page on the Hong Kong Public Libraries website is an excellent resource for anyone looking for primary source material on Old Hong Kong. You can search within a wide selection of Chinese and English language newspapers, including the China Mail and the Hong Kong Daily Press, by entering key words in the search engine.

Speaking of newspapers, you can also purchase access to the South China Morning Post Historical Archive, with the first issue stretching back to the newspaper’s founding in 1903. Although there is a paywall (which doesn’t come cheap), the search engine is powerful and the newspapers easier to download than on the Public Libraries website.

Now let’s turn to government records. Of course, the Public Records Office, with its excellent Carl T Smith Collection (and recently updated website), should be the very first port of call for any Hong Kong historian. But for those working outside of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Government Reports Online, a Hong Kong University Library digital initiative, is the next best thing. It provides digital access to four major government publications, namely: the Administrative Report, Hong Kong Hansard, Hong Kong Sessional Papers and Hong Kong Government Gazette. Simply type in a key word, set the date parameters, and off you go.

You can also download council meetings of the Legislative Council from 1858 until 1997 here.

Blogs and websites administered by historians and enthusiasts are another excellent resource. Over at the crowd-sourced and award winning Gwulo website, you can find obscure links to all corners of the internet, anecdotal evidence, memoir, photographs, GPS tagging and more. Its strength lies in the site’s comments section, where relatives and old Hong Kongers regularly post messages and recollections of people, places and events, allowing users to trace the lives of the most marginal figures in the darkest corners of Hong Kong’s history. Similarly, check out Tony Banham’s Hong Kong War Diary for everything on the 1941 defence of Hong Kong and the ensuing occupation. Brian Edgar’s thoughtful blog traces his family’s history and along the way examines race, war and colonialism in Hong Kong through an academic lens. The Hong Kong History Project blog, a relatively recent newcomer to the Hong Kong blogging scene, has all kinds of useful information including a must-read annotated bibliography by historian Vaudine England and a directory of academics working at universities around the world. The project is based at the University of Bristol and aims to encourage new research into Hong Kong’s politics, society, culture and economy.


Empire of Humanity

After a six month maternity sabbatical I’m finally back at work on the ole’ PhD. What better way to return to the thesis (and this blog) than to read Empire of Humanity by Michael Barnett. As I grapple with the dynamics of humanitarianism in inter-war Hong Kong, Barnett’s pioneering study reveals the ambiguities of the international humanitarian order and gives much needed clarity to a discipline all too often guided by mythology and absolutist and binary arguments.

Empire Humanity

Barnett’s seminal book opens with the assertion that ‘all communities get their history wrong, and the humanitarian community is no exception’. He recounts the humanitarian ‘origin story’ through its original hero, Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman and activist whose ‘life transformative’ experience at the Battle of Solferino in the mid-nineteenth century resulted in his moral awakening, and eventually, in the formation of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions. In the twentieth century, as traditional histories recount, the destruction and longevity of the First World War led to a surge in private voluntary relief organisations, including Save the Children, an organisation still prominent today. After 1918, states established the first of many international humanitarian organisations, among them the High Commission for Refugees, a largely ineffectual organisation during the Jewish refugee crises of the 1930s. After the Second World War, against the backdrop of a decolonised world, many organisations originally created for exclusively European based relief extended their scope and mandate to the rest of the world. As Barnett says, ‘humanitarianism had gone global’.

In the post Cold-War period, many historians look to the 1990s as a break with the non-political and impartial humanitarianisms of the past, towards a world where humanitarian organisations adopted the role of state builders, advancing the foreign policy interests of the west. It’s a watershed decade of moral corruption, when humanitarian agencies enter the murky and morally taboo nexus of politics. Barnett rejects this interpretation and turns away from binary classifications of humanitarianism as ‘ethics versus politics’. Humanitarians and humanitarianism, he argues, were politicised well before the 1990s. Instead, Barnett calls for a more complex, and morally complicated, understanding of humanitarianism. He writes that ‘humanitarians must get their hands dirty, they must make difficult choices and compromises as they live the credo that the perfect should never be the enemy of the good’. In other words, the imperfect world in which humanitarians live and operate often means that they can’t, and don’t, practice what they preach. Barnett takes a global view of humanitarianism and critically examines the convergence of geopolitics, capitalism and ethics, exploring the ways in which these shape contemporary understandings of the humanitarian mission. He argues that humanitarianism has become increasingly public, hierarchical and institutionalised, and that paternalism, for good or bad, has played an important part throughout its history.

Barnett explores the inherent tensions of humanitarian history through six central arguments, which I’ve summarised below:

  1. Humanitarianism is a creature of the world it aspires to civilise: the moral vision of humanitarians is limited by culture, circumstance and contingency. The phase of Imperial Humanitarianism (nineteenth century to World War Two) was limited by colonialism, commerce and civilising missions. Barnett concedes that humanitarian actors do exert agency in that they often reflect upon their actions and attitudes
  2. We live in a world of humanitarianisms, not humanitarianism: humanitarians define ‘humanitarianism’ against their goals and constraints. How do humanitarians conceptualise their own humanitarianism?
  3. Humanitarian ethics are simultaneously universal and circumstantial: any humanitarian ethic is rooted in contemporary notions of humanity and victimhood.
  4. Humanitarianism is defined by the paradox of emancipation and domination: humanitarianism operates in the best tradition of emancipatory ethics. It aspires to keep people alive, expand their opportunities, and give them greater control of their fates. Yet any act of intervention, no matter how well intended, is also an act of control, as well as an exertion of power. Control and care is partly paternalism. Barnett argues that paternalism is not simply an unsavoury legacy of the nineteenth century, but instead represents the best and worst of humanitarianism today
  5. Humanitarianism both undermines and advances moral progress: although the notion of ‘progress’ is heavily contested as both Euro-centric and a by-product of the civilising mission, the concept of ‘community’ must also include the mutual obligations and mutual responsibilities of its members
  6. Humanitarianism is about meeting the needs of others and meeting our own needs: what motivates humanitarian actors? Is it power and superiority? Or are we driven by guilt, religious redemption, or to prove our goodness to ourselves, and to others? Barnett turns away from these facile explanations and instead focuses on moments of atonement. He argues that the act of giving to strangers is as much about ourselves, and that it is within this central paradox that the ambiguities of humanitarianism are best conveyed. Could it be that our needs drive the actions that benefit others? Food for thought as I embark upon my next chapter!

Barnett, Michael ‘Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism’, 2011 (Cornell University Press)