Refugee Employers

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been compiling a list of Hong Kong companies that employed Jewish refugees. As I discover more employers, several questions crop up: did they hire Jewish refugees because of their skills, or as a humanitarian gesture? What were the hiring practices of the time? To use Catherine Ladds’ term, how were refugees able to navigate and exploit the ‘imperial circuits’ used by mobile Europeans in China?

To answer these questions, I need to begin with the employers themselves. Here’s a little background on the companies I have found so far:

The Comptoir Anglo-Continental hired several Jewish refugees. This company is proving particularly elusive, although I believe it was a British bank.

Post-publishing note: I’ve since discovered that Hans Diestel, a Jewish refugee escaping the bombardment of Shanghai in 1937, was hired by The Comptoir Anglo-Continental in Hong Kong in around June 1938. He was also the Joint-Secretary of the Jewish Refugee Society. Could he have been responsible for hiring several Jewish refugees?

Gilmans & Co. was another firm that employed Jewish refugees. It’s listed in Solomon Bard’s Traders of Hong Kong: Some Foreign Merchant Houses, 1841 – 1899 (1993) as one of the oldest firms in China, founded by Richard James Gilman. In its early years, the company exported tea and silk and imported textiles, it also played an important role in the formation of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, today’s HSBC. Although the company floundered in China, it survived in Hong Kong and diversified into the motor car trade. Its legacy can be seen in Hong Kong’s street names: Gilman’s Bazaar and Gilman Street.

Post-publishing note: Paul Braga, friend and business associate of the Kadoories, was a senior manager at Gilmans in the 1930s. M.H. Rackusan, a member of the Ohel Leah Synagogue, also worked here. Could they have collaborated to hire Jewish refugees in the firm?

Carlowitz & Co. was the only German entity to employ Jewish refugees, although this is partly explained by the fact that many German companies did not return to Hong Kong after the First World War. The founder Richard von Carolwitz was born in Dresden. Carlowitz & Co. started life as a shipping and merchant house in Canton, and later branched out into insurance in the various treaty ports of China.

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The Jews of China

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Jews of Kaifeng, late 19th or early 20th century, c. Wikipedia

Although there has been a Jewish presence in Hong Kong since the mid-nineteenth century, Jews were travelling, trading and inter-marrying in China much before this time. Scholars debate the exact arrival of Jews to Kaifeng – estimated between the Tang Dynasty to the Northern Song Dynasty. Kaifeng was then a cosmopolitan city on a branch of the silk road, and the capital of the North Song Dynasty. A small community of Jews from India and Persia arrived in the city to trade and built a synagogue in 1163. They were welcomed by the emperor and permitted to become citizens of the capital. Over the course of time, Chinese and Jews intermarried. Despite their isolation from the Jewish Diaspora, Kaifeng Jews kept their traditions and customs alive for centuries, although increasing inter-marriage and assimilation began to erode these traditions. Eventually, worship services discontinued and in the 1850s impoverished families were impelled to sell some of their Torah Scrolls. Traces of a Jewish presence can still be found in Kaifeng today.

For more information on the current situation in Kaifeng, see the following articles:

The Sino-Judaic Institute, Crisis in Kaifeng

The New York Times, Chinese Jews of Ancient Lineage Huddle under Pressure

 

Cemeteries and Synagogues

The Jewish Cemetery (Hong Kong)

Jewish community life formally began in Hong Kong in the mid-1850s with the opening of the Jewish Cemetery. The granting of land to Jews for burial purposes was the first official recognition of the Jewish community by the government. The cemetery is still in use today, flanked on either side by a Buddhist temple and its school. It is one of the only Jewish cemeteries in the Far East that remains in its original nineteenth century location.

Pictured left to right: tombstone of Joseph Edgar Joseph and a view of the Jewish Cemetery taken in 2015. For more information on the Jewish Cemetery in Hong Kong, please see the Jewish Historical Society website which includes a very useful burial list.

The Ohel Leah Synagogue (Hong Kong)

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The Ohel Leah Synagogue today

Hong Kong’s first formal synagogue was donated by Sir Jacob Sassoon and named after his mother Leah. It was built on land donated to the Jewish community by Sir Jacob and his brothers Edward and Meyer in 1902. The Ohel Leah was renovated in the 1990’s and is a rare example of a synagogue in Asia which has been in almost constant use for worship since it was first built.

 

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.

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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.

Biographies of Hong Kong’s Early Jews

Recently I’ve been doing some digging into the history of Hong Kong’s most interesting historic Jewish figures. As you can see, not all were Baghdadi as the historiography would have you believe!

1. Emanuel Raphael Belilios (1837-1905), Sephardi

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Belilios looking the dapper gent in Vanity Fair magazine, 1910. c. Wikipedia

Belilios arrived in Hong Kong in 1862 and established the business E.R. Belilios & Co., trading opium. He was chairman of HSBC in 1876 and served on the Legislative Council from 1881 to 1890. He was committed to education and founded the Belilios School for Boys in 1900.

2. Governor Sir Matthew Nathan (1862 – 1939), British

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Governor Sir Matthew Nathan. c. Wikipedia

Matthew Nathan was born in London in 1862, the second son of Jewish parents. He was the first and only Jew to be appointed Governor of Hong Kong (1904 – 1907), representing a major milestone for the colony’s early Jewish community. During his tenure as Governor he pioneered the early development of Kowloon with the opening of Nathan Road, today a major thoroughfare, and developed the Kowloon-Canton Railway project which connected Hong Kong to China via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He also actively promoted education – particularly in technical fields – as he had a background and interest in engineering.

3. Lord Lawrence Kadoorie (1899 – 1993), Baghdadi, born in Hong Kong

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Lawrence Kadoorie, right, in Central District, Hong Kong, 1950s. c. HKHP

Lord Lawrence Kadoorie was born in Hong Kong in 1899. He became partner of the Sir Elly Kadoorie & Sons in 1927 and expanded the family’s interests into textiles and manufacturing. He was CLP’s longest serving Chairman and was integral to the long-term success of the company, pioneering China’s first nuclear power station at Daya Bay. He was the first Hong Kong individual to be granted a peerage as Baron of Kowloon in 1981. Together with his brother Sir Horace Kadoorie, he established the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association to help Chinese refugee farmers in 1951. His interests included photography, sports cars and Chinese works of art.

4. Dr Solomon Bard (1916-2014), Russian from Harbin

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Dr. Solomon Bard was the Chairman and sometime conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. c. SCMP

Dr Solomon Bard was born in Siberia, Russia and he moved to Harbin, China as a child with his family. He came to Hong Kong to study medicine in 1934 and served as a medical officer during the Battle of Hong Kong. He became the Director of the University Health Service of the University of Hong Kong in 1956 and was the first Executive Secretary of the new Antiquities and Monuments Office in 1976. He held various high-profile positions in arts and culture, and made significant contributions to the Hong Kong Museum of History. Dr Bard was also the Chairman of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and a talented violin player.

5. Harry Odell (1896 – 1975), Russian from Shanghai

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Unfortunately I can’t find a picture of Odell so an image of the State Theatre, founded by Odell, will have to do. c. The Hollywood Reporter

Harry Odell arrived in Hong Kong in 1921 and married Sophie Weill, whose family owned the prestigious jewellers ‘Sennet Freres’. He fought in the Battle of Hong Kong and was interned in a POW camp. After the war, Odell started a film distribution business and became Hong Kong’s first impresario. He lobbied the government for a permanent auditorium and as a result, the Hong Kong City Hall was built. His MBE was awarded in honour of his contribution to Hong Kong’s cultural life.