Does Hong Kong’s refugee history need to be ‘decolonised’?
A special post-war issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies laid down a challenge for historians: ‘when it comes to refugees, then, the project of decolonising history still remains to be completed’. The decolonisation project is particularly pertinent in the case of Hong Kong, a former British Crown colony whose history, population and identity is tied to waves of refugees from China who sought (often temporary) refuge during the upheaval of the Tai Ping Rebellion (1851-1864), the republican revolution of 1911, the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese revolution of the 1940s. Despite the journal’s rallying call, Hong Kong historians have already successfully tackled Euro-centric histories by looking to the plight of Chinese refugees, the emergence of a regional (rather than international) refugee regime and the colonial discourse of the ‘Problem of People’ in the 1940s – 1960s. Such research raises important questions about the nature of colonial rule and can help trace the fault lines of Hong Kong’s political schisms between former refugees and the so-called ‘post-80s’ generation in the SAR today. These historians include Glen Peterson, Agnes Ku and Laura Madokoro, whose pioneering research seeks to question the role of empirical surveys in shaping westernised categories of Chinese refugees.
In 1930’s Shanghai, many organisations came to the aid of newly arrived Jewish refugees.
The Hilsfond (“Hilsfond Fuer Deutsche Juden”) was the oldest of the local relief organisations. Established in 1914 by Germans, the Hilsfond took care of the first Jewish arrivals from Austria after the ‘Anschluss’ (the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938) and provided continuous support to the community.
Also known as the Komor Committee after its Hungarian secretary and administrator, Paul Komor, the International Committee for Granting Relief to European Refugees was established in 1938 and was administered by old-time Shanghailanders. In its early days, the Komor Committee collected monthly subscriptions to provide refugees with room and board, and assistance in finding jobs and financial support. They worked closely with the Shanghai Municipal Police to keep a central registry of all immigrants and issued passports, known as “Komorpasses”.
The Committee for the Assistance of European Jewish Refugees in Shanghai was the first communal endeavour between the Baghdadi and Russian Jewish communities, founded after a meeting in the offices of Sir Elly Kadoorie & Sons in 1938. Under the active leadership of Michael Speelman, it became known as the Speelman Committee. Seven sub-committees were formed in an attempt to streamline all existing agencies, including those dealing with housing, medical care, employment and finance.
In the visa-free port of Shanghai, the number of European Jewish refugees arriving rose to 15,000 in the 10 months from December 1938 through to September 1939. Various organisations were hastily established in Shanghai and elsewhere to support this burgeoning and penniless refugee population. These included the Hilsfond Fuer Deutsche Juden and the Committee for the Assistance of European Jewish Refugees in Shanghai which issued passports, kept registries, provided assistance in finding jobs as well as financial aid and accommodation.
Horace Kadoorie established the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association (S.J.Y.A) in February 1937 following a visit to the Shanghai Jewish School (S.J.S) in early January 1937. There, he found malnourished children plagued by tuberculosis and with little to no opportunities for employment. Soon after establishing the S.J.Y.A, an educational programme was developed which included business classes and an “Employment Bureau” at the Nieh Chih Kuei School, which was loaned to the Association by the Shanghai Municipal Council until 1941.
The S.J.Y.A also hosted summer camps promoted as: “The Jewish Children’s Fresh Air Camp”. The 1938 summer camp was held on the grounds of the Shanghai University and included a Fun Fair, evening film screenings, sport heats and amateur theatre productions.
By February 1939, with the steady influx of refugees (arriving at this time at over 1,000 per month) and the current S.J.S unable to cope with the increased numbers, the S.J.Y.A expanded its activities from summer clubs and camps to regular education, and focused its attention on refugee children, after which the S.J.Y.A school, otherwise known as the Kadoorie school, became the largest Jewish School in Shanghai and an indispensable support network for refugee families.
The Council of the Jewish Community was founded in 1949 for the welfare of China Jewry. When the American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) closed its Shanghai office in 1951, the Council took over the administrative work in connection with the global repatriation and resettlement of Jews residing in China.
I’ve written extracts from the Council’s 1956 report below:
Economic Welfare and Relief
Shelter House and Free Meals
During 1956 the Shelter House harboured an average of 14 inmates and dispensed free meals to a daily average of about 23 persons; in the first six months of 1957 the average number of inmates was 13, while the average number of persons was about 13. The cost of supplying two meals daily to each person was approximately Yen 40.00 per month.
Mr. E Abraham had been acting as Shohet in an honorary capacity up to his departure in November 1956, and was succeeded by Mr. I. Udovich. Mr. & Mrs. G Gleizer acted as supervisors of the Shelter House and Kosher Kitchen.
Seward Road Camp (961 Tung Chang Chi Lu)
The Seward Road Camp is one of the many camps which housed European refugees during World War II. There were 11 inmates domiciled in the Camp during the period under review. The premises are owned by Messrs. E. D. Sassoon & Co., Ltd. Shanghai, and have been used free of charge by the indigent Jews for many years. Mr. H. Lewin supervises the Camp.
In order to alleviate the suffering of the mental and chronic cases two nurses are employed in the Shelter House to look after them as before. It must be mentioned that many critical cases have been averted due to the promptness of the United Hias Service in Hongkong in sending the required medicines to the sick. Dr. S. Hocs and Dr. G Rosenkevitch served as Medical Advisors for the Community with marked efficiency.
Religious and Cultural Activities
As mentioned in the last year’s report after the disposal of the Synagogue on Hsiang Yang Road, services have been regularly held in the new Synagogue at the Shanghai Jewish Centre. In spite of the diminishing number of Jews in Shanghai, attendance in the Synagogue has continued to be gratifying in the circumstances.
As in the preceding four years, Matzoth were baked locally and distributed free of charge to all needy Jews in Shanghai. As in the past, the highest grade of wheat flour was allotted by the Food Administration Bureau and sympathetic cooperation was rendered by the bakery were the Matzoth were prepared in accordance with Jewish rituals. Due to technical difficulties in Tientsin, 250lbs. of Matzoth were sent by train for gratuitous distribution among the Jews in that district.
Reading and Recreation Room
Since the closure and liquidation of the Shanghai Jewish Club on December 31 1955 the reading and recreation room has afforded books, periodicals and newspapers to the local Jews. The room has also been used for Hebrew Classes, Children’s parties and other activities.
The four Jewish cemeteries in Shanghai continued in the care of the Council. All graves and memorial stones are constantly kept in good condition under the able supervision of Mr. H. Lewin.
By July 1956, the centralised management of the properties and the internal affairs of both the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic Communal Associations had merged into the Council’s office. The works in connection with the two communal associations have been handled by the Council staff. The legal entities of the Communal Associations have been preserved. In line with a general decree by the Government, land tax on properties owned by or managed by Jewish organisations has been altered to property tax which has been levied at 18% on rentals received since the fourth quarter of 1956.
As the number of remaining Jews in Shanghai gradually diminished, the manifold works of the Council had devolved upon the few members who have been serving selflessly for the welfare of the Jewish Community.
Mr. R.D. Abraham: Mr. R.D. Abraham resigned his membership of the Council on September 1 1956, but continued to give the benefit of his experience and advice up to the time of his departure from Shanghai in November 1956. Any attempt to evaluate his service to the Jewish Community within the limitation of this Report would be hopelessly inadequate. Following the noble tradition of his forebears, he left behind him a record of a life-long devotion to the interests of the community. Whole-heartedly and unobtrusively he identified himself with all aspects of our communal activities, so that every Jewish institution, Religious, Cultural, Social or otherwise bears the impress of his work. His long tenure of leadership as Chairman of the Council since its inception in 1949 will always remain a cherished memory. It was under his able captaincy that the Council was steered through difficult times and the care and welfare of our brethren in China enhanced. Every Jew who is or has been in China will remember R.D. Abraham with gratitude and affection.
Mr. Ezekiel Abraham: Equally noted for religious and charitable activities is Mr. E Abraham who served as Hon. Treasurer of the Council until his subsequent departure from Shanghai. During a long period of social work, he gave unstintingly of his time and energy in the cause of communal welfare, and his cheerful readiness to assist any one who applied to him had endeared him to all and has made his name synonymous with selfless service.
Mr. K.I. Kushner: Mr. K.I Kushner served as member of the Council and later succeeded Mr. E. Abraham as Hon. Treasurer. Though his service was brief, his work with marked distinction will be long remembered.
Mr. N.L Schifrin: Mr. N. Schifrin succeeded Mr. Kushner as Hon. Treasurer of the Council. In addition to the many works devolved upon him due to the departure of honorary members of the Council, Mr. Schifrin had inaugurated a Hebrew Class and taught the Jewish children with admirable fervency to see that those children were well-equipped Hebraically. Mr. Schifrin has rendered invaluable services to the community in many facets.
Staff: Mr. A.M Bagg continued in rendering invaluable service up till his departure in March 1957. The Council staff consists mainly of Chinese who have worked many years with the Jewish organisations and have performed their duties to the full satisfaction of the Council.
‘Shanghai … life itself … nothing more intensely living can be imagined … So much life, so carefully canalised, so rapidly and strongly flowing, the spectacle of it inspires something like terror’. – Aldous Huxley
‘Shanghai, this electric and lurid city, more exciting than any other in the world’.– J.G. Ballard
For almost 100 years, Shanghai had been home to a small, close-knit Sephardi community of Baghdadi Jews. The Sassoons were the first to establish themselves in Shanghai in 1850, and were successful traders. Others, such as the Kadoories, the Abrahams, Ezras and Hardoons, most of whom started out working for the Sassoons, soon prospered as successful businessmen in their own right. Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews arrived in the early 20th century from Russia following the anti-Jewish pogrom of 1905 (Kiev Pogrom) and later the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Following the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria fled to Shanghai, attracted by the city’s visa free status. The established Jewish communities of Shanghai immediately began fundraising activities to deal with the refugee’s most urgent needs. Horace Kadoorie founded the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association (SJYA) to provide a meal programme, medical supplies and employment bureau to meet the refugee’s most urgent needs. The SJYA School was opened in November 1939 at 100 Kinchow Road (today, Jingzhou Road) to supplement the overcrowded Shanghai Jewish School. The school was highly regarded due to its emphasis on sports, cultural and social activities, and its high calibre of teaching staff.