Blogroll: Recommended Reads

In recent years, more and more blogs have appeared online exploring the historical and political context of the refugee plight, both then and now. There has also been an increasing interest in the history of Hong Kong, especially via nostalgic Facebook groups or politically active Twitter accounts.

Here’s a few of my recommended (online) reads:

Refugee History

This blog boasts an impressive panel of experts seeking evidence-based solutions to the current refugee crisis. Blog posts cover book reviews, news about forced migration and probing historical essays. Recent articles include: ‘Victims of Decolonisation? The French Settlers of Algeria’ and ‘Belonging and Alienation in the Greek Return to Imbros’. You can follow Refugee History for conference highlights and other academic updates via @RefugeeHistory.

The Refugee Research Network

This excellent and wide-ranging Canadian blog covers several bases, from educational courses on offer around the world (certificates and PhD programmes), a scholars network to an excellent and user friendly research database which pools articles from all corners of the web. Articles are wide-ranging and cover the plight of refugees and displaced persons in Gaza, Kenya and Lebanon, among many other places.

The Hong Kong History Project

Not to be confused with The Hong Kong Heritage Project, this excellent resource should be a first port of call for both budding and experienced Hong Kong history enthusiasts. It features a comprehensive historiography compiled by historian Vaudine England, much of it focused on race and identity, as well as guest blogs from PhD candidates around the world.

Gwulo

This blog has been a staple for Hong Kong history researchers since it was first launched in 2006 by the indefatigable David Bellis. With thousands of pages of research sourced and uploaded by David and his team of volunteer netizens, this blog has been invaluable for my own research, too. Highlights include census lists, GPS maps, oral histories and much, much more.

Far East Currents

This blog is the brainchild of Dr Roy Eric Xavier, whose aim is to: ‘understand the roles that Portuguese-Macanese people played in the development of Macau, Hong Kong and other regions of southeast Asia, and their migration to other countries after World War II’. Roy has interviewed hundreds of Macanese, Portuguese-Eurasians and others who have lived or worked in Macao. Many of these interviews are featured on his blog or are available on YouTube.

China Rhyming

I’ve been a fan of Paul French since having read ‘Midnight in Peking’, his bestselling investigative thriller about the murder of a 19 year old English girl in Beijing’s ‘bad lands’. Paul’s blog, China Rhyming, covers a ‘gallimaufry of random China history and research interests’, and is well worth a read. As French (and Twain) say, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme’.

And finally …

Here’s a few of my favourite Twitterstorians you might want to follow:

@jypersian is an active Twitterstorian, based in Australia, who posts mainly about post-war migration to Australia. @petergatrell is a giant in the field of refugee studies. He regularly posts about his work and other developments in the field. @hongkonghistory, The Hong Kong History Project’s Twitter feed, is a valuable resource for Hong Kong related conferences and general Hong Kong related news and info. Finally, @vischina, administered by Professor Robert Bickers at Bristol University, gives a glimpse into the collection of 20,000+ digitised images of China (1850 – 1950) which have been painstakingly collected by the Visualising China team.

The Parsees: Hong Kong’s Disappearing Community

This article was originally written for the Hong Kong Heritage Project’s Past & Present magazine in 2019, and chronicles the history of the Parsee community in Hong Kong. I’ve also previously written about Hong Kong’s Indian and Portuguese communities on this blog.

Hong Kong has always been home to an eclectic mix of people and cultures; a quick survey of the city’s history will show the valuable contributions of numerous ethnic and national groups from all corners of the globe. One of the first settlers to arrive in Hong Kong after it was occupied by the British were Parsees from India who pioneered trade routes along the China Coast. The Parsee community originally came from Persia but were forced to flee and subsequently built businesses in the booming ports of Bombay and Calcutta. They acted as middlemen to the British and became successful bankers crucial to the early success of HSBC and the Chartered Bank of India. The Parsee contribution to Hong Kong far outweighs the small size of the community. Among their lasting legacies are road names (Mody Road, Kotewall Road and Bisney Road) the Star Ferry (founded by Mithaiwala Dorabjee Naorojee), social clubs and the University of Hong Kong. Parsees have even influenced Hong Kong’s linguistic heritage with the widespread use of the word ‘Shroff’; a Parsee family name. Today, Hong Kong’s Parsee community, a distinct ethnic and religious group, stands at an estimated 200 people. With only 100,000 Parsees worldwide – their numbers rapidly diminishing – this illustrious community is at risk of dying out. In 2009 The Hong Kong Heritage Project spoke to Ruby Master, the community’s first female trustee in Hong Kong, to find out more about her life story and the wider history of Parsees and Zoroastrianism in Hong Kong.

Ruby Master was born in Hong Kong in 1926. Her family history reflects the general pattern of Parsee settlement in Hong Kong, which started as an offshoot of the older Canton settlement. Ruby’s grandfather established a trading company in Canton in 1910 trading silks and spices while her granduncle worked for the law firm Johnston Stokes and Masters. Ruby’s father was brought into the family business in 1917. When the family office relocated to Hong Kong in 1925, he migrated south along with his young wife who became the youngest Parsee woman in the colony. The family lived on Wyndham Street, known as ‘Malacca’ by the Chinese for its ubiquitous Indian presence. Ruby remembers that the houses on Wyndham were much like the shop houses in Singapore today, ‘you would have your office on the ground floor or shop on your ground floor and you lived on the upper floors’. Ruby attended the Italian Convent School, today’s Sacred Heart Canossian College, with other Indian, Portuguese and Chinese girls. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong on 8 December 1941, many of her school friends fled Hong Kong. After the British surrender, the Indian community, along with the Portuguese, Eurasians and other neutral and Axis nationalities, were not interned in civilian camps but were instead free to live ‘at liberty’ as Third Nationals, sometimes in their own homes. This proved to be an illusory freedom as economic collapse, rampant inflation, scant rations and American bombing raids made life hard on the other side of the barbed wire fence.

Ruby, who was fifteen at the time of the invasion, reflects that ‘we had shortages of food, fuel everything.  It was hard … all our bank accounts were frozen and if we managed to live through the four years it was by selling bit by bit whatever valuables we had’. For a time Ruby was able to continue her schooling, though the Italian Convent School was soon closed by the Japanese. Life ‘in town’ was dominated by a strict curfew and Ruby rarely ventured outside the Wyndham Street area, though she spent afternoons at the Ruttonjee and Schroff households, who lived close by. Ruby’s war was mostly experienced from inside the family home, where she would help with housework and bake chapatis and bread, which were not freely available on the outside. Many Parsees were active during the Japanese Occupation. Jehangir Ruttonjee and his son Dhun were arrested for the help they gave to oppressed people in Hong Kong, other Parsees were arrested for the help they gave to the British. Several Parsee homes, most notably that of the Pavris family, were used to house Parsees who had been deprived of their own homes. In 1945 Ruby heard that the war was coming to an end thanks to a cousin who owned a (banned) shortwave radio. When the Japanese surrendered, she was jubilant. The Master family joined the crowds and watched Admiral Harcourt and his fleet land at Blake’s Pier at the end of August: ‘we were all on the waterfront waiting to cheer them, oh that was a wonderful day’.

Hong Kong victory celebrations 9 October 1945
Hong Kong Victory celebrations, October 1945. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

After the war Hong Kong became the largest centre for Parsees in the region when Parsees from Shanghai joined Shanghainese entrepreneurs and others leaving China. In the 1940s and 1950s Ruby worked for her father’s firm exporting cotton yarn to India and Pakistan. Along with other young people in the Indian community she enjoyed an active social life as Indian Regiments were stationed in Hong Kong and the ships of the Indian Navy hosted parties and galas from 1945 onwards. Charitable work has always been an important part of the Zoroastrian religion and Ruby became more deeply involved in the wider community with active roles in the Indian Women’s Club, where she was one of the first members to join in 1957, and the Hong Kong Girl Guides. In the 1980s and 1990s the demographics of the community changed again as Parsees came from overseas to work in large multinational firms. Many longstanding Parsees sought British citizenship and relocated to second homes worldwide as the 1997 Handover approached. Ruby decided to stay put in Hong Kong and was invited to the Handover ceremony on 30 June 1997 when ‘the heavens opened up’. She watched the parade in sodden shoes as the rain pounded the ceremony, her cheeks flecked by tears. ‘We’ve prospered here, we loved Hong Kong and this was our only home’. Today, Ruby’s home is still Hong Kong, where she lives with her extended family. The Parsee community remains close knit, and members meet for Navroze, the Persian New Year, or other festivals at the Zoroastrian Building in Causeway Bay. Ruby believes this sense of community is vitally important, especially as their numbers dwindle. ‘Once a year or so we even have little trips to Shanghai or to Macau or wherever … this way we get the community together’.

Special thanks to Ruby Master for sharing her life history with The Hong Kong Heritage Project.

 

 

 

The Jewish Recreation Club (Hong Kong)

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Architectural drawing for the new Jewish Recreation Club, 1950

The Jewish Recreation Club (JRC) of Hong Kong was founded in 1905 as a modest one-roomed building. Sir Elly Kadoorie later offered to pay for the expansion of the building, which was enlarged in 1909. The JRC opened its doors to Jews of every nationality and helped foster friendships among people of diverse backgrounds and cultures. In the early years of the club, members enjoyed tennis, croquet and bowls played in grounds adjacent to the Ohel Leah Synagogue. Although at first the club was closed for games on Saturday (the Sabbath – the day of rest), leisure activities became so popular that the rule was relaxed.

During the 1930s, when war in Europe and China loomed, leisure and social pursuits gave way to community service. Iraqi Jewish refugees fleeing the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai in 1937 and European Jewish refugees escaping Nazism in 1938 were temporarily housed in the club. In December 1941, the Japanese invaded Hong Kong. The JRC survived the Japanese Occupation until two weeks prior to the termination of hostilities, when Japanese forces pulled the club down.

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Programme for the Purim Ball, held at the Jewish Recreation Club, 1950

The club was eventually rebuilt in 1949. The Purim Ball, held on 11 March 1950, was one of the first social events held in the new club building. Purim is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the salvation of the Jewish people from Haman in ancient Persia, a story recounted in the biblical book of Esther.

Hong Kong’s Indian Communities

Readers of this blog will know that ‘A Borrowed Place’ is dedicated to the history of Jewish refugees in Hong Kong. My posts have so far examined Hong Kong’s refugee history and historiography, its historic Jewish community and the lives of refugees. Today’s post casts an eye on another so-called ‘foreign’ community in Hong Kong; Indians and their arrival in the former British colony.

Since Hong Kong’s earliest days, Parsee and Bohra Muslim traders from India were engaged in the region, opening offices and taking advantage of the economic opportunities and political stability afforded in the territory. In the mid-1840s approximately one-quarter of the foreign businesses in Hong Kong were Indian, and many Indian Muslim firms had been active in Canton since the late 1700s. The Parsee community originally came from Persia but after being expelled in the seventh century built up businesses in the booming ports of Bombay and Calcutta. They were engaged as middlemen with foreign traders and became successful bankers and financiers. Parsees arrived in Hong Kong in the second half of the nineteenth century. Mithaiwala Dorabjee Naorojee was a Parsee entrepreneur and hotelier who arrived in Hong Kong from Bombay in 1852 as a stowaway on a ship bound for China. He began the first regular cross-harbour ferry services between Hong Kong and Kowloon, a business which was sold in 1898 to the Hongkong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Co. marking the beginning of the Star Ferry Company (later a Kadoorie business interest during the twentieth century).

Sir Mody
Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody

The Star Ferry played a significant role in helping Naorojee’s Parsee compatriot, Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody, develop Kowloon. Mody came to Hong Kong from Bombay in the early 1860s as an experienced printing press manager. He formed a brokerage firm with close friend Sir Paul Chater (an Armenian Christian born in Calcutta) and together they invested in underdeveloped Kowloon. He was commemorated for his efforts with the street name ‘Mody Road’; one of the major thoroughfares in Kowloon. The Ruttonjees were another important Parsee family who made their mark on Hong Kong’s early history. In 1886 Hormusjee Ruttonjee arrived in Hong Kong from India to start business as a wine merchant, and later established the Hong Kong Brewery with the help of his son. As a noted philanthropist, one of his major donations to the Hong Kong community was the Ruttonjee Tuberculosis Sanitorium. The Ruttonjee family were honoured guests along with the Kadoories at the opening ceremony of the newly renovated Sir Ellis Kadoorie School for Indians in 1955.

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The Ellis Kadoorie School for Indians group photograph, 1920s

By the mid-twentieth century, Hong Kong’s Indian population rose dramatically with the arrival of migrants from the Sindh and Gujarat provinces. Hindus soon became the largest group of Indians in Hong Kong and they specialised in importing and exporting a wide variety of goods. Amongst them were the Sindhis, who traded through their widespread diasporic links. One of the most distinguished Sindhi families in Hong Kong today is the Harilela family. Hari Harilela (1922 – 2014) was born in Hyderabad, Sindh (now part of Pakistan). He came to Hong Kong with his father Naroomal Mirchandani in the early 1930s and helped provide for his family by hawking goods to the British armed forces. Eventually, the Harilelas established their own tailoring firm which became one of the best clothing houses in the city. The family diversified with the establishment of the Harilela Group in 1959 and soon acquired the Imperial Hotel in 1961, which marked their entry into the hospitality industry. Today the Harilelas are leading members of the wider Indian community in Hong Kong, with many of the family members living together under one roof.

 

 

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.