Life in Post-War Shanghai

A rich and varied literature written by both former refugees and academics has shed light on many aspects of the cultural, economic and social history of the 16,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

As seen in my previous blog post, refugees were highly active in their engagement with local and international NGOs in their quest to leave Shanghai at the end of the war. Their pleas for help, often raw with emotion and frustration, help supplement our understanding of post-war Shanghai. As the years dragged on, many found life in Shanghai increasingly precarious. Life was especially hard for the old, vulnerable and infirm, who found themselves alone in an alien city. It is these protagonists, living on the fringes of society in care homes and medical institutions, who have been neglected by historians. I’ve included one such ‘life story’ below, dated 27 December 1949:

My sister had a miserable life in Shanghai where she came from Germany more than ten years ago. Her marriage was unhappy, she divorced her husband, and by all that she became nervous. When I left Shanghai for America in March 1947 my sister lived in this Old Age Home with unpleasant people in a dark room. The manageress is known to be most provoking towards her charge. Unfortunately, my sister lost her temper at such an occasion and was taken to a Nerve Hospital in August 1947. January 1948 already the hospital doctor wanted to release her, which should be proof that her state of health was considered to be normal. But the American Jewish Joint Committee whose support she receives, prolonged her stay for lack of accommodation.

After many efforts made by my sister and a relative of ours, now in Palestine, she was finally released June 1948.

My sister is in possession of three affidavits for immigration to USA. But the American Consulate doctor did not grant her the OK.

We are the only members of our family who survived.

Refugee Memory of Shanghai

The history of Shanghai as a ‘Port of Last Resort’ began to be seriously explored in the 1970s when David Kranzler wrote his seminal work ‘Japanese, Nazis and Jews’ (1976). What is clear from the records held at the American Jewish Archives (Ohio) is that refugees began to digest, historicise and attach specific meanings to their Shanghai experience from 1946, when many from so-called ‘small quota’ countries attempted to enter the United States with help from various Jewish and non-Jewish organisations (namely the Joint, UNRRA and World Jewish Congress). Accounts of life in Shanghai and the Hongkew Ghetto were sent to senators in Washington in attempts to amend U.S. immigration legislation. Clearly, refugees were already acting as witnesses, historians and advocates in the immediate post-war period.

Below is a letter to the editor of the China Daily Tribune from one of the very few refugees able to leave Shanghai for the United States in 1946. He writes: ‘Nine years have passed … nine years full of good and bad days, but through the kind assistance of the Chinese Government, we the refugees and I have been permitted to settle down since 1939, after our flight from the Nazi purge’. 

The more recent historicisation of Shanghai as a ‘Shanghai Ark’ and myth-making at the state level is explored by Yu Wang in his fascinating article ‘The myth of ‘Shanghai Ark’ and the Shanghai Refugee Museum’ (2017), which he describes as a kind of ‘Foucauldian heterotopia’. I’ll write more on this topic a little later.

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FCO Historical Collection at Foyle Library

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One of my first archive visits as part of the Hong Kong Refuge project was to the Foyle Special Collection Library. Housed at the entrance of the impressive Maughan Library, the main research library of King’s College London, the building was once (very aptly) home to the headquarters of the Public Records Office, known as the ‘strong box of Empire’.

King’s College London acquired the historical library collection of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on permanent loan back in 2007. The collection represents one of the most important historical acquisitions for the university and comprises over 80,000 items including books, periodicals and pamphlets spanning 500 years and touching all corners of the globe. The library was originally compiled as a tool of government so as to inform and influence British foreign and colonial policy. Luckily for the Hong Kong Refuge project, a portion of this collection therefore pertains to colonial era Hong Kong and the treaty port history of Shanghai.

The Shanghai series comprises 111 records, with the majority of the collection pre-dating 1945 (only four items are listed as post-1945). The major bulk of the collection is housed in the Foyle Library whilst modern and robust items have been transferred to the Maughan Library.

Early items within this collection include books written by missionaries, business records (such as deeds) for corporations including the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and the China Navigation Company (held by the Chinese Maritime Customs), reference books on China’s customs, history and traditions and information related to Shanghai’s treaty port history.

The annual reports of the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC) represent an important acquisition as the most complete set of SMC reports owned by any library outside of China. The Foyle Library holds annual reports for the years: 1871 – 76, 1877 – 1892, 1893 – 1899, 1907 – 1940 (1900 – 1906 are missing). See my blog posting on the 1939 report here.

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The FCO collection also houses an important resource for Hong Kong historians, including early reference materials written by missionaries and Hong Kong government officials (including governors), correspondence on the Praya Reclamation Scheme between government officials and Sir Paul Chater (1880s), letters from Governor Bowen, general Hong Kong guide books (1930s) and a ‘Who’s Who of China’ as well as various maps (such as district zoning plans) and photograph collections.

Although the Hong Kong series is a more detailed and wide ranging collection, reflecting Hong Kong’s position as a colony until 1997, the FCO Historical Collection is an invaluable (and at present, little used) resource for scholars of both Hong Kong and Shanghai.