We are delighted have Amelia Allsop as our guest writer this week. The Research Manager of the Hong Kong Heritage Project 香港社會發展回顧項目, Amelia is doing her PhD at King’s College, London. Here she tells us her way into Hong Kong history, and her fascinating doctoral research about Jewish refugees in Hong Kong.
I completed my History BA at King’s College London in 2005 and in the same year I embarked on an International Relations MA, also at King’s, while working for my local Labour MP. At the end of the course I was offered a position in Hong Kong to help set-up an archive for the Kadoorie family and their business and charitable entities, which include China Light and Power and The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels. I worked closely with the Archivist to secure acquisitions across various businesses, describe the collection and promote access for researchers based in Hong Kong and overseas. It was an immensely enjoyable, challenging and rewarding experience, and provided a practical introduction to the world of archives – a discipline with a vital role to play in preserving Hong Kong’s memory. Over the next few years I recorded over 200 English language oral history interviews (and counting!) with public figures and ‘everyday’ historians and worked with colleagues to showcase the archive via publications and on our website. Today, the Hong Kong Heritage Project (HKHP), as the archive is known, regularly hosts exhibitions and works in partnership with youth organisations to encourage an interest in local history. In 2015 I moved back to London and embarked on a PhD on the topic of Jewish refugees in Hong Kong – again at King’s. I continue to work for HKHP as Research Manager and regularly return to Hong Kong.
My thesis is titled ‘A Borrowed Place: Jewish Refugees in Hong Kong, 1938 – 1956’. The idea of Hong Kong as a ‘borrowed place’ is perhaps a bit of a tired cliché, but the epithet captures contested themes of transience and disappearance so central to literature on Hong Kong’s history and culture, which has been shaped by successive waves of refugees. It also speaks to the alienation experienced by many Jewish refugees when they passed through Hong Kong on their way to or from Shanghai, many of whom were poorly treated by the colonial authorities. I became interested in this topic in 2010, when HKHP collaborated with the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society to curate an exhibition on the Jews of China. I started to consider the viability of the topic as a PhD subject when, on further reading, I discovered that Jewish refugees in Hong Kong were absent from refugee literature, from wider Holocaust writing (specifically, Shanghai as a ‘Port of Last Resort’), and finally, from explorations of Hong Kong’s Jewish community, which tended to focus on the Baghdadi diaspora. It’s a little-known topic but one that I feel will contribute to debates tackling Jewish flight, refuge and rescue, particularly within the British Empire. As part of this study I hope to compare colonial responses to Jewish refugees with other refugee groups in Hong Kong, namely stateless Russian refugees, at times viewed with suspicion as Soviet spies, and Chinese refugees, who, for reasons of economic and political expediency were labelled ‘squatters’ by the Hong Kong government.
Existing historiography on Hong Kong’s Jews, mostly written in the 1980s and 1990s, has fixated on Baghdadis and their role as the founding fathers of Hong Kong’s Jewish community. Families such as the Sassoons are central to this literature. Although I examine the humanitarian role of Baghdadis vis-à-vis the refugees, my aim is to uncover hidden histories of refugee groups – their escape from Nazi occupied Europe, their experiential perspectives of Hong Kong, Shanghai and the China Coast, and the politicised response of the colonial government towards this persecuted group as ‘aliens’ rather than refugees. As with all historians, I believe in the value of my work and I’m passionate about my research topic. But beyond my own interest, the importance of this research lies not in Hong Kong’s status as a ‘refuge’, but in its ability to draw wider parallels on the Jewish refugee experience in the western and non-western worlds. It is a microcosm of displacement and internment, so familiar to the refugee encounter, within a uniquely British imperial and Chinese setting that links together the local, regional and global. My research hopes to fill gaps in Sino-Judaic literature whilst enriching studies of empire, identity and minority groups in Hong Kong. It seeks to fill a lacuna in Shanghai’s refugee historiography by looking to the exodus of Jewish refugees and their transit through Hong Kong, and in tandem, hopes to complement existing studies on refugees in the former colony, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Finally, I seek to reveal, for the first time, Jewish refugee memory of Hong Kong.
I’d be delighted to hear from other researchers with an interest in this subject, and especially from former refugees and their relatives. I can be contacted at: https://hongkongrefuge.wordpress.com/connect/
Finally, more information on the Hong Kong Heritage Project can be found on our website: www.hongkongheritage.org and further details of my research can be found on my blog: https://hongkongrefuge.wordpress.com/.