A public lecture by Ryan Cheuk Him Sun (PhD candidate in History, University of British Columbia, Canada)
2022-2023 Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Research Fellow
(Join us in person for this lecture or attend virtually on Zoom)
Organized by the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research
Between 1938 and 1940, it took on average three to four weeks for Jewish refugees onboard Shanghai-bound ships to reach their destination. During this time, Austrian and German Jews were surrounded by opulence that had been restricted to them under Nazi rule. Onboard their luxury liners, passengers were provided with catered meals, movie screenings, and live music. They relaxed on the ship's decks and numerous lounges. These ships replicated the whole spectrum of European society, but also became a 'space of possibilities' for Jewish refugees to make sense of their displacement, to prepare for the unknown future, or to enjoy the present. Along the route of escape, these ships docked at colonial port-cities: Port Said, Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong. When allowed off the ship, many used the opportunity to inquire about job prospects and networked with the local Jewish communities. For many refugees, this was their first encounter with 'the Orient'. Some participated in sightseeing tours and cultural activities. In their oral history testimonies, almost all make references to unfamiliar sights, smells, and sounds, and comment on the 'exoticness' of local inhabitants. The journey was an exciting time for many refugee passengers. Yet, nestled within the 'adventure' were other feelings like boredom and fear - emotions that were not clearly recounted, or simply overlooked, in oral testimonies.
In this lecture, Ryan Sun discusses what Jewish refugees did onboard these passenger liners and how their interactions with non-Europeans in colonial ports of call mediated and shaped their understandings of displacement and self. He examines the place of these experiences at sea in oral history testimonies and other sources and reflects on why they have been largely overlooked. Bringing together oral and textual materials, and re-listening to a critical mass of oral testimonies for those silences and vague descriptions, he offers a refugee-centered snapshot of the human experience behind the ship journeys to Shanghai in all its multitudes.
Lecture image is a portion of a photograph of Jewish refugees sitting on the deck of the SS Conte Verde while en route to Shanghai. The photo is from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ralph Harpuder.