Kimberly Cheng lectures about Jewish refugees' experiences in war-time Shanghai

Wed, 10/31/2018 - 8:48am

Kimberly Cheng (PhD candidate in Hebrew & Judaic Studies and History, New York University)
2018-2019 Breslauer, Rutman & Anderson Research Fellow
“American Dreams: Jewish Refugees and Chinese Locals in Post-World War II Shanghai”
September 27, 2018

Kimberly Cheng, the 2018-2019 Breslauer, Rutman & Anderson Research Fellow, gave a public lecture about the research she conducted during her monthlong residency at the Center. The lecture, entitled “American Dreams: Jewish Refugees and Chinese Locals in Post-World War II Shanghai,” focused on the impact of the presence of American troops in postwar Shanghai on Jewish daily life; the identity, attitudes and behavior of Jewish refugees in Shanghai; and Jewish refugees’ interactions with their Chinese neighbors in the city.

Cheng started her lecture by situating her research in the larger fields of Holocaust and East Asian studies. She noted that despite the considerable number of Central European Jews (between 17,000 and 18,000) who found refuge in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, not much scholarly research has been done on the subject. Most scholarly research looks at the Jewish migration to European countries, Israel, and the United States, and the focus has only recently started to shift to non-European locations. Moreover, Cheng pointed out that the existing scholarship on Jewish refugees in Shanghai is split between the fields of Holocaust studies and East Asian studies, respectively. With this in mind, Cheng’s intention is to bring the Jewish and Chinese parts of the story together, and to shed light on Jewish identity formation, and people’s emotions and behavior during their time in Shanghai. While conducting her research in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive (VHA), Cheng focused on testimonies that featured recollections of Jewish life in Shanghai and descriptions of Jewish relationships with the Chinese, including daily interactions and mixed marriages. As an illustration of such moments in the archive, Cheng showed two photos from the VHA: one depicted a Jewish refugee with her husband and their Chinese friend in Shanghai, and the other was a drawing shown by Joseph Weber during his testimony that depicted a Chinese rickshaw with passengers from his time in the city. (The images throughout Cheng’s lecture all came from the VHA. You can see them in the lecture video above.)

In the first part of her lecture, Cheng detailed the timeline of Jewish migrations to Shanghai, noting that the first Jewish refugees arrived there as early as 1933. A large number of them came to the city between 1938 and 1940. During this period, Jewish refugees travelled to Shanghai mostly via sea, while from 1940 to 1941 most took a land route through the Soviet Union and then boarded Japanese ships to Shanghai. The influx of Jewish refugees into the city was due to Shanghai’s lack of passport control up until 1949. Thus, many Jewish refugees decided to immigrate to the city, referring to it as “the port of last resort.” However, Cheng noted that the refugees were welcomed by a complicated political situation in Shanghai, which, under occupation itself, was divided into Japanese, French, and Chinese zones. Upon their arrival, the majority of refugees settled in the district of Hongkou, located in the Chinese zone of the city, while a number of more affluent refugees settled in the French zone. As of 1943, the Japanese officials mandated that all refugees who came to Shanghai after 1936 reside in Hongkou, and they needed passes to leave this area. Among them lived Chinese refugees from occupied parts of Shanghai.

The second part of the lecture focused on the postwar period in Shanghai. When it comes to this period, Cheng was interested in finding answers to the following questions: How did postwar life in Shanghai look for Jewish refugees? Did their relationships with their Chinese neighbors somehow change over time? And, finally, how do Jewish refugees remember this period overall? She continued by showing two examples of recollections about postwar Shanghai from the testimonies housed in the VHA. Cheng then turned to exploring the impact of the presence of American troops on the ground. In general, she claimed, Jewish refugees shared joyful feelings about the liberation, and many of them dreamed about immigrating to the United States. By 1948, almost 10,000 out of the existing 18,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai had left the city. Those who still resided in the city prepared for their immigration by practicing “being American” through the consumption of American food, mastery of the English language, and imitation of American slang. In addition, the Jewish refugees performed various jobs for the American Army forces, which contributed to the rise in their standard of living, an improvement that was not an option for the Chinese in Shanghai. This new development, noted Cheng, along with the overall Chinese disillusionment with nationalism and the American occupation, but also the behavior of some Jewish refugees who impersonated American personnel for their own gain, provoked general dissatisfaction with the Jewish presence in the city among the Chinese population. As early as December of 1946, some Chinese started demonstrations against Jewish refugees demanding their evacuation. During those and similar demonstrations in 1946, Chinese slogans compared Jews to the Japanese occupiers, in addition to showing growing resentment towards the American troops.

Cheng concluded her lecture by pointing out that not all Jewish refugees shared equally positive feelings towards the American troops, especially Jewish women. Cheng said that some Jewish women feared sexual assault by the Americans. On the other hand, many of them formed romantic relationships with or married American soldiers. In addition, some Jewish survivors recounted their experiences of antisemitism by the American troops, which Cheng illustrated by playing the testimony of Rita Feder from the VHA. Finally, despite the significance of American presence in postwar Shanghai for Jewish refugees’ identity formation and behavior, a large number of them never made it to the United States.

Cheng’s lecture was followed by a lively Q&A session. Some of the questions that were raised included the lasting influence of their time in Shanghai on the lives of refugees; the trajectory of Cheng’s project and her focus on the postwar period; American perspectives on the subject; the roots of Jewish women’s fear of sexual assault; the unique contributions of testimony to her project; Jewish interactions with other Europeans in the city; and Cheng’s reflections on how her research project combines perspectives from the fields of East Asian studies and Jewish studies.

Technical issues with the video? Let us know.
American Dreams: Jewish Refugees and Chinese Locals in Post-World War II Shanghai

In this lecture, Kimberly Cheng aims to write Central European Jewish refugees back into the changing landscape of postwar Shanghai by examining the ways in which Jewish refugees and Chinese locals perceived and interacted with each other. In particular, she will explore the impact of the arrival of American forces on Sino-Jewish relations on the ground in the immediate postwar period.


Summary by Badema Pitic