Jews in Hong Kong watch cautiously as the city faces the most dramatic protests this century

Swastikas abound in anti-government graffiti, but community leaders say ‘Nazi-style hate’ has yet to make an appearance


My trip to Hong Kong this autumn — before the violent events of this week that saw live ammunition used on the streets — took me to a city convulsing under the most dramatic protests this century, pitching the unstoppable force of pro-democracy demonstrators against the immovable object of the Chinese regime.

I was keen to discover how they were affecting members of the small Jewish community that have made the former British colony a home.

When she spoke to me in September, Erica Lyons, chairwoman of the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong, told me that both her children had been caught up in the unrest.

Her son was coming off a train after a game of football when tear gas was thrown onto the platform: “There’s nowhere to go, you’re trapped on the platforms. They weren’t protesting, they were trying to play a football match.”

And, with public transport frequently shut down by the police, the city’s Jewish school had to run an emergency bus service to the community centre.

Inside Hong Kong's Ohel Leah (Photo: Jade Lam)

The protesters’ graffiti slogan of choice is Chinazi, a portmanteau of ‘China’ and ‘Nazi’, often accompanied by a swastika. I was told this is simply a reflection of how protesters see Chinese rule, and that Nazi-style antisemitism has largely not permeated to the east.

For Glen Steinman, founding supporter the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre, the Chinese tend to have a “fascination” with Jewish culture rather than prejudice towards it.

“There’s a sympathy but there’s also a desire to know more,” he said.

“There’s a belief within China that there is a simpatico: that you have very rich history, very rich culture, very big focus on family values, education.”

I asked Mr Steinman why there was need, then, for a Holocaust centre.

“It’s actually in our name. We are the Holocaust and Tolerance Centre. In the UK or the US people know about the Holocaust; a small, small percentage denies the Holocaust, and then there is a root of antisemitic behaviour. It’s not the case here.

“Antisemitism is a disease and it can be contagious. So we want to make sure that the contagion doesn’t spread here.”

Ms Lyons told me that during the Second World War and the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, many Jews were interned in prisoner of war camps but that it had “nothing to do with being Jewish or not Jewish.

“They weren’t treated any differently [to others] in the camps. I think that the Japanese didn’t really understand antisemitism.”

She continued: “Certainly, people suffered terribly during the war, but Jews were never a target, more than any other ally.

“And in fact Jews in Hong Kong — and not just during that time — we have never suffered from antisemitism at all.”

The community in Hong Kong is small, but the city has a rich history of Jewish influence.

The main street through Kowloon, Nathan Road, is named after Matthew Nathan, a British Royal Engineer and Hong Kong’s only Jewish governor. And every Hong Kong banknote from 1975 to 2016 was designed by Henry Steiner, a wartime refugee from Austria.

After it became a British colony in the 1842, Jewish families famous for their trading empires seized on the opportunity to establish outposts.

One was the Kadoories, who originate from Baghdad and have since made their way into British aristocracy.

They established the exclusive Peninsula Hotel and the Jewish Recreation Club, a focal point of the community that was destroyed by fire during the Japanese occupation.

Hong Kong’s oldest synagogue, Ohel Leah, is the work of another prominent family, the Sassoons. An Orthodox synagogue of traditional Sephardic design, it was built to serve Jewish workers sent to the region and named after Sir Jacob Sassoon’s mother, Leah.

Reporting its consecration in 1902, the Jewish Chronicle said it “is situated in one of the loveliest spots on the island facing the harbour,” adding that “there is an uninterrupted view for miles around.”

Over a century later, that description has little truth left in it: now a small part of the community centre, the synagogue is nestled among a sea of high rise towers in Hong Kong’s mid-levels.

But it remains a testament to the Jewish community’s efforts to put down roots, Ms Lyons said.

“This is what they did: wherever they went, they built a community.”

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