Asia’s Only Jewish Film Festival

Howard Elias

Howard Elias, founder of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival

There aren’t a lot of Jews in Hong Kong, but that hasn’t stopped the city from becoming the centre of Jewish life in Asia, with one of the continent’s oldest synagogues, an active community centre and the only Jewish film festival on this side of the world.

Hong Kong’s first Jews arrived with the British in 1842 — many had been trading in nearby Canton, now known as Guangzhou — and by the turn of the twentieth century, some of the territory’s most prominent families were Jewish, including the Kadoories and Sassoons, whose names have been enshrined in streets, hills and institutions across the city. (Andy Lau, arguably Hong Kong’s biggest pop star, lives in a mansion on Kadoorie Avenue.) One of Hong Kong’s early governors, Sir Matthew Nathan, was Jewish, and though he wasn’t local — Hong Kong was just one of his many stops in the imperial service — he did provide the community with a certain amount of official attention.

Despite a small influx of Jews from Shanghai, Harbin and Tianjin after the Japanese invasion of China, Hong Kong’s Jewish community remained tiny until quite recently; it numbered 200 in 1968 and 2,500 in 1998. Recently, though, more and more Jewish expatriates have been moving to Hong Kong, and the community numbers somewhere between 6,000 to 10,000 — about the same size as the Jewish communities in Calgary, Frankfurt and pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Earlier this week, I interviewed Howard Elias, the Toronto-born founder of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, for CNNGo, where you can find a partial transcript of our conversation.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday November 12 2009at 04:11 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Film, History, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to “Asia’s Only Jewish Film Festival”

  • C. Szabla says:

    Interesting. I’ve tended to associate “Jews in East Asia” far more with Shanghai (excepting, of course, the Kaifeng Jews), though the Jewish community there dispersed long ago. Any idea why this wasn’t the case in HK? And what’s caused the Jewish population to balloon since the handover?

  • Vincci says:

    Thanks for that! I was in Hong Kong around this time last year and tried to go to the festival but unfortunately the film I wanted to see was sold out.

  • Chris, the only reason the Jewish community dispersed from Shanghai was because of the Japanese invasion and then (for those who stayed during the war) the Communist takeover. They were forced out. Nothing like that happened in Hong Kong, which suddenly became, after 1949, the only truly welcoming place for Jews in Asia.

    The swelling Jewish population after the handover probably has to do with a shift in the kinds of expats who come to Hong Kong — fewer Britons, more people from the rest of the world, including the US and Israel.

    Vincci, the festival sells out pretty quickly. I have a few screenings I want to see but they’re already filling up.

  • C. Szabla says:

    But the Japanese arguably treated Jews worse in HK than they did in Shanghai, interning all the remaining Jews at an army barracks rather than creating a restricted residential ghetto, and most of the Shanghai Jews fled before the advance of communism rather than be forced out. It’s possible many who left mainland China after the war wound up in Hong Kong and replentished the Jewish population, but many more left for Israel, so it’s surprising that there were enough Jews who stayed in HK after the occupation, and enough refugees who decided to stop there rather than make their way to Israel, that the Jewish community managed to remain stable.

    I’m still puzzled about the rise in the Jewish population post-handover. I guess the underlying question is why more Americans and Israelis migrate there now than Britons overall (and why they weren’t doing so before 1997), and/or why the percentage of Americans and other nationalities (beside Israelis) who come there are Jewish as opposed to the percentage of Britons. Was there a shift of emphasis in immigration controls?

  • I’m really just speculating and this is something that needs to be researched, but it’s possible that many of the Britons who worked here pre-handover were involved, directly or indirectly, in the colonial administration, or were people who took advantage of a visa-free work environment. But I was also surprised to see that the local Jewish population has more than doubled since 1998. Maybe those earlier numbers were inaccurate.

    As for why HK Jews didn’t leave after WWII, we’re really only talking about a community of a few hundred people, compared to tens of thousands of people in Shanghai, so it wouldn’t have taken more than a handful of committed families to keep things stable.