Project Interview: Ryan Sun

Ryan Sun (he/him) is a 5th year PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto specializing in History and double minoring in German and English. He also spent a summer abroad at Akita International University studying Japanese. He moved to Vancouver to pursue his MA in History at UBC. Throughout his PhD, he was fortunate enough to secure various opportunities to expand his academic and professional horizons. In May 2020, he helped organize an online workshop on Hong Kong History. In February 2022, he spent a month at the Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research of the University of South California as the Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Research Fellow. In June 2022, he was selected to participate in the Summer Institute on the Holocaust and Jewish Civilization at Royal Holloway University. During this same time, he interned as a Digital Projects Coordinator for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. He’s also worked for the City of Vancouver conducting research into their Green Rainwater Infrastructure. He is currently the Junior Editor for the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association.

Q: What is the title of your research project?

A: The title of my project is currently “Shelters Interrupted: Jewish refugees’ journeys to Hong Kong and Singapore (1938-1941)”

Q: What was the main focus of your research project during your time as fellow in the Centre?

A: The main focus of this research project was to examine the in-between spaces of refuge. In the literature on Jewish refugees in East Asia, a lot has been written on Shanghai as this “port of last resort” that all Central European Jews could escape to because the city had no visa requirements. However, not much has been discussed about the journeys themselves. When I followed the movement by ship of Jewish refugees from Europe to Shanghai, I found that there was more to this story that had been overlooked. Centering on the destination obscured the broader geography of imagined refuges that Jewish refugees sought out. That is how Hong Kong and Singapore emerged as potential shelters – as stopovers on the way to Shanghai. Many Central European Jewish refugees were trying to make contact with the local Jewish communities and refugee organization to find jobs or any possibility of staying. In Singapore, the Jewish Refugee Committee established a group that would board each ship that had Jewish refugees, interview them, and select a few who they believed could get a job. In contrast, the smaller Jewish Refugee Society in Hong Kong primarily offered material and financial aid to transiting individuals but interviewed refugees and kept their CVs so that when a position opened up, they could be contacted. In both cases, the possibility of shelter was limited by a restrictive colonial immigration policy as well as the local Jewish community’s desire to maintain their social status within colonial society. But despite these challenges, a few Jewish refugees were able to break through and find shelter in Hong Kong and Singapore! This demonstrates how a journey-oriented approach can reveal lesser-known spaces that a destination-centered focus may overlook.

Q: What drew you to this research project?

A: I started out just wanting to know more about Hong Kong, the city where I was born. During my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, I took a Holocaust history course taught by Dr. Doris Bergen. In one of her lectures, she mentioned how Shanghai became the major shelter for Jewish refugees in East Asia. That got me thinking about the possibility of Hong Kong as a shelter. Since it was on the way to Shanghai, I thought that there had to be something, right? And it turned out, there was! And that spiraled into my graduate research.

Q: How did the UBC Centre of European Studies support your research project?

A: The UBC Centre for European Studies has been extremely beneficial. I’ve been able to attend a few CES-organized lectures and events, as well as get to know some of the other graduate students that work in Buchanan Tower. In terms of research, the funding allowed me to order scans of a US immigration folder for one the individuals I follow in my dissertation, Arthur Machol. I’ve been writing about him for some time now. Except for a prison intake form that listed his physical descriptions, I did not know how he looked. Surprisingly in that folder was a 1947 passport photograph of Arthur! It felt rather cathartic to finally see a picture of him.

Q: What are your plans after the fellowship and after your time at UBC?

A: After the fellowship, I intend to continue writing the dissertation. I have drafts of chapter 1 and 2 completed, and an outline for chapters 3-5 worked out. In July, I will be attending a three-day refugee studies seminar in Germany. Afterwards, back to the writing.

Ryan Sun (he/him) was a 2024 CES Graduate Research Fellow. This interview was conducted by CES Project Assistant Braden Russell.