China’s largely vanished White Russian diaspora, who escaped as refugees from the 1917 Bolshevik revolution to Harbin, Tientsin (Tianjin), Shanghai, Hong Kong and beyond, made outstanding contributions to the local art and music worlds, and general civic life, for more than half a century.
The community contained many remarkable individuals.
Creating a new life demanded deep self-reliance; while some refugees found the unequal struggle too much, others thrived on the challenge and lived inspirational and diverse lives.
Among the most impressive White Russians was Colonel Solomon Bard, who recently passed away in Sydney, Australia, aged 98.
Fondly known to friends as Solly, Bard’s death draws a final line under a multilayered life that connected the broader White Russian story to Hong Kong public life for half a century.
Born in Siberia, Bard’s family fled to Harbin, in Manchuria, when he was a child. After his parents migrated to Argentina, he lived in Shanghai, and as a teenager put himself through school by playing the violin in the city’s nightclubs. On graduation, in 1934, he enrolled in medical studies at the University of Hong Kong.
A medical officer with the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps (HKVDC) when the Japanese invaded the colony in 1941, Bard spent the occupation as a prisoner of war (POW).
During this time, in addition to organising a number of popular prison-camp concerts, his musical skills had other, more dramatic uses.
Bard’s violin played a key role in the last successful escape from Sham Shui Po POW camp in April 1942. A party led by Lieutenant Douglas Clague (later Sir Douglas Clague, chairman of Hutchison International) intended to flee down drainage culverts to leave the camp undetected. Bard was to act as a lookout near the drain’s manhole cover. Ostensibly practising his violin, when Japanese guards were in the vicinity, he would play manically from a random selection of tunes, including the hit Stormy Weather.
When the guards walked away, he stopped playing. Noise indicated danger, silence was the all clear.
When the escape was discovered, the aftermath was savage, and Bard remained deeply reluctant, until the end of his life, to talk about it.
The Japanese pressed those who had slept near the escapees for details of who had helped them. Bard’s name was mentioned, but misheard. Mr Beard – the elderly manager of the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute – was taken off instead, and Bard was never interrogated.
Bard’s involvement with the HKVDC continued long after the war and culminated in his appointment as honorary colonel.
Post-war work as a doctor at HKU, where he set up the student health service, was juggled with part-time careers in music and archaeology.
The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra were both products of his talent and enthusiasm.
In his 90s, Bard still regularly appeared as a guest conductor, elegant and energetic in a long, flowing cheongsam.
Bard was also the founding director of the Antiquities and Monuments Office, and helped restore ancient fortifications in Tung Lung Chau and Lantau, among other places.
His archaeological interest in Hong Kong remained long after he finally “retired” to Australia.
In recent years, Solly could still be regularly encountered during the summer at some remote archaeological dig in the New Territories, actively involved and enduringly enthusiastic, despite the intense heat and heavy physical work.