Recent weeks have seen a refugee exodus, from war-shattered Ukraine , unprecedented in Europe since the end of World War II. Too often overlooked in today’s callous world, refugees are the people to encourage in their new lives elsewhere. Brave people with the get-up-and-go to flee desperate circumstances in the hope of making a better tomorrow somewhere else generally try their best to succeed when they reach lasting safety. With few exceptions, refugees make superb new citizens in those places that give them sanctuary in their time of need, and abiding gratitude is also firmly instilled into the next generation. How do refugees make a living when some of the places they end up – such as Hong Kong – prevent them from legitimately working? Artistic talent, or other cultural skills, such as musical or theatrical ability, are often the only portable assets a desperate person can take on their flight to safety. History shows these skills can be later deployed to marvellous, long-remembered effect. Late 1930s Shanghai, in particular, was internationally known for the superb chamber orchestras staffed by cultured Central European refugees, mostly Jews escaping the spread of Nazism . On a more popular level, dance bands and music schools provided employment opportunities for many. A common feature in the homes of people who lived in Hong Kong in the late 1940s and ’50s are framed, high-quality pastel portraits – sometimes of adults, but more usually of children or younger teenagers. Son of Holocaust survivor says thanks to Shanghai with father’s art When I first noticed these works many years ago, their similarity in style quickly made me realise they must have been done by the same artist. Sure enough, inquiries revealed common threads that unravelled into the same backstory. In the aftermath of the Chinese civil war , a neatly dressed, evidently well-educated and cultured older Chinese man – an émigré northerner from his distinctive accent and tall, robust build – went around the various blocks of flats and government quarters in Hong Kong, mostly on The Peak to start with , where many affluent European residents lived at the time. He carried a leather folder containing a few display samples of his artwork, which he showed and offered to do individual or group portraits for a modest fee. After a few people tried him out, and found his work was invariably excellent, swiftly completed and reasonably priced, word rapidly spread. Soon, he had developed a steady clientele; when people came and went through Hong Kong, and as children grew up, demand for new portraits continued. A modest living – but a living, nevertheless – could be made in this way. Various old-timers remembered the artist warmly, but couldn’t agree on his name – some said he was Mr Chen, others maintained he was Mr Chow. Most just knew him as the elderly Chinese artist who came around the flats from time to time – a man of few words, one said; on this detail, everyone agreed. The artworks themselves revealed no clue beyond a small, indecipherable signature swirl in the corner, and an immediately recognisable personal style; he never used watercolour, acrylic, oils or other media – pastel on matte paper was his only format. At some point in the late ’50s, or even earlier, the artist suddenly stopped his periodic rounds of the married quarters, and the output ended. Again, no one recalled what had become of him; whether he emigrated, retired or perhaps died, no one knew. In the manner of refugees, since time immemorial, the émigré northern Chinese portraitist came and went. Decades later, all that remained to mark his Hong Kong sojourn were these distinctive pastel artworks, now scattered all over the world, from Melbourne, Australia to Sheffield, England.