Interview with Postdoctoral Visiting Fellow Kimberly Cheng

June 15, 2023

We recently sat down with our current Postdoctoral Visiting Fellow Dr. Kimberly Cheng, to discuss her current research, the challenges and opportunities of working as a visiting fellow at the GHI, and her insights into the field of historical research.

Dr. Cheng joined the GHI Washington as a postdoctoral visiting fellow in Fall 2022. She is a migration specialist, trained in Modern Jewish History, the Holocaust, and Modern Chinese History. Her research broadly centers around encounters between Jewish and Chinese populations in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Dr. Cheng received her PhD from the Joint PhD Program in Hebrew and Judaic Studies and History at New York University in 2022. Her dissertation focused on Central European Jewish refugee migration to China during World War II.

In her current research project, “Chinese Foreign Nationals in Nazi and Postwar Germany,” Dr. Cheng sheds light on a little-known aspect of history and examines the experiences of Chinese immigrants during a tumultuous and traumatic time in German history. In her project she seeks to untangle the varying conceptions of citizenship, foreignness, class, gender, and sexuality that factored into the racialization of Chinese people in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Specifically, her work will survey the types of daily life encounters that Chinese people shared with Germans and German Jews on the ground.

We are happy to have Dr Cheng join our current  Fellows cohort and we hope this interview can give some insight into life as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the GHI Washington.

Can you tell us a little about your academic career prior to the GHI?

In the fall of 2022, I graduated from the Joint PhD program in History/Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, where I was trained in Modern Jewish History and Modern Chinese History. I wrote my dissertation on German-speaking Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Europe for Shanghai, China. Before I started my PhD program, I earned an M.S. in education in 2015 and I focused on community-building in K-12 classrooms.

What made you apply to GHI?

While I was in graduate school, I had the good fortune of being involved in a lot of the GHI’s academic programming. In 2019, I took part in the GHI’s “In Global Transit: Forced Migration of Jews and Other Refugees (1940s-1960s)” conference in Berkeley, California, and then I continued to participate in the “In Global Transit” and “In Search of the Migrant Child” international standing working groups. I really appreciated the input and feedback that everyone at the GHI gave me for my dissertation project, so I knew the GHI would be a supportive and welcoming place to undertake my postdoctoral research.

What challenges do you face and what do you hope to achieve?

The challenges with my research on Chinese foreign nationals in Nazi Germany are that they left behind very few records, and often their records are not particularly detailed. For example, I have registration files of various sorts for a few Chinese individuals, which do not have much on them besides the individual’s name and address. Then for those same individuals, I basically have no other remaining records about them other than that. So, piecing together an overarching history with such disparate sources has been tough for me. 

What led you to specialize in Migration and Transnational History?

My parents both immigrated from Asia to the United States in the 1960s, so my family history is transnational and one of migration, and I have always been interested in questions of identity and belonging in diasporic communities.

How can migration history change our understanding of how we approach citizenship, foreignness and identity?

I think migration history helps elucidate the feelings, knowledge, and agency that migrants possess. As someone who studies refugees and forced migration, I think this is so pivotal, because historically and contemporarily, so many discussions about refugees have centered around concerns about dependency and have overlooked the human and lived experiences of forced migrants. 

What made you focus on the lives of Chinese individuals in Nazi Germany?

When I started graduate school, I actually had no clue that there were Chinese people who lived through World War II in Nazi Europe. I think it’s an interesting case study in history because their stories are quite varied. Some Chinese individuals lived through the war in Germany without any major disruption to their daily lives, and others ended up in concentration camps. I think the story of Chinese nationals in Nazi Germany tells us a lot about the formation of race and racism and the application of law at that time. 

Could you tell us more about your research project?

In Nazi Germany, the Chinese population peaked at about 1,600 people and was mostly made up of men. They were ship workers, merchants, circus performers, and foreign students across the spectrum of political inclinations. Although Hitler considered Chinese people as one of the world’s weakest races and utterly unfit for German life, Chinese nationals’ foreign citizenship, socio-economic status, and small numbers seemingly spared them from racial persecution at times. Some Chinese men were even able to extend the limited protection they derived by virtue of their foreign citizenship to German Jewish women they married, thereby exempting these women from deportation. 

What do you hope to achieve in Washington?

My goal in Washington is to survey what published primary sources exist on Chinese nationals in Nazi and postwar Germany, especially memoirs, auto-biographies, and oral history testimonies. Additionally, I have been relying on resources at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives, the Library of Congress, and the United States National Archives and Records Administration.  

What are your plans after leaving GHI?

I hope to stay in Washington after my fellowship and work in either research or academic programming. I plan to continue my personal research and see my projects through to publication.

What do you like about Washington DC?

I like how international the city is, and I think it’s a beautiful city to walk around in. I also appreciate that most of the museums are free!