Yuri Vitalievitch SMIRNOFF (aka George) [1903-1947]

Submitted by brian edgar on Wed, 07/01/2015 - 18:09
Yuri Vitalievitch
Alias / nickname
(Day & Month are approximate.)
Birthplace (town, state)
(Day is approximate.)

Yuri Smirnoff left Russia with his mother at the start of the Bolshevik revolution. They moved to Harbin in northern China, where he qualified as an architect. He also married: Nina Pleshakoff. Irina, their first child, was born in 1934. He came to Hong Kong in 1937 - via Tsingtsao -  a common route for Russian emigres responding to Japanese actions in north China. In 1941 he was working as an architect for the firm of Marsman and Co. on the Air Raid Precautions scheme.

In the first year of the Japanese occupation he was employed to produce murals for the Japanese Public Works Scheme but was told his heart was not in it - which was true as he devoted most of his time to music and sketching in the office provided. He was suspected of spying by the Kempeitai and his home (near the Police Training School on Nathan Road) searched a number of times. When illegal liquor (a few bottles of home-made vodka) was found, he spent a short time in Stanley Prison, meeting some of those later executed for espionage. He was released under an amnesty and decided to leave for Macao with Irina. This seems to have been in late 1943 or early 1944 as he was 'bombed out of his house' when it was hit during an American air raid of Tsimshatsui on December 1, 1943.

He left behind him cartoons of various Japanese officials which were sometimes left conspicuously in public places as acts of resistance.

His wife, Nina, stayed behind in Hong Kong with their second daughter, also Nina, and their young son, Alexander. They eventually joined him in Macao.

While working to support himself in Macao, he also found time to paint, and he is now considered one of the most distinguished painters of the territory.

He returned to Hong Kong in October 1945 to work for the Public Works Department.



Hong Kong Sunday Herald, October 28, 1945, 3

Jurors List for 1941



Connections: This person is ...

Photos that show this Person



For the record, George Vitalievich Smirnoff was born on 27 October 1903.

It hardly matters now, but my father was never known as Yuri.  Yuri is just the Russian form of George.  Because so many thousands of Russians were refugees fleeing the USSR when he was young, they all spoke to each other in Russian.  As the refugees moved around they picked up other languages and, as you know, in Hongkong at that time it was strictly survival time.

George Smirnoff was buried in Hongkong. His grave is at the Happy Valley Cemetery very close to the entrance.  It has an approx. 4 ft tall Russian cross.  The stone is of white marble but I'm told it has become quite weathered.

During 1944-1945, George and his family left Hong Kong for the relative safety of Macau. While in Macau he painted a series of watercolours.

There was an exhibition of his paintings to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, and the writeup has more information about him and his background: http://www.mam.gov.mo/oldmam/shows/smirnoff/english/safeharbour_e.htm

His daughter Irene has also written about those years at: http://gwulo.com/node/35127

The first article says that the Smirnoff home was "bombed" perhaps in 1943. Actually, I am pretty certain that it was the very first American air raid on Hong Kong during the War which occurred on the 25th October, 1942. By a strange coincidence, my elder brother and I were visiting the two Smirnoff girls, Irina and Nina, when that air raid took place. The Smirnoffs lived on the top 3rd floor of an apartment building which had six apartments. There was a dividing wall between the  6 flats, and the building had two entrances. During the air raid, we heard lots of bombs whistling down before exploding. Then we heard a bomb whistling down, but instead of an explosion there were several loud thumps. That was a 500 lb bomb hitting the roof of the adjoining section of the building, and then crashing down several floors before landing on the ground floor, WITHOUT exploding. It lay there just a few feet away from us on the other side of a thin dividing wall. Several days after the air raid, I went back to the site and managed to sneak past the Japanese sentries and had a look at that bomb lying on its side. It looked pretty ugly to me!

One of the most energetic people I have met since my arrival in Hongkong is Mr. George V. Smirnoff, an interesting and clever Russian painter. Eight months ago Mr. Smirnoff arrived in the Colony to take up his duties as an architect and engineer with Marsmans, but all his spare time is devoted, like Joseph Orban, the famous Austrian architect in New York, to painting pictures in oils and pastels.
His work is largely influenced by the Russian school, of which Levitan was the founder, and which came to prominence toward the end of the last century. It encourages spiritual impressions rather than realistic ones. This school also follows a certain amount of French technique and expression, and the idea that life in the shape of people or animals is unnecessary.
Mr. Smirnoff handles sunshine and cloudy scenes cleverly. One particularly interesting piece of his work is done with the palette knife; it deals with sea and a small sailing boat.
Shortly he hopes to have an exhibition, and, strange to say, two of the subjects to which he intends to devote much time will not be some of the surrounding scenery. One will be the Victoria monument, with the Hongkong bank in the background, and the other a submarine and a Chinese junk, on the lines of “ships that pass in the night”.
This Russian artist spent 25 years in Harbin before coming to Hongkong. There he was connected with many societies, and devoted much of his time to decor for the theater, specializing in light opera and ballet. This he found particularly interesting as there are more freedom in scope for the imagination, and it is the one occasion he enjoys to introduce modern work.
Mr. Smirnoff intends to build a studio in Cheung Chau, where he will entertain from time to time the artists of the Colony. He hopes to hold his exhibition next month and will exhibit about 70 pictures.

By Paddy. South China Morning Post, June 14, 1939, p. 5.

Mr. G. V. Smirnoff
Mr George V. Smirnoff, well-known Russian civil engineer and architect, was found dead in the courtyard of his house at 15 Cameron Road about 10:30 p.m. on Thursday. According to a police report, Mr. Smirnoff either jumped or fell from the bathroom of his house, which was on the third floor.
The late Mr. Smirnoff, who was 44, leaves a widow and three children. He graduated form the Harbim Polytechnical Institute in 1927 and was for some years in Tsingtao where he successfully practiced as an architect and designed a number of villas and bungalows.
He came to Hongkong in 1938 and was associated with Messrs Marsmans Ltd until the outbreak of the Pacific War. He spent the latter part of the war years in Macao.
Returning to Hong Kong in October 1945 he was connected until the end of the last year with the Architectural Office, Public Works Department. Of late months, he was in indifferent health and was convalescing from a disease of the nerves prior to returning again to Marsmans.
An able painter in both water colours and oils, Mr. Smirnoff had been, prior to the war, an enthusiastic member of the local Artists’ Guild, organizing a number of exhibitions. A requiem mass was held yesterday evening at the Russian Orthodox Church, Kowloon, and the funeral takes place at 3 PM today at the Colonial Cemetery, happy Valley.
South-China Morning Post, Feb 8, 1947, p. 6.