Chinese often claim a special relationship, sometimes verging on kinship, with Jews. The origins and reasons remain unclear but it may be at least in part due to two Jewish families—the Sassoons and their rivals, the Kadoories—both of whom played lasting roles in the development of two of China’s most modern cities: Shanghai and its rival, Hong Kong.
Jonathan Kaufman’s new book, The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China, is the story of these two prominent families. At a time when the US (and the West in general) is re-evaluating commercial and business ties with China, to an extent where they are under threat, it is useful to look back to a previous era when Western-style business took hold in at least two concentrated areas in China to the extent that it affected economic and social development. One can examine this either through broad-brush economics, or through the stories of individuals. Kaufmann has here done the latter.
While not apparent from the title, the book is set in Hong Kong as much as Shanghai. Although the connections go a long way back, they became particularly important when many Shanghai tycoons moved to Hong Kong around 1949, sometimes starting over with nothing.
This theme of starting over appears early in the book when family patriarch David Sassoon was driven out of Baghdad in the early 1800s due to anti-Jewish attacks. After setting up offices in Bombay, he started a global empire selling such commodities as spices, silk and metals. Shanghai became one of these outposts.
Companies like Jardine Matheson ventured to Shanghai for great profits in opium peddling. The Sassoons did, too, and soon surpassed Jardines as the largest opium dealer in China. Kaufman doesn’t offer any apologies for the Sassoons’s activities in China, namely Shanghai, and writes that they were solely driven by profit.
In the Sassoon conglomerate, relatives or other Baghdadi Jews were sent to staff these outposts. One was Eleazer (Elly) Kadoorie from Bombay. Traveling up and down the China coast for the Sassoons, Elly Kadoorie learned business firsthand. By the age of 18, he had already learned that his business philosophy differed from that of the Sassoons. Left in charge of their offices in the British enclave of Weihaiwei when
Elly’s bosses were away on vacation and visiting other outposts. Temporarily in charge of the warehouse, Elly took a barrel of disinfectant out of storage and doused the building to repel the fleas and rats that were spreading the disease. When people started dying near the warehouse, Elly offered disinfectant to Chinese employees. For those who couldn’t pay, he agreed to take payment later. When the senior managers returned, they reprimanded Elly for using the disinfectant without permission.
Throughout the book, the Kadoorie family will be portrayed as more forward-thinking than the Sassoons.
Victor Sassoon, sent to Shanghai in the 1920s to run the family business, transformed the city’s skyline by constructing several buildings that still stand today, including the Peace Hotel and Embankment Building. Known for hosting the most lavish parties in town, Sir Victor showed his philanthropic side when tens of thousands of Jewish refugees flocked to Shanghai in the late 1930s. He only helped out at the request of Elly Kadoorie.
The two weren’t used to working together, and didn’t take the same view of Judaism. While the Kadoories believed in Zionism, Victor Sassoon viewed himself as Jewish in name only. But Sir Victor came through and helped the Kadoories with refugee relief.
The Kadoories have been much less written about than the Sassoons. Elly mentored his two sons, Lawrence and Horace, to become leaders in Hong Kong at a time when the city’s future was not at all certain. And the Kadoories’s experience during WWII played a large part in their long-term investment in Hong Kong. With nothing else to do but survive and care for his father during the Japanese occupation, Lawrence mapped out ways to rebuild Hong Kong while he was interned. Elly died in Shanghai under Japanese occupation, and the sons were on their own at the conclusion of the war. Victor Sassoon, on the other hand, was out of Shanghai during WWII and left the city for good before 1949, cutting his losses.
Kaufman includes some fascinating side stories, for example Elly’s friendships with prominent Shanghai families and how he mentored them in Western business practices. Kaufman uses the example of Rong Yiren, the son of a family that made their millions in cotton and flour mills. Rong stayed in Shanghai to work with the Communists after 1949, which didn’t go as smoothly as he imagined. But with the blessing of the Chinese government years later, Rong sent his son, Larry Yung, to Hong Kong to start overseeing China’s business interests there. It was in Hong Kong that new generations of Shanghai business families thrived, including the Kadoories.
This is one book that perhaps should have been a bit longer than it is. Kaufmann writes in detail about the various buildings the Sasoons and Kadoories commissioned and names the hotels. One could use this book to tour Shanghai and Hong Kong buildings; there are many in the book that still remain. Yet Kaufman never mentions the names of the synagogues in Shanghai—one of which was built by the Sassoons—when they appear in the book. The only synagogue named is Ohel Leah in Hong Kong, but he does not connect it to the Sassoon family, who had it built in 1901-02. For a book about prominent Jewish families in Shanghai and Hong Kong, it’s a curious omission.
British colonialism was a curiously multicultural and multi-ethnic affair. One commercial empire was built by a Middle Eastern Jewish family who piggy-backed off the British Empire in India to enter China. Another started up in China itself. The Kadoories, meanwhile, have found their place in, and been embraced by, post-Colonial Hong Kong: creatures of empire, they have survived its demise.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.