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Silas Aaron Hardoon (1851-1931): Business, Politics and Philanthropy in Republican Shanghai, 1911-1931

by Chiara Betta

University of Indianapolis, Athens (UIA)
Condensed from the original paper by Chiara Betta, who holds the copyright

Hardoon and Trade Diaspora of Baghdadi Jews

“Salih Harun” or “Saleh Haron”, then Anglicised as Silas Aaron Hardoon, was born to a poor Jewish family in the city of Baghdad in 1851. Five years later the Hardoons left the ailing Ottoman empire and, like other Jews of the Baghdad area, searched for fortune in Bombay. Once they arrived in the city they found protection under the wing of the local “Baghdadian Jewish trading community” that was headed by David Sassoon, a merchant-prince, renowned philanthropist and the scion of Baghdad’s most eminent Jewish family. Hardoon attended a charitable school funded by Sassoon and, as an adolescent, he joined the firm D. Sassoon & Co., which supervised a large commercial empire. In 1868, after his employers had noticed his remarkable business acumen, he was sent to Hong Kong to gain experience of the Chinese market. However, six years later he was, for some unknown reason, suddenly dismissed. Penniless, he took a third-class deck passage to Shanghai where the tiny local community of Baghdadi Jews helped him to secure a badly paid job as rent collector and godown watchman at the local branch of David Sassoon, Sons & Co.

Most importantly, Baghdadi Jewish communities of Shanghai and Hong Kong represented individual “nodes” of the trade diaspora of Baghdadi Jews which extended from London to Shanghai and operated under the aegis of the British Empire. As a result of their ancillary position to the British, Baghdadi Jews who lived outside the Ottoman empire underwent a notable process of Anglicisation after the middle of the nineteenth century. They discarded their traditional dress, adopted English tastes and manners and lived a culturally hybrid lifestyle in westernised domestic spaces. Hardoon himself wore Western dress, spoke English, though with a thick Arabic accent, drank whiskey and took on the British passion for gardening.

From Rags to Riches

From the first moment Hardoon moved to Shanghai, he could foresee the exceptional development of the city’s foreign settlements, areas administered by foreign municipal councils, which blossomed into a westernised metropolis by the beginning of the twentieth century. Thanks to his commercial shrewdness he quickly rose among the local ranks of D Sassoon, Sons & Co and secured exceptionally profitable real estate deals on behalf of his employers. At the same time he also invested his own savings in land and constantly acquired pieces of property which yielded him good rents for re-investments in other lots.

By 1882 Hardoon switched his interest to the cotton market. He left D Sassoon, Sons & Co and established a cotton brokerage, a venture that failed within a short time. In 1886 he then resumed his career as real estate developer at E D Sassoon & Co, which had been established by David Sassoon’s second son Elias David in 1867. In less than a decade Hardoon, who was in charge of real estate investments and also of opium dealings, was appointed partner and was in effect one of the firm’s most valuable assets. His entrance in Shanghai’s commercial elite was then marked by his appearance in 1893 as a member of the Shanghai club, Shanghai’s leading British club.

Whilst working for E D Sassoon & Co Hardoon continued to invest all his savings in real estate in the International Settlement. Since he constantly lacked liquid capital he raised cash for real estate investments by mortgaging his properties and also by dealing in opium, a legal commodity between 1858 and 1918. Thus in Chinese Shanghai Hardoon was known as a dealer of tu, a word that meant both land and opium. By 1911, when he finally left E D Sassoon & Co, he owned large land assets in the Central and Western districts of the International Settlement and was in the process of acquiring properties on Nanking Road, which became Shanghai’s most fashionable commercial thoroughfare within a few years. As a result, prices of properties along the road skyrocketed prompting Hardoon to become by one of Shanghai’s wealthiest men.

“Going Native”

At the beginning of the Republican period Hardoon was not only Shanghai’s main real estate tycoon but also the only prominent foreign merchant who had established close and intimate ties with the Chinese socio-cultural milieu. Since his arrival in Shanghai Hardoon had, in fact, undergone a notable and gradual process of cross-cultural adaptation in the Chinese environment and, as a result, had absorbed Chinese patterns of behaviour and had adopted an increasingly Chinese lifestyle.

The main force behind Hardoon’s increasingly close relationship with Chinese society was his wife Luo Jialing (Liza Roos) (1864-1941), a Buddhist Eurasian – possibly of Jewish origin (see note below) - who completely identified with her Chinese background. She was a staunch Buddhist, believed in ancestor worship, used only Chinese medicine and appreciated Chinese popular culture. Since she did not have natural children she manipulated the Chinese traditional family system and at the turn of the twentieth century she adopted a number of Chinese children in order not to turn into a “hungry ghost” after death. She also set up her own lineage trust, Luo Chunjia tang. As a result Hardoon enjoyed access to Chinese kinship networks which he readily exploited to foster his position in Chinese society. It should then be added that after 1919 the Hardoons also adopted together foreign children who were brought up according to the Jewish faith.

Luo Jialing, who combined an innate cleverness with a hugely manipulative personality, exerted a strong influence over her husband. In 1898 she convinced Hardoon to give hospitality to the Buddhist monk Huang Zongyang (1865-1921) who, within a short time, became the Hardoons’ main advisor. Most importantly, in 1903 Huang introduced the Hardoons to intellectual circles during the Subao case which marked the emergence of the revolutionary anti-Manchu movement in Shanghai in 1903-4. Huang also designed the Aili Garden [Aili huayuan], a traditional landscape garden that became the Hardoons’ main residence around 1909. Within its secluded walls the Hardoons hobnobbed with Chinese dignitaries, fostered Buddhist activities and, as will be shown below, also establised neo-traditionalist enterprises. Not surprisingly, Shanghainese, especially the petty urbanites [xiao shimin], gossiped in local tea houses about the mysteries of the Aili Garden, which were exposed in popular literature of the Mandarin Ducks and Butterfly genre.

On April 1,1912 Yvan Shikai was appointed President of the Chinese Republic; he had persuaded the last Chinese Emporer to abdicate voluntarily. Hardoon, who did not held any sympathy for Yuan, maintained a low profile in the Chinese political arena. He resumed an active role only in the months that followed Yuan’s death in June 1916 when eminent personalities of the anti-Yuan camp organised sumptuous banquets in the Aili Garden. These gatherings, like other similar events held in Hardoon’s residence, refined Hardoon’s perception of the Chinese political arena and at the same time helped him to expand his ties within prominent Chinese circles. More specifically, such banquets prompted Hardoon to form exchange relationships which helped him to navigate and remain afloat in the Chinese political arena in the following decade.

Strictly prohibited to Quote, Summarise or Reproduce that paper without written permission from the copyright holder, Chiara Betta

Note: A Shanghai Jew, M Myers maintained that Hardoon had revealed to him that Luo Jianling’s father was a French Jew.


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