Colorful Jewish community contributed
much to Shanghai
One of the most interesting chapters in Shanghai's history
was the growth of a vibrant Jewish community last century
- exiles who found refuge in the city from hardship, war
Generally, the Jews who came to Shanghai were Sephardic
Jews (Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent) Ashkenazi Jews
(Jews of Eastern European ancestry) and Western European
The most conspicuous group was Sephardic Jews, who were
among the first foreign traders to come to the city. Initially,
they traded in cotton and similar goods and then became
involved in the opium trade.
Their business interests also extended to other areas including
real estate, banking, shipping and utilities. Their success
was helped by their being able to maximise family ties with
international Jewish communities.
Many Sephardic Jews had came to Shanghai from British-controlled
areas like Baghdad, Bombay and Hong Kong.
Well-known Sephardic families included the Sassoons, the
Hardoons and the Kadoories.
David Sassoon was one of Shanghai's most famous citizens.
Sassoon was one the first major Jewish traders in China.
Born in 1875, from a family of well-known Baghdad Jews,
he had come to Shanghai from Bombay.
As David Kranzler says in his book Japanese, Nazis &
Jews: the Jewish Refugee Community in Shanghai the city
offered great opportunities to people of David Sassoon's
"The advantages of Shanghai as an open city, with
all that that implied did not escape the sharp eye of many
an incoming merchant, including that of David Sassoon. Trade
in opium, tea and silk made wealthy tycoons of many petty
merchants in the course of the nineteenth century. An enormous
trade developed in Shanghai. Which by the 1930s had become
one of the largest ports in The world.
The firm, Dave Sassoon & Company was soon involved
in to cotton trade and began trading in opium in the early
1830s. After the Opium War ended in 1842, his company moved
its headquarters to Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Historian Betty Peh T'l Wei says in Old Shanghai that after
1871, David Sassoon controlled the opium market in Shanghai,
''but nevertheless, the family had gained sufficient influence
and power for his elder brother Abdullah Sassoon, who had
remained to supervise the family's business in Bombay, to
become a member of the Bombay Legislative council.
Perhaps the most famous member of Shanghai's Sassoon family
in the 20th century was Sir Victor Sassoon - who became
the chairman of the company, E D Sassoon.
One of the city's leading property developers in the 1930s,
he was responsible for the construction of buildings such
Mansions, Embankment House, and the Cathay Hotel - one of
"Sir Victor Sassoon cut a large figure in Shanghai
society, headily indulging his appetite for parties good
food, women, and horses'' says Stella Dong in Shanghai:
The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City. Horseracing was a
consuming passion of Sir Victor, who once remarked: "There
is only one race greater than the Jews and that is the Derby.''
Sir Victor walked with the aid of two sticks as the result
of injuries in the First World War, where he had served
in the Royal Flying Corps. He frequently claimed he would
never marry "as nobody would ever marry me except for
my money and position". However, shortly before his
death he married his nurse.
British-born Sir Victor deeply resented the anti-Semitism
of many of the British living in Shanghai. Jews, for example,
were forbidden to join the
British Country Club. Consequently, Shanghai's Jewish Community
established a Jewish Country Club on property owned by the
The Kadoorie family was a major force in Shanghai Jewish
life; one of their most famous members was Ely Kadoorie.
He began his career with David Sassoon in 1880 before launching
his own businesses and making a fortune from banking, real
estate and rubber production. The Kadoorie family now live
in Hong Kong where they are well-known for their contribution
to business and charity work.
The richest man in Shanghai by the time of his death in
1931 was Silas Hardoon. Like David Sassoon, he had been
born in Baghdad and was a brilliant businessman. Hardoon
made his fortune through property investments and was elected
to the Municipal Council of the International Settlement.
He took the unconventional step of marrying a Eurasian woman,
named Luo Jialing, and the couple adopted Chinese and Eurasian
children. He also developed a strong interest in Buddhism.
"The Hardoon's opulent lifestyle", says Betty
Peh T'l Wei, "was particularly noted with the Aili
Garden designed to be in the grand style of traditional
Chinese gardens, boasting also a temple and a school. After
the fall of the Ch'ing dynasty in 1911, it was said that
the Hardoons assumed the lifestyle of the court by entertaining
impoverished imperial concubines and employing eunuchs as
Shanghai's Ashkenazi community' was mostly Russian as well
as some Lithuanian Jews. Unlike the Sephardic Jews they
tended to run smaller businesses. Many were engaged in exporting
and importing, but they also produced professional people
and some prominent musicians.
Former Shanghai resident Yaacov Liberman notes in My China:
Jewish Life in the Orient 1900-1950 that the Sephardic and
Ashkenazi communities were quite distinct from one another.
''Even in 1941, two autonomous Jewish community structures
were fully operative in Shanghai... the two communities
rarely united in any joint exerts, with the exception of
aiding the absorption of thousands of refugees from Hitler's
Liberman says religious life for the Jews in Shanghai was
mainly limited to synagogue attendance on Holy Days and
Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. (By 1920, Shanghai had two synagogues:
the Ohel Rachel Synagogue and the Beth Aharon Synagogue).
Only a small percentage of the community was considered
to be orthodox" he says. None of us knew much about
either Reform or Conservative Judaism. However... most of
us united with our fellow Jews in attending synagogue service
on the High Holy days".
The contributions of Shanghai's Jews were many. Along with
their impact on the city's business and cultural life, They
had a significant impact on the media and publishing industries.
From 1936 until 1946, there were more than 50 Jewish newspapers
and magazines in the city publishing in a variety of languages
including Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Chinese, Japanese, English,
Russian, German and French.
Many Jews who lived in Shanghai during this time have fond
recollections of the city. Yaccov Liberman recalls that
"the liveliest focus of Jewish activity was the Jewish
Club of Shanghai. Although most members spent their time
at the Club card tables, others enjoyed bowling, billiards,
or snooker, table tennis, the Club's dining rooms and its
library, as well as the musical and theatrical performances.
The rise of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany - which intensified
in the late 1930s - forced a number of European and German
Jews to seek refuge in Shanghai. Many came to the city because
they had been denied access to other places and it did not
require a visa or passport. Between 1931 and 1941, 20,000
Jews took refuge in the city.
The plight of the Jews attracted the attention of Dr Sun
Yat-sen, the great Nationalist leader and founder of the
In a letter in 1920 to a leading member of the Shanghai
Jewish community, Dr Sun wrote: "Iraqi lovers of democracy
cannot help but support the movement to restore your wonderful
and historic nation, which has contributed so much to the
civilization of the world and which rightly deserves an
honorable mention in the family of nations"
Over a decade later, as news of Hitler's persecution of
the Jews spread, Dr Sun's wife, Song Ching Ling protested
to the German Consul in Shanghai.
"Likewise, Shanghai Jews also gave firm support to
the Chinese national-democratic movement and resistance
against Japanese aggression" says Pan Guang, a historian
with the China-Judiac Studies' Association.
"Hans Shippe, a writer and reporter from Germany,
was the first Jewish volunteer to fall in battle on china's
soil during her war against Japanese aggression." Other
Jews, who supported Chinese nationalism, were Morris 'Two
Gun' Cohen and Dr Jacob Rosenfield, who fought with the
communists against the Japanese.
The Japanese occupied Shanghai in 1941. Despite their brutality
to the Chinese, they generally did not persecute the Jews.
Indeed, many Japanese were anxious to co-operate with them.
Japan had been assisted by Jewish bankers providing them
loans during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Even the
rise of anti-Jewish feeling in the 1930s and the popularity
of anti-Semitic tracts, such at the Protocols of the Elders
of Zion, did not turn the Japanese into Jew haters.
As David Kranzler explains: "The key to the distinction
between the Japanese and European form of anti-semitism
seems to lie in the long Christian tradition of identifying
the Jew with the Devil, the Antichrist or someone otherwise
beyond redemption.... The Japanese lacked this Christian
image of the Jew and brought to their reading of the Protocols
a totally different perspective. The Christian tried to
solve the problem of the Jews by eliminating him; the Japanese
tried to harness his alleged immense wealth and power to
The attitude of the Japanese to the Jews by in large was
to treat them according to their nationalities - such as
Germans, Poles and so on.
However, some Nazi agents followed the Jews to Shanghai
in 1942 and tried to persuade the Japanese to build death
camps on Chongming Island. But instead in 1943, the Japanese
forced many Jews into a "Designated Area'' for stateless
refugees in Hongkou. "in 1943, when special privileges
enjoyed by foreigners in China came to an end as the unequal
treaties of the 19th century were formally abrogated by
agreement between China and the international powers, the
Jewish population in Shanghai was estimated to number 25,000"
says Betty Peh T'I Wei.
Nevertheless, the Jews in Shanghai felt little resentment
towards the Japanese, according to historian Bernard Wasserstein.
"The refugee Jews, while naturally anti-Nazi, were
not particularly hostile to the Japanese - to whom many
felt gratitude for affording them an escape hatch against
Nazi Europe. In general, the Jews preserved an attitude
of studied neutrality to the Far Eastern war" he adds.
After World War II ended in 1945, most of Shanghai's Jewish
community left the city for Israel, the United States and
The Jews helped make Shanghai a more interesting place.
They contributed much to the business and cultural life
of the city and their relations with the Shanghainese were
generally very good. Indeed, the Jews and the Chinese had
many things in common. Both races belong to very old cultures,
which emphasize hard work and the importance of education
and the family. Like the Shanghainese, the Jews were also
well known for their entrepreneurial flair. The Chinese
and the Jews also experienced great suffering during this
period: six million Jews died in the Nazi Holocaust and
35 million Chinese perished in the Sino-Japanese war.
While few Jews remained in Shanghai after World War II,
Those that lived there looked back on their time in the
city with great affection. Life had been happy and productive.
Above all, Shanghai provided a lucky few with a lifeline.
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