Off the Shelf: Jews and Shanghai by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Most Jewish histories focus on Europe, the United States or the Middle East. That’s understandable since the majority of Jews throughout the centuries lived in those areas. While perhaps not as rich in Jewish history, China offers some lesser known, but fascinating, stories about two Jewish families – the Sassoons and Kadoories – both of whom left Iraq and made their fortunes in Asia. A look at their lives and accomplishments can be found in “The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China” by Jonathan Kaufman (Viking). Kaufman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, notes the unusual role the families had in China and that their doings have often been dismissed or ignored.

Kaufman’s clear and easy prose offers great details about the most important members of the family. The Sassoon dynasty began when David Sassoon left Iraq in 1829 after backing the wrong political party. Fortunately, his influential family was able to help him when he moved first to India and then to Shanghai. The family made its fortune through a variety of industries, including the opium trade. David needed workers he could trust and opened Sassoon schools for Jewish refugees. The teenagers were taught a variety of approved subjects and then hired as clerks in Sassoon warehouses or sent to purchase supplies for Sassoon industries. David also built his own hospital, offered additional training at another Sassoon school, helped retirees who had no family to aid them and endowed a cemetery where they could be buried.

One of these workers was Elly Kadoories, who began working for Sassoon when he was 15, but who quit after Sassoon management rebuked him for giving out disinfectant without permission to Chinese workers during a plague. Unlike the Sassoons, who generally partnered with the British, Elly formed some partnerships with the Chinese. Both families became enormously successful and that success continued for more than a century. Unfortunately, both families misread what was happening in China after World War II: they underestimated the appeal of the Chinese communists and just how resentful the Chinese were of outsiders who profited off their country, but cared little for the natives who lived in poverty. 

While the details of the businesses and the different personalities from both families were absorbing and interesting, what stood out was the families’ interactions with other Europeans and Chinese. For example, the Sassoon family had little difficulty becoming British citizens and believed they belonged to the upper crust of society, especially when members of the family became friends with Edward (Bertie), the prince of Wales. Kaufman notes, though, “The Sassoons, collecting knighthoods and royal invitations and enjoying dinner and weight-loss cures with the heir to the British throne, saw themselves as British. The Chinese, seeing the Sassoon business interests advancing beneath the Union Jack, saw the Sassoons as British. But many British saw the Sassoons as Jews.” This is particularly true for the Chinese during the years the family was involved in the opium trade. At the time, the trade was legal and the Sassoons were concerned with making money, not with people’s health. But the racism underlying this response is noted by the fact that, as Kaufman notes, “The Sassoons avoided the drug themselves, and they, like many British in Shanghai, scolded and rebuked any Westerners they saw using it, especially when they developed the sallow yellow color of an addict.” 

Both families helped Jewish refugees before and during World War II, although they also suffered at the hands of the Japanese once the United States entered the war. Ho Fen-Shan, a Chinese diplomat in Austria, helped create the influx of refugees by issuing visas to Shanghai, which allowed them to leave the country. When the Japanese captured Hong Kong, they treated the Jewish community relatively well at first. They believed the Jewish community of Shanghai could influence U.S. government policy, even though few Jews in China had any American connections. The relationship between the Japanese and the Jews became more difficult after the U.S. entered the war and Nazi influence in China increased. 

The Kadoories had far more trouble becoming British citizens and always felt like outsiders. This may help explain why, after World War II, Horace Kadoorie helped Chinese refugees who were fleeing from the communists. He began loaning money interest free to Chinese farmers, helping them to buy land and livestock. With the formation of an agricultural aid society, he continued making small loans, which, when repaid, were given to another farmer. Horace also arranged for other improvements, including building the first paved roads in the area. In addition, he funded research to find a heartier breed of pigs that were easier for the farmers to raise. Even though Horace kept kosher, he knew that pork was a popular meat in China. Kaufman notes that “the [Chinese] farmers had a saying: ‘The Kadoories know everything about pigs except the taste.”

Kaufman’s summation of the families’ histories may leave readers with mixed feelings. Their business accomplishments were remarkable. But, as the author notes, “The fortunes made by the Sassoons and the Kadoories were built on low wages and unfair competition. They exacerbated inequality that left the Chinese dying in the streets of Shanghai even as the Kadoories danced at Marble Hall and [one of the Sassoons] presided over his extravagant parties at the Cathy Hotel. They fueled the rise of the Chinese Communist Party and its triumph.” They also inspired the Chinese to follow their example and helped move China from a feudal country to a modern one. The Sassoons believed in a global economy; the Kadoories were active in charity and tikkun olam. The families made their fortunes in the 19th and 20th centuries when laissez-faire capitalism ruled the world. Whether it’s fair to judge them by 21st century standards is for readers to decide. But this fascinating chapter of Jewish life is worth exploring for anyone interested in Jewish or Chinese history.