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December 1, 2020 in Library Corner
By Robin Jacobson.
The intertwined history of two Baghdadi Jewish families in China – the Sassoon and Kadoorie families – is the stuff of epic novels. The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties that Helped Create Modern China by Jonathan Kaufman vividly tells the families’ drama-filled story of ambition, generosity, and exploitation within a world of successive wars and societal upheaval. Kaufman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who has reported on China for 30 years, including as China bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.
Kaufman’s multigenerational tale begins with David Sassoon. In 1829, David fled Baghdad, where his illustrious family had prospered for 800 years, to escape angry Baghdadi rulers who threatened to hang him. Within a dozen years, David rebuilt his fortune in Bombay. To expand his business globally, he strategically deployed his eight sons in far-flung cities. In 1850, David’s son Elias arrived in Shanghai.
In time, the Sassoons took on a young apprentice, a Baghdadi cousin, Elly Kadoorie. While overseeing a warehouse, Elly displeased his bosses by offering disinfectant to Chinese employees for home use during an outbreak of bubonic plague. When the Sassoons reprimanded him for giving away company products, Elly took offense, quit, and decided to launch his own business. This daring decision made the Kadoories rich; the family later joked that it should add a barrel of disinfectant to its coat of arms.
Last Kings portrays the Sassoon and Kadoorie families building wealth and living lavishly amidst tumultuous historic change. The Sassoons’ entry into China was made possible by China’s defeat in the First Opium War (1839-42). The victorious British forced the Chinese Emperor to cede Hong Kong to Britain and open up five cities to Western trade. In Shanghai, the Sassoons developed a bustling trade in silver, gold, silk, spices, cotton, wool, wheat, and, to the family’s later shame, opium.
Elly Kadoorie bypassed opium, investing instead in hotels, land, and utilities in Shanghai and Hong Kong. An active Zionist, Elly donated funds to acquire land in Jerusalem for Hebrew University; Elly also persuaded Sun Yat-sen, China’s first president, to endorse Britain’s Balfour Declaration, favoring a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
As World War II approached, Jews fleeing the Nazis headed for Shanghai, a city that required no entry visa. Despite their rivalry, Elly Kadoorie and Victor Sassoon (David Sassoon’s grandson) collaborated to provide meals, housing, education, and employment for the refugees. Most crucially, Victor persuaded Japanese authorities to permit the Jews to remain in Shanghai (then under Japanese control), by implying that he might consider investing in Japanese factories (which he never did). By the time war broke out, 18,000 Jews had found refuge in Shanghai.
The Communist takeover of China in 1949 decimated the Sassoon and Kadoorie enterprises. The Sassoons gave up on China, but the Kadoories redoubled their investment in Hong Kong, becoming its first billionaires. For decades, the Communist leadership branded the Sassoons and Kadoories as imperialists and exploiters of the Chinese people – a charge Kaufman says is partly deserved. Yet Kaufman also credits the families for igniting an economic boom that aided China’s metamorphosis “from a sclerotic, feudal society into a modern industrial one.”
Today, Kaufman reports, the Chinese government acknowledges the two families’ contributions. The Kadoories meet regularly with Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping. And, at the reopening of the grandly restored Peace Hotel in Shanghai (formerly the Cathay Hotel), Chinese officials applauded as staff ceremoniously hung a portrait of the hotel’s original owner, Victor Sassoon.