Far From Baghdad: Two Sephardi Families and their Influence on China’s Development

The Last Kings of Shanghai

The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

By Jonathan Kaufman

The Jewish-Chinese relationship has long beguiled me. My one visit to Shanghai made me want to know more about the city. So naturally, I was drawn to Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai. My reward was a narrative that skillfully weaves business, politics, and sociology. Think of the book as a lavish British television historical drama about two wealthy rival families set in stately homes and luxury hotels against an exotic background.

Kaufman, who grew up on New York’s Upper West Side and attended both Yale and Harvard, knows China. He reported for decades about Asia for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg News. Kaufman also knows about Jews, having authored A Hole in the Heart of the World: Being Jewish in Eastern Europe, and Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America.

The story he tells in Last Kings of Shanghai is about two Middle Eastern Jewish families – Sassoon and the Kadoorie – and their pivotal role in China’s economic development; how they benefited from and furthered British colonialism. And, fatefully, how they joined forces to help feed, clothe, house, and school 18,000 destitute European Jewish refugees who arrived in cosmopolitan Shanghai to escape from Hitler-dominated Europe.

Kaufman knows how to keep a multipart multi-general story flowing. Still, there are many characters (with similar-sounding names), and keeping them straight and how they are interconnected kept me on my toes. Anyway, I prefer to focus on the forest and not the trees. 

What matters, in a nutshell, is – the Sassoon’s were an elite and philanthropic clan renown in Baghdad, some of whom moved to Bombay and others on to Shanghai and Hong Kong. Over time, family members acculturated (some completely assimilated) and became embedded with the British aristocracy. The Kadoorie’s likewise traced their origins and yichus – though as Middle Easterners and Sephardim would not use this Yiddish phrase – toBaghdad. Elly (1867-1944) and his brother Ellis (who died in 1922) settled in Shanghai and Hong Kong.  Today, while the Sassoons have mostly faded from power in Asia, the Kadoorie’s are perhaps the most influential non-Chinese in Hong Kong.

IN 1938, WHEN no country would give Jews sanctuary from the Nazis, a Viennese-based Chinese diplomat Ho Feng-Shan, disregarding instructions from his ambassador in Berlin, steered the persecuted Jews to Shanghai as a unique “open city.” To get an Austrian exit visa, Jewish people had to prove they were going someplace that would not ship them back. Han provided the paperwork that enabled Jews to meet this prerequisite.

Reading Kaufman reminded me of a separate cohort of Jewish refugees that found themselves in Shanghai, students from Lithuania’s Mir Yeshiva. They owed their lives to Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kovno, “an angel of salvation,” who issued the necessary documents that allowed them passage via Japan to Shanghai. Both men are recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. 

But why was Shanghai open in the first place? Because a swath of the city was run as an autonomous international settlement by British, American, and other European merchant-politicians and home to some 40,000 foreigners — the back story: China was internally fragmented and had lost control of its own fate. The First Opium War (1839–1842) may not have been wholly about narcotics, but its outcome did vest the British with the right to bring the drug into China from India where it was grown. By the way, the British themselves were importing thousands of pounds of Indian-sourced opium into their own country. In London, the addictive drug, with its indisputable medicinal and recreational benefits, required no prescription. Yes, there was both local and transnational opposition to opium. However, those who profited from the trade argued, much like 20th-century tobacco executives, as Kaufman tells it, that the benefits outweighed the pain. Untold numbers of Chinese became debilitated by the habit as European colonialists averted their eyes. Prejudice led them to see the locals as lesser beings.

One exception to this generalization about racism was Laura Kadoorie, Elly’s wife, who in 1919 died trying to rescue her children’s Chinese governess from a fire (the governess it transpired had already escaped). The Kadoorie’s also introduced the philanthropic idea to China – the notion of helping people who were not of your caste or clan or ethnic group, Kaufman writes.

AFTER WWII began in Europe in September 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Japan did not go to war with Britain and the US until December 1941. For part of that interval, Shanghai’s Jewish enclave flourished with a diverse Jewish population, culture, Orthodox religious studies, a kosher restaurant, and Yiddish newspaper. American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee social worker Laura Margolis sought to administer and rally international Jewish aid for the community. However, already in August 1939, under German pressure, the Japanese basically closed Shanghai to further Jewish immigration.

By the time the European Jews were in Shanghai, the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek, alas inept and crooked, had more or less unified the country. Nonetheless, the Shanghai international zone retained its extraterritorial status. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, its troops occupied Shanghai and ended the city’s unusual position. Until the war ended in the Pacific in August 1945, all European ex-pats were herded into a ghetto, and life became much, much grimmer.

Kaufman characterizes the Chinese as free of anti-Semitism as opposed to the Japanese who had been poisoned by the Czarist Russian Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery. While buying into the conspiracy theory, they figured that rather than kill the Jews, it would be prudent to win them over in support of Japanese interests. Hence, before Pearl Harbor, they lobbied Victor Sassoon to invest in Manchuria (where the Japanese had set themselves up back in 1931) and influence the US to stay out of the war. Victor played them as long as he could to buy time but eventually had to escape leaving all his assets behind. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the Japanese came under pressure from the Nazis to load the Jews there onto ships, sail them into the harbor, and sink them, but the Japanese would only consent to intern them in a ghetto seeing them as a bargaining chip.

With Japan’s WWII defeat, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists and Mao Zedong’s communists recommenced their interrupted civil war. Mao declared the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and Chiang, who retreated to Taiwan’s island, proclaimed it the Republic of China.

Jonathan Kaufman

THE FIRST SASSOON to arrive in China (from Bombay) was David (1832-1867), escaping trouble with Pasha Daud and the Ottoman authorities in Baghdad. The multilingual David corresponded in Judeo-Arabic, never mastering English, let alone Chinese. His son Elias Sassoon expanded the family’s commercial operations in Shanghai, solidly aligning its fortunes with the British colonial enterprise. As Kaufman recalls, the French novelist Balzac famously wrote, “behind every great fortune there is a crime.” The source of the Sassoon’s initial wealth was importing opium to China from India, a business dominated by William Jardine and Company of London.

Around 1906-07, Britain restricted trade in opium, and by the end of WWI (1918), the use of opium in the UK became a criminal offense. At this stage, like their bigger competitors, Jardine Matheson & Co, the Sassoon’s had diversified out of opium into real estate, public transportation, hotels, and other business. Both Jewish families embraced technology to modernize and develop Shanghai and Hong Kong.

The Sassoon’s looked down their noses at the Kadoorie’s. In time the Kadoorie’s would surpass the wealth of the Sassoon’s. Elly Kadoorie arrived in China from Baghdad via Bombay in 1880 and began working for one of the Sassoon companies before striking off. Another Baghdad Jew who started as a Sassoon employee before making his own fortune was Silas Aaron Hardoon (died 1931). Elly died during the Japanese occupation of the city during WWII, but not before ensuring that his sons Lawrence (1899–1993) and Horace (1902–1995) were committed to carrying on in their father’s footsteps.

Sassoon’s more than the Kadoorie’s left their art deco architectural imprint on buildings still seen today by anyone strolling along Shanghai’s riverfront promenade – called the Bund – which had been part of the international zone. These landmarks include the Palace Hotel and the Cathay Hotel built by Victor Sassoon (1881-1961).

Among the most telegenic of the book’s characters is Victor Sassoon who had been gravely wounded when his plane was shot down in WWI, leaving him crippled. That did not stop him from being a playboy millionaire and amateur photographer who convinced many a visiting starlet to pose nude. A man about down, Victor owned racehorses and hosted costume parties and receptions that attracted the likes of filmmaker Charlie Chaplin and socialite Wallis Simpson (later Duchess of Windsor). He presumably saw himself as an acculturated British Jew, not a Zionist. Nevertheless, he appreciated that European Jewish refugees needed a safe haven (and with Palestine closed by British Mandate authorities), he purchased land in South America for resettlement purposes.

When the Second World War broke out, Lawrence Kadoorie was settled in Hong Kong, where the family had built the China Light and Power electrical generating plant. Back in Shanghai, Horace Kadoorie and Victor Sassoon were spearheading aid efforts on behalf of the European Jewish refugees. With the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong (after December 1941), Lawrence returned to Shanghai, where he, his brother Horace, their father Elly, and their families were interned by the Japanese. For his part, Victor Sassoon managed to get out of Shanghai in 1941.

Later, after the reds took over mainland China, Horace and Lawrence Kadoorie bet on Hong Kong. Kaufman reminds us how strategically vulnerable (troops massed in Guangdong could easily drive south into Hong Kong) the then British enclave was. Fortunately, Mao decided that having a British colony to connect China to the outside world served his interests. From banks to real estate to electricity, the family made their mark. 

After 1978, when Deng Xiaoping opened the country to Western investment, Lawrence Kadoorie reached a modus vivendi with the communist authorities. Kaufman is not entirely comfortable that, in his view, the Kadoorie’s put business over human rights.  The territory reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. As 2020 draws to a close, President Xi Jinping has made it plain that Bejing wants to politically integrate Hong Kong more closely into the PRC. Whatever the Chinese authorities are up to in Hong Kong today, and as troubling it is from a human rights and civil liberties perspective, I presume Bejing will maintain its coexistence policy with capitalists.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?  The Sassoon clan is mostly married-out, whereas the Kadoorie’s remain comparatively more Jewishly affiliated. Elly Kadoorie was drawn to Zionism and lobbied Sun Yat-sen, the George Washington of China, to support the Balfour Declaration. “All 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 rightfully deserves an honorable place in the family of nations,” he wrote in 1920. Elly was also an early donor to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a cornerstone of the Zionist enterprise. He also established Jewish schools in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul in memory of his wife. Laurence and Horace continued this legacy.

Victor Sassoon was back in Shanghai after WWII hitching his fate to Chiang kai Shek and the nationalists. He disregarded the counsel of his well-connected lover, the remarkable New Yorker China correspondent Emily Hahn, who had warned him that Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai were on the ascendant. When the Reds took over, he was forced to flee for good. Heavily invested in real estate, Victor lost his fortune and ultimately wound-up living in the Bahamas with his American wife, Evelyn Barnes.

Beyond social worker Margolis and Hahn, the stories of other exceptional women dot this book. Consider that British women achieved the right to vote only in 1928. And it had been considered unseemly for a woman to run a business enterprise. Nonetheless, the erudite Flora Sassoon successfully managed the family company in Bombay until she was undermined by London-based Sassoon patriarchs. Rachel Sassoon Beer, who converted to Christianity presumably as a matter of social convenience, championed Alfred Dreyfus’s innocence and became the first female editor of two national newspapers, the Sunday Times andlater The Observer. And not to forget Elly Kadoorie’s philanthropic and courageous wife, Laura Mocatta.

Kaufman is judiciously critical in assessing British imperialism in China. He does not ignore its positive modernizing influence or play down how colonialism distorted economic and political development to the average Chinese’s disadvantage. There is no denying that colonialism cost precious lives and encouraged Europeans to treat locals as inferior. That said, the moral slate is considerably obfuscated when we reflect on the horrendous toll communism took on China – Mao is believed by historian Frank Dikötter to have been responsible for 45 million citizens’ deaths.

Without overwhelming the reader, this book is a record of the Sephardi Diaspora in China, an overview of European imperialism in Shanghai, a sketch of contemporary Chinese politics, an outline of Chinese Communist foreign policy, and even provides insight into the origins of the US-China Lobby.

“The Sassoon’s and the Kadoorie’s exploited Shanghai, but they also ignited an economic boom that attracted millions of others who found in the city a place to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams as China wrenched itself from a sclerotic, feudal society into a modern industrial one. It was the Chinese who transformed Shanghai and China. The Sassoons and the Kadoorie’s helped light the fuse,” according to Kaufman.



For a deeply researched look at the Jewish community of Shanghai between 1938-1945, see David Kranzler, Japanese, Nazis & Jews

Here is my thumbnail sketch of the China-Israel relationship written in 2006

China & Israel: Getting Past Inscrutable 



For a sense of what communism wrought, read the unsurpassed Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62

And check out this exhibition:


Emile Bocian in New York’s Chinatown

Published by Elliot Jager

In my briefings and blog, I contextualize Israeli politics and explore Jewish civilization. As a collaborative editor, I make your writing clear & compelling.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: