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When Jews were kings (and opium lords) in Shanghai

Author of “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” Jonathan Kaufman teaches at Northeastern University. His new book, “The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China” tells of two Iraqi Jewish families of business magnates, the Sassoons and Kadoories, who dominated Chinese life for almost 200 years until the advent of Communism. Professor Kaufman recently spoke with The Forward’s Benjamin Ivry about how these noteworthies acquired and lost power in China, and how they affected Jewish lives.

The Last Kings of Shanghai

The Last Kings of Shanghai: Jonathan Kaufman’s new book speaks of a forgotten episode in Chinese and Jewish history. Image by Penguin Random House

The Forward: Small wonder that Chinese people think all Jews are brilliant about money, when the most visible Jews in Shanghai were talented businesspeople?

Jonathan Kaufman: What’s interesting is that you had this group of Jews who came from Baghdad. For many American Jews, the images of Jews are tied up with East European Jews, “Fiddler on the Roof” or the Rothschilds, and how people rose from the ghetto. But these were Jews of Babylon, which was the center of Jewish culture and life for centuries. When things turned against the Jews in the 19th century, many of these families went to India, where they met the British. There was a meeting of the minds, where very talented and ambitious Jewish merchants saw possibilities in China, and expanded into the opium trade and needed people to run their businesses. They asked [Jewish] families to send their sons to Shanghai, which was the Gold Rush, the frontier, a possibility for young men to earn unimaginable fortunes by starting as clerks and accountants in China. Because they were from Baghdad, they spoke a kind of Judeo-Arabic that the Chinese couldn’t speak, so they had a kind of code. The fact that British firms often excluded the Jews out of anti-Semitism forced them to work with the Chinese. So the Chinese saw Jews as not just being good with money, but very enterprising, under a positive light. The Chinese admire Jews for their emphases on education and the family.

Jonathan Kaufman

Chronicler of a Lost History: Jonathan Kaufman is the author of “The Last Kings of Shanghai” Image by Glenn Turner

Did Iraqi Jewish business leaders ever regret importing opium into 19th century China?

No, you know, I don’t think so. When you talk to the families now, they’ll say, “We didn’t know it was that bad.” They knew it was bad. The Sassoons had to dismiss some of their Chinese employees because they were addicted to opium. Many of the Jewish families fought tooth and nail against banning opium. Opium was legal and used for medicinal purposes. Like people who sell cigarettes and alcohol, their feeling was that they were filling a need. They also looked upon the Chinese as being different from Westerners. They felt that the Chinese weren’t like us, so selling opium to the Chinese was seen as something that could be done. So there is a moral reckoning for selling this drug, even though the consequences for China were catastrophic. The Kadoories did not deal in opium, and are quite proud of that today; they are sensitive to how the Chinese will, even today, bring up the topic of opium sales.

During World War II, you note, “Together, the Sassoons and the Kadoories did something that Jews in Europe and Palestine and even the United States couldn’t do: they protected every Jewish refugee who set foot in their city, among them thousands of children.” Was this possible because in Shanghai, money was all-important?

I think it’s a little more complex than that. The politics of Shanghai were different from the politics in Europe. Japan had conquered China, and unlike the Germans, did not believe that they needed to destroy the Jews. They felt that the Jews were immensely powerful, but if they got the Jews on their side, they could be influential. Sassoon saw that you could charm the Japanese or even con them into protecting these Jewish refugees from Europe.

You describe Jewish exiles being fed and housed in Shanghai by Sassoon and Kadoorie while homeless native-born Chinese people died of hunger in the streets. Were the Sassoons and Kadoories oblivious to suffering, unless it happened to Jews?

They were part of imperialism and a colonial society. So their views were very much the same as the British and Americans who were there. They accepted a level of poverty and disease that others would find shocking. They had the same prejudices and stereotypes that British and American businessmen had.

Lawrence Kadoorie (1899–1993), an industrial titan of Hong Kong admired by the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, supported authoritarian rulers. During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, when Deng ordered troops to crush the uprising, Kadoorie said, “Too much democracy is not the best thing for this area of the world. There must be controls.” Did rich Iraqi Jewish families all have this totalitarian mindset?

I don’t think it’s totalitarian, it’s colonial. He was born in Queen Victoria’s reign, and Lawrence Kadoorie was very much a creature of that time. When you write about Jewish history, you’ve got to accept the good and the bad. It’s a fact that many other business elite shared this point of view. The Chinese and Kadoorie saw Hong Kong in the same way, as a stable economic enclave.

In Iraqi Orthodox Jewish merchant families, misogyny was rife. Was that just the spirit of the era, or were things generally tough for Iraqi Jewish women, even from wealthy families?

I think it’s both. When I first started looking at this history, I was a bit appalled. The wives and children stayed at home in Baghdad when all the sons went out to make a fortune. When women tried to get above their station, taking over newspapers, they were very much slapped down, and this was very much the story of the times. Flora Sassoon ran the business in India for a decade, Rachel Sassoon Beer was an accomplished journalist, but their society was not ready. It was the story of many women, Jewish and not Jewish, who strove, but encountered a severe form of the glass ceiling.

Shanghai Jews who were not tycoons seem a fiction writer’s dream. You mention that Victor Sassoon reportedly met with Serge Voronoff, a Russian-born surgeon who specialized in dubious rejuvenating therapy, and you cite the political scientist Harold Isaacs. But what about the Damon Runyon types described in “Shanghai Grand,” such as Freddie Kaufmann, manager of the Tower Club in Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel?

Vicki Baum, who wrote the novel “Grand Hotel,” actually stayed at the Cathay Hotel and wrote about it. Shanghai, like Berlin in the 1920s, was such a freewheeling city that it attracted the lowest and highest. While Victor Sassoon helped refugees, he was often appalled by them, because these were not his types of Jews. He was used to a higher level. Part of the charm of Shanghai was the melting pot. You mention Damon Runyon. This was like Chicago of the 1920s. Even today, any American who goes to Shanghai prefers the energy of that city to Beijing, as the legacy of these times.


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