Two Jewish families living the colonial high life

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Chinese opium smokers, 1858. The Sassoon family became fabulously rich in the opium trade.
Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Review

“The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China” by Jonathan Kaufman. New York: Viking Press, 2020. 298 pages. $28.


How should we take the measure of people? This fascinating book indirectly deals with this very human — and complex — question.

It is the story of two sons of two community-leading, wealthy, Iraqi-Jewish families who were forced to leave their homeland, eventually arriving in China.

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In so doing, they and their descendants accumulated a staggering amount of wealth, and the innovations they instituted in business and trade in that country helped pave the way for China to become a world power.

David Sassoon fled Baghdad in 1829 when an anti-Jewish faction came to power; later in that same century, Elly Kadoorie left that city after his father died, going to a school that the Sassoons had set up to train young Jewish men and then employ them. After school, Elly went to work for the Sassoons before setting out on his own.


The two families got to China, where both became fabulously rich. The Sassoons began in the opium trade, while Elly Kadoorie started an investment company in Hong Kong and later got into the electricity-generation business.

The two families had holdings in hotels, manufacturing, trade, real estate and housing.

Victor, the head of the Sassoons, was in India, where his family also was in business, when the Japanese invaded Shanghai, the site of the families’ headquarters. He never returned to China.

The Japanese imprisoned Lawrence Kadoorie and his family in a camp during the war.

After the war, the Kadoories did business in Hong Kong and in Shanghai before the Communists took power and confiscated both families’ property.

The Kadoories remained in British-controlled Hong Kong and when the Chinese leaders decided to open their country to foreign investment, returned to Shanghai.

From a business or money perspective, the families were unbelievably successful — both became billionaires, writes author Jonathan Kaufman.

But what is their legacy as human beings? Both families get high marks for caring for the 18,000 Jewish refugees who fled Hitler’s Europe and lived in Shanghai during World War II.

When the refugees started arriving, Elly Kadoorie and other Jewish leaders began donating money and organizational help. When more and more Jews made their way to that city, Elly went to see Victor Sassoon and persuaded him to lead the effort to help them.

Victor stepped up, providing food, shelter and training.

His work with those refugees “was the moral high point of his life,” Kaufman notes.

But the two families’ relationship with the Chinese was, at best, mixed. “Readers may note that while China stands at the center of this narrative, Chinese characters often stand at the periphery,” the author writes. “This reflects the peculiar colonial world these families inhabited. Even while living in Shanghai they dealt with the Chinese at a distance, separated by language, wealth and colonial stereotypes. It is revealing that no Chinese ever penetrated the inner circle of either family and, in almost 200 years of living in China, none of the Sassoons or Kadoories bothered to learn Chinese.”

On a practical level, this difference was striking. Take, for example, opium, a major source of the Sassoons’ wealth. Family members avoided the drug and rebuked Westerners who used it. But when it came to the Chinese, “they distanced themselves from the devastating impact of opium addiction.”

After the war, the Americans took over for the British running Shanghai but quickly turned everyday governance over to Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists.

When the Americans arrived, the Kadoories put up some of the soldiers in their mansion, Marble Hall. After the Chinese Nationalists took over, some 80 Chinese soldiers asked to be billeted there but were refused.

However, Lawrence Kadoorie realized, the author writes, that in Shanghai he and the other Westerners had been blind to the inequality between Westerners and Chinese and its effect on the rise of the Communists.

Hong Kong would have to be different. There, he would have to be “more low-key, more mindful of the politics… .”

No huge, showy family mansion would be built.

Lawrence also pitched in, becoming the head of the government-business committee cataloguing what Hong Kong needed to rebuild.

Horace Kadoorie, Lawrence’s brother, formed the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association — making micro loans to farmers to buy land, seeds and farm implements.

The government agreed to provide experts to teach the farmers efficient ways of farming. They would repay their loans from their profits.

So, what have the Sassoons and Kadoories meant for China? They were “the beneficiaries of empire and colonialism,” Kaufman notes. The Sassoons built their fortune on opium and both families’ fortunes were “built on low wages and unfair competition. … The Sassoons and Kadoories exploited Shanghai, but they also ignited an economic boom… . It was the Chinese who transformed Shanghai and China. The Sassoons and Kadoories helped light the fuse.”

That’s an impressive legacy.

Aaron Leibel’s memoir, “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s,” is slated to be published by Chickadee Prince Books early next year.

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