Tag: Jews of China

The rival Iraqi-Jewish dynasties who opened up China

A new book by Jonathan Kaufman explores the story of two rival,   intertwined Iraqi-Jewish entrepreneurial families, the Sassoons and the Kadoories, who opened up China to the world. It is interesting that David Sassoon, the founder of the Sassoon dynasty, was forced to leave Iraq by Ottoman harassment. Extract from Tzach Yoked’s Haaretz article: 

Sir Elly Kadoorie with his sons Lawrence (left) and Horace

The story begins with the Sassoons, an aristocratic family that lived in Baghdad for 800 years and was one of its wealthiest families.

Because of its social, political and economic status, which extended well beyond the bounds of the Jewish community, the head of the family was granted the title “Nasi” – a Hebrew honorific meaning “Prince of the Jews” – by the Ottoman Empire.

“In the 18th century, Baghdad was a crossroads of trade, people were coming from all over the Middle East, even from China,” Kaufman tells Haaretz in a recent phone interview from his home, outside Boston.

“And all these people would pass through the Sassoons’ house, because they knew they were the most important traders in Baghdad.”

But hundreds of years of economic success and social integration came to an end one morning in 1829. David Sassoon, who was 37 and had been groomed from childhood to inherit leadership of the family empire, was kidnapped and jailed by the Ottoman authorities in Baghdad. They threatened to hang him if the family did not pay a high ransom for his release.

“Desperate for money to boost a collapsing economy, the Turks began harassing and imprisoning the Sassoons and other wealthy Jews, demanding ransom,” Kaufman writes.  The harassment dealt a devastating blow to the family. The Sassoons lost their wealth and influence and decided to leave everything and start anew, elsewhere. David Sassoon believed in the integrity and decency of the British, Kaufman notes, and after his family ransomed him, he decided to move with his wife and eight children to Bombay (today Mumbai), where the British were opening up trade routes. Other Jews followed suit.

Sassoon became an Anglophile, studying British history, hiring a tutor to teach his children English and even arranging for the text of “God Save the Queen” to be translated into his native Judeo-Arabic – Arabic written in Hebrew script.

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Iraqi Jews made Hong Kong

The Kadoories and Sassoons, Iraqi Jews, ‘the cleverest Jews as far as business is concerned,’ made Hong Kong. But they were not the only ones, according to this fascinating, in-depth feature in the South China Morning Post (with thanks: Michelle):

“We’re so lucky to be in Hong Kong – it’s a fantastic place for Jews. It always has been.”

Judy Green, chairwoman of the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong,
has lived here since she was 11 years old. We meet at the Jewish
Cemetery, a green and peaceful spot in a hidden corner of Happy Valley,
tucked behind a Buddhist temple and surrounded by a cluster of tower
blocks. It’s dotted with gravestones bearing with a mix of English and
Hebrew script. The earliest recorded burial plot, belonging to a Leon
Bin Baruel, dates from 1857. The most recent gravestone is dedicated to
Mervyn Gatton, who died in February.

Hong Kong’s Jewish population, currently estimated to be 5,000
strong, is thriving. “It’s a close-knit and dynamic community,” says
Green. And it’s a community that has deep roots, stretching right back
to the earliest days of the colony.

The first Jews to set up home in Hong Kong were Iraqis who arrived in
the 1840s. They were descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and
Portugal during the Inquisition (which lasted from the late 15th to
early 19th centuries) who had worked their way east to Baghdad, where a
sizeable community developed.

During the 19th century, Baghdadi adventurers travelled to India and
set up trading operations in the booming ports of Bombay and Calcutta.
Later, as China gradually opened to international trade, they crossed
the Indian Ocean and established outposts in Canton, Macau and Hong

Although there were only a handful of Jewish families in Hong Kong in
the mid-19th century, they enjoyed enormous success and several became
fabulously wealthy.

“The Iraqis are supposed to be the cleverest Jews as far as business
is concerned, at least that’s what my Iraqi friends tell me,” says
Green. “I think they had a lot of courage. They saw opportunities that
other people either didn’t see or weren’t brave enough to pursue.”

Jewish refugees from Shanghai at the Peninsula hotel, in 1946. 

The cemetery was created by the Sassoons, a family that was once
dubbed “the Rothschilds of the East”. They bought the parcel of land
from local farmers. Green points out a plaque on the back wall that
commemorates the opening of the burial ground, in 1855.

The family patriarch, David Sassoon, left Baghdad in 1832 and
established himself in Bombay, modern-day Mumbai. He had seven sons whom
he dispatched to outposts across the Orient, using his offspring to
build a business empire.

“He had a son in practically every port,” says Green. “As well as in
Hong Kong, he had offices in Singapore, Burma, Canton, even as far as
Japan and Indonesia.”

The family started trading back and forth and invested in shipping,
hotels and property, but its real fortune came from the less salubrious
trade in opium. By the 1870s, the family was one of the leading
importers to China of this incredibly lucrative commodity.

The Sassoons and their staff formed the core of the Jewish community in Hong Kong.

“Most of their employees were also Baghdadi Jews whom they sent over
from Bombay,” says Green. “They were deeply religious people and always
made sure they had somewhere to worship – until they built a synagogue,
it was usually just a room in one of their offices.”

The Sassoons had fingers in pies across the breadth of Hong Kong
society and helped to get the fledgling colony up and running. One of
David’s sons, Arthur, was on the provisional committee that founded the
Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in 1864. Another son,
Frederick, was elected to the Legislative Council in 1884.

As Green continues her tour, we come across a small chapel and a tahara
room, where bodies are ceremonially washed and prepared for burial. She
explains that this building stands on ground that was leased in 1904,
to expand the cemetery, with the assistance of Matthew Nathan – Hong
Kong’s only Jewish governor.

A Jewish New Year service conducted for the refugees at the hotel, in 1946. 

Nathan served as governor from 1904 to 1907. Born in London, he was a
soldier and an engineer with a reputation as a competent and decisive

“He wanted to develop Kowloon, which was a muddy backwater in those
days. My husband’s grandfather remembers walking around in gumboots
because it was a swamp. Nathan decided that for Kowloon to flourish it
needed an access road, to link it to the hinterland of the New
Territories. Many thought he was making a mistake but he was determined
to push the project through.”

Once dubbed “Nathan’s folly”, Nathan Road – the shopping megastrip
that bears his name – catalysed the development of the whole area,
proving the wisdom of his decision.

Although gifted in practical matters, Nathan didn’t thrive socially.

“He was a bachelor and didn’t have a wife to act as hostess at
functions at Government House,” says Green. “I think he found that
aspect of colonial life very difficult. A lot of expat socialising was
centred on the Hong Kong Club, which didn’t admit Jews in those days,
and there were Sunday gatherings at church, which he couldn’t attend.”

In 1907, Nathan was transferred to South Africa. On his departure, the South China Morning Post
reported that “the general regret at the departure of Sir Matthew
Nathan from Hong Kong is a tribute to his fine personal qualities as
well as to his splendid administration …”

David Sassoon (seated) with sons Elias, Albert and David Jnr. 

At the front of the cemetery’s main burial ground stands a pair of
marble sarcophagi, marking the final resting places of brothers Lawrence
and Horace Kadoorie, members of the best known Jewish family in Hong
Kong. Green puts a small stone of remembrance on each sarcophagus. The
Kadoories were family friends.

“The brothers were lovely. Lawrence was very warm-hearted, easy-going
and generous-spirited. He would talk to anybody – he didn’t seem to
think of himself as the special person he was. Horace was extremely
jovial, really interested in young people and enthusiastic about his
philanthropic work.”

Like the Sassoons, the Kadoories are of Iraqi extraction by way of
Bombay. The first member of the dynasty to arrive in Hong Kong was Elly
Kadoorie, who came in 1880, at the age of 15, to join the Sassoon family
company. Brother Ellis joined him later. Elly subsequently moved to
Shanghai while Ellis concentrated his efforts in Hong Kong.

The brothers amassed a fortune by investing in rubber plantations,
banking, docks and real estate. In 1914, Ellis made a major investment
in Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, which now operates 10 properties under
the Peninsula brand across Asia, Europe and the United States. The
flagship Peninsula, in Tsim Sha Tsui, an iconic Hong Kong landmark, was
said to be “the finest hotel east of the Suez” when it opened, in 1928.

Four years later, he bought into China Light and Power (now CLP
Holdings), the largest electricity-generation company in Hong Kong.

Lawrence Kadoorie speaks to a farmer in the 1960s. 

Ellis was to remain a bachelor and died aged 55, but Elly married in
Shanghai and had two sons, Lawrence and Horace. As the boys grew older,
they became increasingly involved in managing the family’s affairs. In
1937, Lawrence, who had been born in Hong Kong, moved back to the city
to run the hotel business.

When Hong Kong fell to the Japanese in 1941, Lawrence was interned in
Stanley with his wife and two small children. After five months, the
family transferred to Chapai camp, near Shanghai, to be closer to Horace
and Elly, who were living in the former stable block of the family
mansion. Elly died in 1944 and succession fell to the brothers.

After the war, Lawrence returned to Hong Kong to reclaim his family’s
assets. He set up home at the Peninsula. During the occupation, the
hotel had been requisitioned as the headquarters of the Japanese and,
afterwards, by the British military, and was in a terrible state of
disrepair. Just as restoration work got under way, refugees started
arriving from Shanghai.

In the lead-up to the second world war, about 20,000 European Jews,
fleeing Nazi persecution, had taken refuge in Shanghai, one of the only
cities in the world for which a visa wasn’t required.

“They had no money, no nothing,” says Green. “The Jewish community in
Shanghai galvanised and looked after them and Horace was particularly
active in that. It was a huge undertaking – because there was an awful
lot of them and only a relatively small Jewish community.”

After the war, the refugees were repatriated to Europe or went on to
start new lives in the US, Australia and Israel. Most of them had to
transit through Hong Kong to collect their visas.

Horace Kadoorie at a Gurkha resettlement farm, in Nepal, in 1972. 

The Kadoories joined forces. Horace gathered information about each
batch of refugees at the Shanghai end and sent it to his brother. In
Hong Kong, Lawrence visited the Immigration Department almost daily,
bearing lists of names, final destinations and petitions for permission
to transit.

Once they arrived in Hong Kong, the refugees had nowhere to stay so
Lawrence threw open the doors of the Peninsula. Most stayed only a few
days but one group of nearly 300 people, who were due to sail to
Australia, were stranded when their ship was diverted to carry troops.
Lawrence repurposed the hotel’s ballroom as a dormitory and accommodated
them there for several months until alternative transport was found.

“Lawrence wasn’t known for being observant, religiously,” says Green,
“but the Jewish people were very important to him and he was unstinting
in his efforts to help them.”

He had the support of Hong Kong’s other Jews, who banded together to
provide clothing and medical aid, and handle baggage, change currencies
and assist the refugees in planning their journeys.

Once the refugees had dispersed, Lawrence turned his attention to the
family business, becoming a key player in Hong Kong’s phenomenal
post-war economic growth. By the time of his death, in 1993, the
Kadoorie portfolio included stakes in the Star Ferry, the Peak Tram, the
Cross Harbour Tunnel and the Daya Bay nuclear power station, in

As the Kadoories acquired money, they also gave it away. They were
legendary philanthropists and their generosity was not confined to the
Jewish population.

Workers at the Tai Ping carpet factory in Hong Kong. 

Elly built a number of schools and hospitals in the Middle East that
were open to all-comers, irrespective of race or religion. His brother
endowed the Ellis Kadoorie Chinese Schools Society in Hong Kong, which
originally served the poorer sections of the Chinese population and now
caters mainly to the children of lower-income South Asians.

After the war, Horace and Lawrence pioneered social initiatives to
help an influx of Chinese refugees escaping the civil war across the
border become self-supporting and secure.

Horace – who had always wanted to be a farmer – was instrumental in
the founding of the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association in 1951. It
established an experimental farm and provided training in sustainable
agriculture, interest-free loans and livestock. Starting in 1968,
thousands of Gurkhas (Nepalese serving in the British Army) stationed in
Hong Kong were offered training, so they could work as farmers when
they left the army and returned home. Later, as agriculture declined,
the farm shifted its focus to environmental issues and is now run as the
Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.

Lawrence, together with six friends, established an enterprise to
provide employment for boat girls and preserve the traditional Chinese
craft of making fine carpets. Tai Ping Carpets started life in a house
in Tuen Mun. Sales soon soared. Prior to the 1950s, carpets were rarely
seen in Hong Kong and the floors of smart hotels were made of polished
wood, but that changed with the proliferation of air conditioning, which
protected carpets from damaging humidity. Tai Ping also cornered the
market in the US. A trade embargo meant goods could not be imported from
mainland China, creating a vacuum that Lawrence and his friends
promptly filled.

In 1959, Tai Ping moved its headquarters and factory to Tai Po,
bringing new vitality to the small market town. The company remained
there for 32 years before all production was moved to the mainland.
Still based in Hong Kong, Tai Ping is now the world’s largest
hand-tufted carpet company.

 Horace shows governor Alexander Grantham around the factory in 1957.

Lawrence’s multifarious achievements were rewarded when he became the
first person born in Hong Kong to be elevated to a British peerage. In
1981, he was named Baron Kadoorie of Kowloon and Westminster in the
House of Lords.

Sir Matthew Nathan.

He and his relatives have sprinkled the SAR with the family name.
While the Sassoons have only a road in Pok Fu Lam named after them, the
Kadoories are credited with an avenue in Mong Kok, a beach at Castle
Peak and, of course, the farm and botanical gardens.

The Kadoories still maintain a presence in Hong Kong. Lawrence had
two children, one of whom – Michael Kadoorie – chairs both CLP Holdings
and Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels.

The Sassoons and Kadoories may be the best known but a host of other
Jewish characters contributed to Hong Kong’s prosperity, enriched its
cultural scene and added colour and spice to to the social fabric.

Emanuel Belilios, a contemporary of the Sassoons and another opium
millionaire, built a huge mansion on The Peak and filled its garden with
a menagerie of exotic animals, including a camel. As generous as he was
eccentric, he helped to fund the Alice Memorial Hospital and Hong
Kong’s first school for girls. He was appointed to the Legislative
Council in 1881 in recognition of his contribution to Hong Kong Society.

The flamboyant Harry Odell, known as Hong Kong’s first impresario,
arrived here in 1921, fresh from a stint as a tap dancer in Japan. He
started a film business, persuaded famous performers to visit and
successfully lobbied the government to support the foundation of the
City Hall theatre complex.

Erica Cohen Lyons with cases containing the Torah, in the Ohel Leah Synagogue.  

Solomon Bard, who died last month, was a talented musician with a
prodigious intellect. The founding director of the student health
service at the University of Hong Kong, he also led the Hong Kong
Philharmonic Orchestra, became music director of the Hong Kong Chinese
Orchestra and co-founded the Hong Kong Archaeological Society.

After the war, many Jews relocated but some stayed on, laying the
foundations of today’s community. From the 1960s onwards, there was a
steady influx of expats and the Jewish community is now bigger, and
busier, than at any other time in Hong Kong’s history.

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How a Baghdadi Jew transformed Shanghai

 There is no monument to Sir Victor Sassoon, the Baghdadi Jew who changed the face of Shanghai in the 1930s. But he left his mark in several landmark buildings, including the Peace Hotel, whose Art Deco splendour has been revived. Fascinating article by Taras Grescoe in the New York Times (with thanks Dan and Lisa):

The Peace (Cathay) Hotel as it was in the 1930s, and as it is today (Photo: Hsinhua agency/Qilai Shen)

recently, the name Sassoon — or, more exactly, Sir Ellice Victor
Sassoon, the third baronet of Bombay — had been all but effaced from the
streets of Shanghai. The scion of a Baghdadi Jewish family, educated at
Harrow and Cambridge, Sassoon shifted the headquarters of a family
empire built on opium and cotton from Bombay to Shanghai, initiating the
real estate boom that would make it into the Paris of the Far East.

1929 opening of the Cathay Hotel (its name was changed to the Peace in
the mid-50s), heralded as the most luxurious hostelry east of the Suez
Canal, proclaimed his commitment to China. (He even made the 11th-floor
penthouse, just below the hotel’s sharply pitched pyramidal roof, his
downtown pied-à-terre.) Within a decade, Sassoon had utterly transformed
the skyline of Shanghai, working with architects and developers to
build the first true skyscrapers in the Eastern Hemisphere, in the
process creating a real estate empire that would regularly see him
counted among the world’s half-dozen richest men. Within two decades,
the red flag of the People’s Republic was hoisted over the Cathay, which
would for many years serve as a guesthouse for visiting Soviet bloc

over the course of the years, Sassoon’s buildings, apparently too solid
to demolish, continued to stand, so many mysterious Art Deco and
Streamline Moderne megaliths in a cityscape growing ever grimier with
coal dust. As Shanghai once again takes its place as one of Asia’s
fastest-growing metropolises, and supertall, 100-plus-story towers
define its new skyline, there are signs that the city is beginning to
value, and even treasure, its prewar architectural heritage. Sir Victor
would have appreciated the irony: The landmarks of Shanghai’s
semicolonial past, vestiges of a once-reviled foreign occupation, have
lately become some of its most coveted addresses.

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Iraqi-Jewish philanthropist gets Chinese award

Nanjing university consultant professor Naim Dangoor

If more Chinese are able to learn about Jews and Judaism it will be thanks to an Iraqi-Jewish philanthropist whose late wife Renee was born in the Sephardi community in Shanghai. This week, Nanjing university demonstrated its gratitude by making Naim Dangoor, 97, a consultant professor – the Jewish Chronicle reports:

A delegation of professors from a leading foreign university flew to London last Friday to honour a British supporter of their country’s burgeoning programme of Jewish studies.

Philanthropist Naim Dangoor, who is 97, was made a consultant professor of China’s Nanjing University in an award ceremony held in his Kensington apartment.

“We are very proud that you are now one of us,” Nanjing vice-president Xue Hai Lin told Professor Dangoor, newly decorated in his black and red academic robes and sporting a black mortar board with red tassel.

Nanjing’s Institute of Jewish Studies opened in May 1992, just a few months after Israel and China established diplomatic relations. According to Professor Xu Xin, director of the Nanjing Institute and president of the China Judaic Studies Association, there are now around 10 Jewish studies centres in the country.

Nanjing’s 800-page Chinese translation of the Encyclopaedia Judaica is the standard reference work on Judaism in the country and its other works include a how-and-why of antisemitism as well as a translation of Martin Gilbert’s Atlas of Jewish History. Iraqi-born Prof Dangoor said that he was “greatly honoured” by his award, which he received along with a gold thread embroidered tapestry of a kirin, a mythical beast which signifies good luck, prosperity and a long life.

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Iraqi exile gives £3 million for education of poor

One man’s race to save Shanghai headstones

The first Jews to settle in Shanghai were Baghdadi merchants. But traces of all Jewish settlement are vanishing as the city develops dizzyingly fast. JTA reports on an Israeli photojournalist’s race against the clock to salvage headstones from the Jewish cemeteries (with thanks: Pablo):

SHANGHAI, China (JTA) — In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Western philanthropists and volunteers are restoring dozens of historic Jewish cemeteries.

But in Shanghai, there are none to restore.

The four cemeteries that once served this city’s small but prosperous Jewish community disappeared in the late 1960s during China’s Cultural Revolution. The sites were paved over to build a factory, park, hotel and Muslim cemetery, their history forgotten.

Israeli photojournalist Dvir Bar-Gal is trying to change that.

While the cemeteries may be gone, since 2001 Bar-Gal has made it his mission to track down as many of the original headstones as possible. He has located 85 and hopes to use them in a memorial to Shanghai’s Jewish past.

The project has kept Bar-Gal in Shanghai for more than seven years, and he is waiting for government permission to erect the memorial. The clock is ticking, he says.

“In a few years, the area where I found these stones will be gone,” Bar-Gal told JTA. “The villages I first visited have been redeveloped and are now upscale residences.”

Shanghai, a major port that is now China’s largest city, has had three waves of Jewish immigration. The first began in 1845, when David Sassoon, an Iraqi Jew living in India, moved his family business to Shanghai, which was China’s first city to open to the West. He was joined by two other Baghdad Jews, Elly Kadoorie and Silas Hardoon, and as the community grew they built Shanghai’s fortunes and their own.

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