Last Kings of Shanghai: a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

March 11, 2021 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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There are many who will read this review who would have heard of the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara who issued some 1800 visas in Kovno in 1940 which enabled the holders to transit Japan and spend the war years in Shanghai.

Other readers may have visited Shanghai and included in their visit both the excellent Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum (with its Austrian Tea House across the road) or the Peace Hotel on the Bund and the Sassoon Room on its roof.

Much less known is the story of the two great Jewish families who arrived during the Opium Wars and who fled Shanghai as the Chinese Communists assumed power in 1949. Those families were the Kadouries and the Sassoons. Both had their origins in the Iraqi Jewish community of Baghdad.

If one was only to read the two sections at the beginning of this book, namely the Cast of Characters and the Introduction it would not only give the reader a good overview but would whet one’s appetite to dive into the book. Within the Cast of Characters, there is an array of Sassoons and Kadouries but also so many others who shaped China and to an extent the world in the 20th century including Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, and Chiang Kai-shek. There are others such as Jadine, Matheson who were the British trading company who strove to exclude those Bagdad upstarts from Hong Kong’s inner circle. Others included Robert Hotung who was not only a friend and ally of Elly Kadourie but in his day Hong Kong’s wealthiest individual. Finally, there is the Rong Family who learned from both he Kadouries and the Sassoons but in this century have threatened their business, especially within mainland China.

The story begins with David Sassoon who left Bagdad just on two centuries ago and headed to India. The second player in this story is Ellis Kadourie and his brother Elly, whose father died before they reached his bar mitzvah and whose mother with a lack of funds enrolled Ellis in a school established in India by David Sassoon. The other two groups of players were their descendants, Victor Sassoon and the Kadourie brothers, Lawrence and Horace as well as Lawrence’s son Michael.

This book does give a good background as to how both families came to Shanghai. David Sassoon had established branches of his business in Asia and one was based in Shanghai. Ellis was sent to Shanghai to work at David Sassoon and Sons in 1880 and established by Elias Sassoon. Within a short time, Ellis had amassed sufficient funds to go out on his own and soon had branches in Hong Kong as well as Shanghai.

In Shanghai, there was competition between these two families, especially as they tried to outdo each other in the hotels they created. This finally led. In 1929 Victor Sassoon opened the Cathay Hotel which is now the Peace Hotel. There were a number of other buildings and hotels which exist to this day which he built.

Victor had chosen neither to be married nor to have children. He had been injured during the Great War and this led to that decision Some readers may have seen some promos on SBS recently featuring Victor with celebrities such as Noel Coward, Charles Chaplin as well as a bevy of beauties surrounding him.

As Japan moved towards war with the west, for they had already subjugated Manchuria in 1931 and the occupation of Korea from 1910 Shanghai was taking on a special significance. There were already 2 distinct groups of Jews, the Baghdadi and the Russians (they arrived after the Revolution of 1917 and the defeat of the White Russian Army) resident and beginning after the Anschluss of Austria in 1938 Shanghai was effectively the only port with an open immigration policy. Nearly all those who arrived were poor and many were destitute. The Kadouries and the Sassoons came together to help support the new arrivals with food and clothing. By 1940 they perceived that this generosity was draining and for instance they cut the daily meals from twice daily to once. Then there were those who came because of Sugihara and his transit visa issued in Kovno.

Ellis and Elly Kadourie had befriended Chang Kai-shek at this time. They came to believe the Nationalists that the Communists would not succeed. At the same time Lawrence moved to Hong Kong to run that branch of the business while Horace stayed and worked with the refugees. Victor through his network was not as convinced that the Communists would not succeed. He did stay in Shanghai until he was forced to leave when the Communists took over in 1949 and he moved to the Bahamas [which did issue a stamp in his honour after his death].

Horace, also a bachelor, moved to Hong Kong where his brother Lawrence was already ensconced. Horace became responsible for the Peninsula Hotel, fist in Hong Kong but now in many cities. He was famous for his collection of Rolls Royces which were used to ferry guests at the hotel around, often from the (old) Hong Kong Airport

This book by Jonathan Kaufman is a good read for those who enjoy history and especially for those who could appreciate knowing about life in the Far East and especially the role individual Jews played. There are other stories to be told about these two families in the far East but that was outside the remit of this book.

The Last Kings of Shanghai

Jonathan Kaufman

Viking- Penguin Random House, 2020

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Research Chaplain at St Vincent’s Private Hospital. He was CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum. He has held a number of academic positions as well as appointments at a number of hospitals both in Australia and North America.

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