Book Review: The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

In 2010, during Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan’s tense Senate confirmation hearing, Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who supported her nomination, jokingly asked President Barack Obama’s nominee what she did on Christmas Day.  It was a strange, even bizarre question because it had nothing to do with her judicial qualifications. But Kagan’s humorous reply completely disarmed her Senatorial opponents: “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” But there is much more to the Jewish-Chinese connection than choosing food from column A or column B on a menu on December 25th.

In his fascinating book, The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China (Penguin), Jonathan Kaufman tells the little-known history of how two remarkable Sephardic families became major economic and political forces in China.  

Originally from Baghdad, the Sassoons and the Kadoories established rival commercial empires during the 19th and 20th centuries in Shanghai and Hong Kong. For more than 175 years, these families profited greatly in shipping, commodities, textiles, real estate, and selling recreational and medicinal opium to the Chinese.

These Jewish families were a vital part of “The Bund,” Shanghai’s multi-national pre-World War II global financial and cultural center, which operated as an independent enclave outside the political control or legal regulations of the Chinese authorities. That arrangement ended in 1949 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, led by Communist leader Mao Zedong.

In the 1930s, the Sassoon and the Kadoorie families aided the 23,000 European Jewish refugees who found safe haven in Shanghai. Despite the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, these refugees, who were confined to a ghetto of one square mile, survived the Holocaust. Among them were teenagers Michael Blumenthal, who would become U.S. Treasury Secretary in the Carter Administration, and Israeli diplomat, Joseph Tekoa.  

Victor Sassoon, the great-grandson of dynasty founder David Sassoon, was educated in England at Harrow and Cambridge. A rich playboy who raised racehorses, Victor built the landmark Art Deco Cathay Hotel in 1929. Victor fled his beloved Shanghai in 1948 as the Communists gained power and he never returned.

The Kadoorie family owned the China Light and Power Company in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. Besides that utility, the Kadoories constructed Hong Kong’s  Peninsula and Repulse Bay hotels. And like their arch-rivals---the Sassoons---they became enormously wealthy from shipping and real estate holdings.

The Cathay Hotel, which had  hosted Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Douglas Fairbanks, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and other celebrities of the 1930s, was expropriated by “Red China,” and only in recent years has it reopened as a luxury hotel. Kaufman estimates that the large Kadoorie family, which has held together better than the quarrelling Sassoons, is today worth more than $11 billion dollars.

The Sassoons and the Kadoories absorbed China’s culture as well as its tangled history. China became part of these families’ emotional DNA.

Kaufman credits these families with helping to shape modern China by establishing schools, philanthropies, synagogues, businesses, and thousands of jobs, but does not paper over how they were inextricably linked to British imperialism.

Kaufman ends his engrossing book with an enigmatic conversation that sums up the ambivalent relationship that still exists between the Sassoons and the Chinese. In 2013, James Sassoon, a British treasury official, traveled to Beijing and attempted to reclaim his family’s vast property holdings.

In a meeting with China’s finance minister Lou Jiwei, Sassoon said: “It is a shame China has not allowed… former owners to come back and reclaim their properties. If China did that, our family would be much better off.”

Lou looked at him and broke into a smile. He switched to English and leaned forward: “Let’s let bygones be bygones.” Or, as they say in a language that is neither Hebrew nor Chinese: Sic transit gloria mundi -- Thus passes worldly glory.