October Reading Group
The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties
By Jonathan Kaufman
Friday, October 30, 2020
7:30 - 9:00 am PDT
Online Zoom Meeting
About the Book
At our last session we reviewed Michael Pillsbury’s book, The 100 Year Marathon. In this book, Pillsbury argues that in 1949 Mao developed a 100 year plan for China to achieve international dominance. For our October session, PCFR will look back on Chinese history reviewing the history of Shanghai and other cities along China’s coast from the last part of the 19th century to the present. The Last Kings of Shanghai examines the lives of two Jewish families, the Sassoons and the Kadoories, who, due to anti-Semitism, were forced out of Bagdad (what used to be called ancient Babylon) and eventually ended up in China.
Jonathan Kaufman, the author, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for thirty years at the Boston Globe where he covered the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the China bureau chief for the WSJ, currently director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and the 1997 and author of A Hole in the Heart of the World, Being Jewish in Eastern Europe, according to historian Roger Lowenstein) “…mines a rich vein of untold history that knits together the Jewish diaspora with the stirrings of revolution in China. The improbable saga of the Sassoon family reads like an eastern and Sephardic companion to the story of the Warburgs.” In this book, we follow the forced anti -Semitic personal and commercial exile of the Sassoons from Bagdad to Bombay India to Shanghai China. We follow their exploits from the Opium trade, the fall of the Chinese emperor, the rise and fall of the Chinese Nationalist Party of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai shek , the loss of family wealth with the rise of the Communist Party and their ultimate wealth retrieval.
Along the way, another Bagdad family, the Kadoories tutored by the Sassoon family, later split from the Sassoons, to create their own business dynasty, which eventually rivaled the Sassoon family along Chinese coastal cities south of Shanghai. The Kadoories avoided the opium business trade and concentrated in real estate development and utilities. The story has its twists and turns as these families built enormous wealth for themselves and for certain income groups in China. Needing financial assistance, the families created hugely successful financial institutions like the Shanghai Bank later to be called HSBC.
Amy Kadoorie, having strong relations with Sun Yat-sen, was capable of encouraging Sun to support the 1917 Balfour Declaration that led to the founding of the state of Israel. Losing most of their wealth when the communists took power, the families fled to Hong Kong and, like Shanghai, built a commercially thriving economy.
The Sassoons helped thousands of Jews forced out of Europe due to the Holocaust. According to the author, the Sassoons were not as sensitive to the Chinese as to the plight of the Jews from Europe. The cultural model for these Jewish families was not China , but the British empire, Shanghai was a glamorous city which attracted the rich and the famous all over the world to its marvelous commercial streets and famous hotels. The rich had its splendor, but as Emily Hahn, the lover of Victor Sassoon, the family’s infamous playboy said, the city’s wealth sat on a “heap of underfed coolies”. The Kadoories, on the other hand, were a more reformist family aiding the Chines people during the Communist rule.
What a story!
This history of families reads like a novel and I am sure you will be fascinated with the journey. What makes the PCFR sessions so fascinating and so valuable, is that many book review members have years of experience living and working in places like China and can give first -hand personal insight that can rarely be acquired elsewhere.
Don’t miss our next exciting ZOOM book review!
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