The Kings of Shanghai

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Jonathan Kaufman’s third book, Kings of Shanghai, traces the rise of two Jewish families, the Sassoons and Kadoories, who became prominent businessmen in pre-Mao China. As he did in his previous books (Broken Alliance and A Hole in the Heart of the World), Kaufman explores the experience of Jews striving to become prosperous in the face of the rampant antisemitism of the early 20th Century. In particular, this book examines how these two families helped to transform Shanghai into the economic powerhouse it is today.  

The story begins in Baghdad in 1829, when David Sassoon, a member of a prominent Jewish family, had to flee the city during a power struggle. After arriving in Bombay, he saw that the British Empire, which was then expanding across Southeast Asia, offered him a unique opportunity. Using a combination of creative thinking and flexibility, he was able to form close ties with the British authorities. These payed dividends when, following the First Opium War in 1839, Britain forced the Qing Empire to open its cities to trade with the world. David dispatched his second oldest son, Elias, to Shanghai to oversee financial trade and expand the family business on the back of the opium trade. These efforts were enormously profitable.

After the Second Opium War, the Sassoons were able to further expand their corporation. Despite tumult in 1867 (when Elias dissolved his shares and set up his company in competition with his brother Abdullah Sassoon), David Sassoon & Co. became ever more financially impressive. Flushed with success, the Sassoons began integrating themselves into the upper echelons of British society, eventually establishing a close friendship with Prince Albert (the future King Edward VII). The rise of the Sassoons was best demonstrated in 1890, when Abdullah received a Baronetcy.

However, another Jewish family was also gaining greater prominence in Shanghai. In 1880, a distant cousin of the Sassoons, Eleazer ‘Elly’ Kadoorie travelled to Hong Kong to clerk for his successful relatives. Just a few years later, Kadoorie abruptly left the Sassoons and established his own stock brokerage company Benjamin, Kelly & Potts. Based in Hong Kong, this new company quickly established itself, and Kadoorie rapidly acquired wealth and influence

These two rival families effectively came to rule Shanghai, with the support of President Sun Yat-sen and later Chiang Kai-shek. Amidst the turbulence of the early 20th Century, the city (and particularly the International Zone) was an oasis of calm and prosperity. The wealth of this period of peace witnessed the construction of some of the most distinctive aspects of Shanghai’s architecture, such as the Majestic Hotel and Marble Hall. 

However, Shanghai’s growing prosperity created a false sense of security. Imperial Japan was on the march, and desired to carve out an empire from the carcass of China. Having engineered the Manchuko Incident to invade Manchuria, Japan conquered Shanghai in 1937. Though Japan nominally respected the integrity of the International Settlement, the city came under the control of Captain Inuzaka, who had propagated the notoriously antisemetic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Tensions between occupiers and occupied only increased as ever greater numbers of Jews fled the horrors of Europe. In the Second World War, the Jewish population of Shanghai were forced into ghettos. Though these were not the death camps of the Third Reich, conditions were monstrous, with many dying from starvation and medical complications. In 1945, the war ended with an Allied victory, but the kings of Shanghai had their properties and assets confiscated by the communist Chairman Mao. Victor Sassoon, patriarch of the dwindling Sassoon family, left for the Bahamas, never to return. Lawrence Kadoorie, however, based himself in Hong Kong, eventually becoming one of the world’s wealthiest men.

Kings of Shanghai is a rich account of the rise and fall of these intertwined Jewish families during the ‘golden age’ of the city. While it does, at times, slightly neglect the relationship between these families and their Chinese counterparts, it is still an extremely informative and eminently readable account of this largely unexplored area of history, and I would throughly recommend it to all those interested in modern Chinese history.