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

  • Review
By – July 27, 2020

If a Jew­ish his­to­ri­an were to advance a claim for the diver­si­ty of the expe­ri­ence of the dias­po­ra, the case would rest with the saga of the Sas­soons and the Kadoories. Once based in Bagh­dad, these two clans (and, yes, they were dis­tant­ly relat­ed) relo­cat­ed to Chi­na in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Instead of the mate­r­i­al strug­gles that, until the last cen­tu­ry, marked the mil­len­nia of exile for near­ly all of Jew­ry, these two fam­i­lies became fab­u­lous­ly, pre­pos­ter­ous­ly rich. Instead of the cre­do of the shtetl that life is with peo­ple,” the Sas­soons and the Kadoories lived large­ly in iso­la­tion from oth­er Jews. Even when doing busi­ness over the span of gen­er­a­tions in Shang­hai, no mem­bers of these two remote fam­i­lies ever both­ered to learn Chi­nese. Mod­ern Ashke­naz­ic Jew­ry has often tilt­ed left, but the Sas­soons and the Kadoories appre­ci­at­ed the advan­tages of British impe­ri­al­ism, and helped secure its pow­er over the Chi­nese econ­o­my, until the com­mu­nists cap­tured Bei­jing in 1949. That some Iraqi Jews exer­cised such influ­ence for so long, over a his­toric civ­i­liza­tion to which they were large­ly alien, is so strange a tale that nov­el­ists might be excused for envy­ing Jonathan Kauf­man, who teach­es jour­nal­ism at North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty and had ear­li­er cov­ered Chi­na for sev­er­al Amer­i­can media.

The cre­ation of great wealth is rarely unprob­lem­at­ic, and the Sas­soons — who got to Shang­hai just ahead of Kadoories — trad­ed in opi­um. In no way is the author an apol­o­gist for such con­duct, and he makes clear the hor­rif­ic cost of the lethal addic­tion of mil­lions. He nev­er­the­less offers con­text: oth­ers got into the trade ear­li­er, and a safe way to relieve pain (aspirin) didn’t get patent­ed until the end of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. The Kadoories did not engage in such trade. But The Last Kings of Shang­hai is often har­row­ing in describ­ing the extent to which Chi­na was sub­ject­ed to a cen­tu­ry of humil­i­a­tion at the hands of out­side cap­i­tal, which nei­ther the mil­i­tar­i­ly weak impe­r­i­al rulers in Bei­jing nor the repub­lic under Sun Yat-sen and then Chi­ang Kai-Shek could effec­tive­ly counter. But this book is not a polit­i­cal tract. Kauf­man has instead cho­sen to exam­ine the sources of finan­cial suc­cess; and he lucid­ly explains how com­bi­na­tions of shrewd­ness, tenac­i­ty, and luck hurled these two Jew­ish fam­i­lies to the top. Seiz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties in trans­porta­tion (steamships) and in com­mu­ni­ca­tion (the tele­graph), the Sas­soons and the Kadoories built lav­ish hotels for tourists, as well as syn­a­gogues for themselves.

The gen­er­a­tions that came after the dynas­tic founders were not pious. But even when the descen­dants attached them­selves to the Eng­lish upper class, and even got knight­ed, Judaism itself was rarely repu­di­at­ed. An excep­tion was Rachel Sas­soon Beer, who con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty in Eng­land, and then became edi­tor of both London’s Sun­day Times and the Observ­er—“the first woman in Britain to edit two nation­al news­pa­pers.” But Mao­ism would destroy much of the fam­i­lies’ wealth, as did per­son­al dis­si­pa­tion. The tone of this book is not ele­giac, how­ev­er. In the 1970s, when Deng Xiaop­ing reopened Chi­na for pri­vate invest­ment, a resilient Lawrence Kadoorie, based in Hong Kong, nev­er­the­less proved him­self ready to do business.

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