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.