Discovering Shanghai’s Jewish history

It was John Safran who first alerted me to Shanghai’s Jewish population – in his TV show Race Relations, within which he sought to reconcile his desire for Asian women with his mother’s insistence that he marry within the Jewish faith. Landing himself one of these “Jewrasians” was apparently the perfect solution. Nonetheless, the Jewish history of Shanghai, although relatively short in Chinese terms, is another fascinating layer of the city. We recently did a tour of Jewish Shanghai, along with some visiting friends, guided by a guy with endless knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject.

The first significant wave of Jewish arrival in Shanghai was during the mid 19th century, from Persia and Russia (mostly traders and businessmen, but later many fleeing the Russian Revolution of the early 20th century). The Baghdadi Jews were particularly successful, especially the cotton-trading Sassoon family, who arrived in Shanghai via India. By the turn of the twentieth century, the family had moved into real estate, owning almost 2000 properties, including much of Nanjing Road. The grandson of the original settlers, Victor Sassoon, was renowned as one of Shanghai’s bon vivants (read: pants-man) and as the developer of the famous Cathay (now Peace) Hotel at the intersection of the Bund and Nanjing Road. It’s the one with the pointy dark roof, from this photo in the 1940s.

Many of the family’s employees also became successful in business. The Kadoorie brothers set themselves up in real estate, banking and rubber, later relocating to Hong Kong where the family still owns the electricity system and the Peak Tram. Another, Silas Hardoon, also in real estate, owned one of the largest personal estates in China, where he and his Eurasian wife (Luo Jialang) raised a multi-cultural family of 11 adopted children. This house has been turned into the “Children Palace” where under-privileged kids can hang out and have fun.

Many Jews arrived in Shanghai in the late 1930s as “stateless refugees”. Having established an International Settlement area in the city and acting under mostly autonomous rule, the city allowed the relatively free (no passport required) arrival of people from anywhere in the world. As the rest of the world closed their borders to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany, Shanghai became a safe haven.

World War Two lead to more restricted movement of people out of Europe. The Chinese Consul General in Vienna, Ho Feng Shan, secretly issued exit visas to thousands of Austrian Jews up until 1940 – perhaps as he was willfully acting outside his role, his status as the “Chinese Schindler” is not widely recognized here. Better known is the Japanese Consul in Poland, Chiune Sugihara, who approved thousands of visas to Japan to Jews, knowing that they would stop their overland journey short in Shanghai. Shanghai’s Jewish population grew to about 30,000.

With the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1943, the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees (aka the “Shanghai Ghetto”) was established in the northern part of the city. Initially, people were free to move in and out of the sector, but were subject to a curfew, and suffered through poverty, food shortages, crowded housing and disease. 


As the war continued, the Japanese rule of the ghetto became more oppressive and violent. Although Germany started to apply pressure on the Japanese to hand over the Shanghai Jews (to allow their execution), the Japanese resisted. After the war, most Jews left the city. Businessmen sought the greener pastures of Hong Kong and other cities, and others relocated to places such as Australia, Canada, the US and South America.

On the tour, we visited the house where our friend’s grandparents lived before they moved to Sydney.

We also visited the Ohel Moshe Synagogue. Built in 1907, it became unused only about 30 years later, and has now been converted into a Jewish museum. Last year, it held its first bar mitzvah in 60 years.

Huoshan Park is the only public memorial to the Ghetto. 

It was a fascinating tour …. it lead me into parts of Shanghai I had never seen and into histories I never knew existed.  And it was great to share it with a friend whose personal history is part of the story.


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