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Baghdadi Trade Diaspora: Jews in Shanghai

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From Baghdad to Shanghai

One of the most interesting chapters in Shanghai's history was the growth of a vibrant Jewish community, exiles who found refuge in the city from hardship, war and persecution. Baghdadi Jews came to Shanghai via India and first settled in the foreign enclave in 1845. During their sojourn of over a century, they were exposed to vast changes in their social, economic, and political environment.

The challenge that confronted this immigrant group was how, amidst alien surroundings, to forge trading relationships and be fully accepted by the foreign communities in China, whilst still maintaining their Jewish identity and cultural distinctiveness.

  • The lives, customs, and traditions of this immigrant group emerge against the backdrop of the Shanghai treaty port in the 19th and 20th centuries, and a turbulent era of rebellions and war in China.
  • The Sephardic Jews were among the first foreign traders to come to the city. Initially they traded in cotton and similar goods before becoming involved in the opium trade.

Shanghai became an embattled city from 1937, laboring under the stranglehold of Japanese occupation during World War II. The city's subsequent incorporation into the Peoples' Republic of China in 1949, signaled the end of the community with its members scattered across the world.

Before and after 1840

Chinese Jewish history can be split into two distinct periods, before and after 1840.

Before 1840, Jews came as guides along the Silk Road, and settled in Kaifeng, in Henan province, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127). The Kaifeng Jewish community has mostly assimilated into the greater Chinese population.  

After 1840, the Jewish communities in China were populated by Westerners and were not assimilated into greater China. Three different events brought more than 40,000 European and Middle Eastern Jews to China: Colonialism, Russian pogroms and revolution, and the Holocaust.

  • Two prominent Jewish businessmen, David Sassoon and Ellis Kadoori, quite literally paved the way to modernizing Shanghai.

David Sassoon was one of Shanghai's most famous citizens. He was one of the first major Jewish traders in China. Born in 1875 from a family of well known Baghdadi Jews, he had come to Shanghai from Bombay. The trade in tea, silk and opium made wealthy tycoons of many petty merchants in the course of the nineteenth century. The creation of Nanjing Road, the main shopping street of modern Shanghai, was originally funded by Sassoon's company in the mid -1800s. Not only did it improve Shanghai's infrastructure, but also provided easier access to their multiple businesses in the area. 

from Wikipedia: History of the Jews in China

An enormous trade developed

Shanghai's first wave of Jews came in the second half of the 19th century, many being Mizrahi Jews from Iraq. The first Jew who arrived there was Elias David Sassoon, who, about the year 1850, opened a branch in connection with his father's Bombay house.

Since that period Jews gradually migrated from India to Shanghai, most of them being engaged from Bombay as clerks by the firm of David Sassoon & Co. The community was composed mainly of "Asian," (Sephardi) German, and Russian Jews, though there were a few of Austrian, French, and Italian origin among them.

Jews took a considerable part in developing trade in China, and several served on the municipal councils, among them being Silas Aaron Hardoon, partner in the firm of E. D. Sassoon & Co., who served on the French and English councils at the same time. During the early days of Jewish settlement in Shanghai the trade in opium, Bombay cotton yarn, tea and silk was mainly in Jewish hands.

An enormous trade developed in Shanghai. By the 1930's it had become one of the largest ports in the world

from Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai by Aviva Shabi

Shanghai Ghetto

The Shanghai Ghetto, known as the 'Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees' was an area of approximately 1 sq. miles in the Hongkon District of Japanese occupied Shanghai. 20,000 Jews who fled Germany occupied Europe before and during ww2 were relocated there by the Japanese.


After ww1

In 1937, after war and much bloodshed the Japanese gained control over the Chinese section of Shanghai. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese refugees fled from the destroyed Hongkew quarter and crowded into the city suburbs.

The first stream of Jewish refugees soon began arriving from Europe. By that time there already was a large community of Russian Jews who had fled their country after the Revolution in 1917 and came to Shanghai via Harbin and Tientsin.

The wealthy Baghdadians of the community were active in the rescue project and founded the "European Refugee Committee." Jacob Alkow was its honorary president.

  • Alkow raised an initial sum of about a quarter of a million dollars from a small group of wealthy people: Kadoorie, Sassoon, Hardoon, Ezra, Abraham. They established clinics and soup kitchens and Horace Kadoorie built a school for the refugee children. When the stream of refugees increased still more, a demand to stop the flow of immigration began because the entire burden fell on the local community.

In July, 1939, when eighteen thousand refugees were already squeezed into Shanghai, the first aid from abroad arrived through the American "Joint" (Joint Distribution Committee).

Perhaps the most famous member of Shanghai's Sassoon family in the 20th century was Sir Victor Sassoon, who became chairman of the company ED Sassoon.

In September of that year World War II broke out and the gates were locked.

Their achievements

  • Sir Victor Sassoon cut a large figure in Shanghai society. He walked with two sticks a result of injuries in WW1, where he had served with the Royal Flying Corps. His only marriage was to a nurse shortly before his death. Sir Victor deeply resented the anti-semitism of the British living in Shanghai that forbade Jews to join the British Country Club.

Consequently Shanghai's Jewish community established their own Country Club on property owned by the Kadoorie family.

  • Ely Kadoorie was one of the major forces in Shanghai Jewish life. He began his career with David Sassoon in 1880 before launching his own business and making a fortune from banking, real estate, and rubber production. The Kadoorie family now live in Hong Kong where they are well known for their contribution to business and charity work.
  • Silas Hardoon, by the time of his death in 1931 was the richest man in Shanghai. Like David Sassoon, he was born in Baghdad and was a brilliant businessman. He made his fortune through property investments and was elected to the Municipal Council of the International Settlement. He married an Eurasian woman named Luo Jialing and the couple adopted Chinese and Eurasian children. Hardoon had also developed a trong interest in Buddhism. After the fall of the Ch'ing dynasty in 1911, it was said that the Hardoons assumed the lifestyle of the court by entertaining impoverished imperial concubines and employing eunuchs as retainers.
    from http://www.dangoor.com/issue76/articles/760966.htm

The media contributions of Shanghai's Jews

The contributions made by the Jews were many. They had a large impact on the media and publishing industries, between 1936 - 1946 there were more than 50 Jewish newspapers and magazines in the city, published in a variety of languages: Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Chinese, Japanese, English, Russian, Germana and French.

Seeking refuge

The rise of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, which intensified in the late 1930's forced a number of European and German Jews to seek refuge in Shanghai. Many had been denied access to other places and Shanghai did not require a visa or passport.

Shanghai Ghetto

  • In the ten years between 1931 and 1941, 20,000 Jews took refuge in Shanghai.
  • The plight of the Jews attracted the attention of Dr Sun Yat-sen, the greatest Nationalist leader and founder of the Chinese Republic.
  • The attitude of the Japanese by and large was to treat Jews according to their nationalities, such as German, Poles and so on.

However, in 1942 some Nazi agents followed the Jews to Shanghai and tried to persuade the Japanese to build death camps on Chongming Island.

  • Instead, in 1943, the Japanese forced many Jews to live in a Designated Area for stateless refugees, in Hongkou.
  • Also '"in 1943 the special privileges enjoyed by foreigners in China came to an end. The unequal treaties of the 19th century were formally abrogated by agreement between China and the international powers.
  • The Jewish population in Shanghai was estimated to number 25,000 (per Betty Peh T'I Wei).

Many things in common

The Jews helped to make Shanghai a more interesting place, contributing much to the business and cultural life of the city. Generally their relationships with the Chinese were very good. Indeed the Jews and Chinese had much commonality.

Both races belong to very old cultures, which emphasize hard work and importance of education and family.

Both were known for their entrepreneurial flair.

Both experienced great suffering during this period:

  • 6 million Jews died in the Nazi Holocaust
  • 35 million Chinese perished in the Sino-Japanese war

'Shanghai provided a lucky few with a lifeline.

       from http://www.dangoor.com/issue76/articles/76096.htm

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