In their hour of need, Shanghai was the only place in the world to welcome the Jewish people; and in return the Jewish people played a vital role in the development of a vibrant and culturally rich Shanghai.
by Ashley Greenwood / Photos courtesy of Lu Yun and the Chabad Jewish Center, Shanghai
Since the opening of China in the 1980’s many foreigners have come to China to live, either for a short time or to permanently settle with their family, drawn by an interest in Chinese culture or by the opportunities provided by one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The Jewish community that once thrived here has also been slowly returning, and approximately 3000 Jews now live in Shanghai.
At its height, the Jewish population in Shanghai reached around 30,000 to 40,000, with most of this number arriving between 1845 and 1945. Although not what it once was, there still exists an active community here, alive with social gatherings and ritual. There is no longer a neighbourhood filled with kosher shops like those that would have been found in the War-era Jewish ghetto of ‘Little Vienna’ in Hongkou (there is just one kosher mini-market in Shanghai now), but the community here still get together to study and celebrate their faith.
Judaism actually has a long history in China, with evidence of Jewish communities existing here nearly 1000 years ago and Genghis Khan referring to them as “Hui Hui”. Particularly well known are the Jews in Kaifeng, and the oldest of three inscribed steles found there, dating from 1489, commemorates the construction of a Synagogue (in 1163), states the Jews entered China from India in the later Han Dynasty (25–220 CE), and notes their audience with an “un-named” Song Dynasty Emperor. When the Venetian traveller Marco Polo visited Yuan Dynasty China in the late 13th century, he described the prominence of Jewish traders in Dadu (now Beijing).
It was between 1840s and 1940s, when Shanghai was gradually developed into a global metropolis by Western colonists, that the Jewish population in Shanghai boomed. Arriving from other regions of the British Empire, in particular India and later Iraq, Jews under British protection established some of the leading trading companies, initially the trade in cotton and opium before moving in to real estate and banking. Many more Jews came to Shanghai fleeing the 1917 Russian Revolution, soon joined by the Harbin Jewish community who were forced to move south to Shanghai by the Japanese occupation of northeast China in 1931. A final surge of refugees escaping the Holocaust in Europe arrived in Shanghai, and during this period more Jews found sanctuary in China than in any other country in the world.
Even in Shanghai, however, the Jewish community were under threat. During the Japanese occupation, Nazi representatives tried to pressure the Japanese army to build death camps on Chongming Island and exterminate Shanghai’s Jewish population. Instead, the occupying Japanese army required the “stateless refugees” to relocate to Shanghai’s Hongkou district where they were then blocked from leaving the already over-crowded neighbourhood.
This neighbourhood in Hongkou, known as ‘Little Vienna’ because so many of the residents were Austrian, later became the Jewish Ghetto. The community contained Synagogues, schools, hospitals, a cemetery, chamber of commerce, and several publications. The liveliest focus of Jewish activity was the Jewish Club of Shanghai where members spent their time at the Club’s card tables, whilst others enjoyed bowling, billiards, table tennis, the Club’s dining rooms and its library, as well as musical and theatrical performances. This life came to an abrupt end after World War II when, with the establishment of the PRC in 1949, nearly all of Shanghai’s Jewish community had to leave the city for Israel, the United States and other countries.
Influential Jewish people in Shanghai
The richest man in Shanghai by the time of his death in 1931 was Silas Hardoon. Like David Sassoon, he was born in Baghdad and was a brilliant businessman, who starting as a night watchman for the Sassoons, and later made his fortune through property investments. He married a Eurasian woman, Luo Jialing, and they adopted Chinese and Eurasian children. His Aili Garden designed to be in the style of traditional Chinese gardens, contained a temple and school.
David Sassoon was one of the first major Jewish traders in China. His Great-Grandson, Sir Victor Sassoon, who became the chairman of the E D Sassoon company, deeply resented the anti-Semitism of many of the British living in Shanghai. Jews, for example, were forbidden to join the British Country Club.
The Kadoorie family founded the China Light & Power Co. and today own the Peninsula Hotel Group. Elly Kadoorie began his career with David Sassoon in 1880 before launching his own businesses 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.
Present Day Community
Since the 1990s, the Shanghai municipal government began to preserve historical Western architecture, including many former Jewish-owned hotels and private residences. The front garden of the Kadoorie residence (now the Shanghai Children’s Palace) made way for the city’s overpass system, but other relics have been better preserved.
Whilst Christianity and Islam are currently officially recognised in China, it is perhaps a little odd that Judaism, the precursor to these religions, is not. There are, however, three Synagogues in Shanghai – one in Hongqiao, one in downtown Puxi and one in Pudong.
Rabbi Avraham Greenberg of the Chabad Jewish Center of Pudong arrived in Shanghai 7 years ago with his family and has been organising community events here since then. Rabbi Greenberg explains that all kosher preparations are now done at these Jewish Centres and the Sabbath services held each Friday are usually attended by about 250 members of the community, with larger events being attended by up to about 700 people across the three Centres. Whilst the Downtown Jewish Center in Puxi is most often frequented by young adult members, Rabbi Greenbergs centre has more families among it’s attendees.
As well as serving as Synagogues, where rituals and religious celebrations of the faith are performed, the centres also provide a social hub for those who have newly arrived in Shanghai to find like-minded friends. The centres offer Torah study sessions for young adults, play groups for children, sports competitions, and get-togethers for women, among many other services. While the centres play such a great role in the community, they are, due to the current legal status of Judaism in China, currently unavailable to Chinese citizens wishing to learn more about this ancient culture and ideology.
Key historical Jewish sites in Shanghai:
Ohel Rachel Synagogue
The most important Jewish Community building still standing today, it was the primary synagogue for the Sepharic (mainly lraqi) community in Shanghai and was also used by the Russian Jews who inhabited the neighbourhood in the 1920s and 1930s. Founded by Sir Jacob Sassoon in memory of his wife, It was consecrated in 1920 and used until 1952. Restored and re-opened in 1998 before a visit by the First Lady Hillary Clinton, it was further renovated in 2010 before the world expo.
Now Zhoushan Road, was once the commercial artery of ‘Little Vienna’. Several Jewish families lived in each flat, sometimes 30 to a room. A sign outside building No. 59 indicates that Michael Blumenthal, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury of the Carter Government, once lived there.
Built in 1917, in the past it was called Wayside Park. During the Second World War, Jewish refugees from Europe often came here to relax or get together. Inside the park stands a monument in commemoration of the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees”.
Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum
Located on Changyang Road in Hongkou District, it is also known as the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue. During the World War, it was a centre of religious activities for Jewish refugees in Shanghai.
The complex now known as the Shanghai Exhibition Centre used to be the residence of Sir Silas Hardoon. Older Shanghainese still know it as Hardoon Gardens. Tongren Road to its west was once called Hardoon Road.
Located on Fenyang Road and now the Music Conservatory. The Russian Jewish Club eventually became a club for the whole community.