Very little work has been done on specifically Jewish economic activities in Hong Kong. Of the early Baghdadi merchant houses, only the Sassoons seem to have been the subject of focused published study. Lord Kadoorie’s anecdotal memoir dated 1979 provides some personalized insights to the nature of Jewish commercial activities on the China coast and their familial links within the rubric of the British Empire during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, that these commercial pioneers helped build Hong Kong’s basic economic infrastructure is evinced by their part in establishing the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and their continuous membership on its board of directors during its early years.
The immense contribution of the Kadoorie family to the post-World War II economic success story of Hong Kong is documented in various publications. Their business activities concentrated in Hong Kong & Shanghai Hotels Ltd. (i.e., the Peninsula Group), China Light and Power Company (which is a major investor in the Daya Bay nuclear power facility), the Peak Tram Company, and others. Their many activities have been geared primarily to bringing economic “self-help” education to the local Hong Kong Chinese population. In addition to the world-famous Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association Experimental and Extension Farm in Hong Kong, the Kadoories established schools and hospitals in Hong Kong, China, India, Nepal, and the Middle East.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, local Baghdadi mercantile activities can be seen as part of an international network of family and ethnic ties. However, because of increasing links with Hong Kong’s governing British bureaucracy, and positive responses to the challenges of Hong Kong’s changing regional economic role, local established Jewish economic activity gradually became part and parcel of the basic economic infrastructure of Hong Kong itself as a modern manufacturing and financial center.
It was the post-World War II boom in Asian trade, and the opening of the China trade in particular, that led to a dramatic increase in Hong Kong’s Jewish population, as well as fundamental changes in the demographic and religious character of the community. The expansion of China trade after the signing of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, in which China and the United States announced their intention to work toward normalization of diplomatic relations, led to a large influx of American investment and businessmen. Hong Kong’s Jewish population began to work in a much wider range of economic activities, including trade and retail, financial service industries, various professions and manufacturing. A 1989 questionnaire-survey of the membership of the Ohel Leah Synagogue/Jewish Recreation Club revealed a profile of nationality groupings as follows: 39% percent American, 27% percent British, 17% percent Israeli, and 17% percent other. Of these respondents, 71% percent indicated Ashkenazi identification.
A 2002 estimate put the Jewish population of Hong Kong at around 6,000. This demographic change was reflected in Ohel Leah services, which had begun to follow the Ashkenazi form, and in the formation of new congregations. There are four established congregations: the (Orthodox) Ohel Leah Synagogue, the Lubavitch Chabad, the (Reform/Liberal) United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and the Syrian Jewish Shuva Israel. The new Jewish Community Centre (JCC), which opened in 1995, holds recreational facilities, a kosher restaurant, and a professionally managed Judaica Library. It is the leading venue of Jewish activities in this city of nearly seven million population, mostly Chinese. There are two Jewish schools: Carmel Day School for children up to 8 years old, and Ezekiel Abraham School for older children. The JCC is also home to the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong, which established Hong Kong’s Judaica Library, and has published books & articles relevant to Sino-Judaic studies.
Some Historical Notes
Ohel Leah Synagogue, originally built a Sephardic-colonial style by Sir Jacob Sassoon in 1901-1902, was restored and renovated in 1998. Its Aron ha Kodesh (ark) contains many Torah scrolls with Sephardic style encasings. Some of them were found on Cat Street, Hong Kong’s famous thieves’ market, in 1974, and are believed to have originated in the former and ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng in Henan Province, China.
The Hong Kong Jewish Cemetery was established by a small government land grant in 1858. Located in Happy Valley on Hong Kong Island, this land grant was expanded in 1904 by Sir Mathew Nathan (1862-1939), who served from 1904 to 1907 as Hong Kong’s only Jewish governor. Sir Mathew also served the community as Honorary President of Ohel Leah Synagogue while resident in Hong Kong. The main thoroughfare in Hong Kong’s Kowloon peninsula is called Nathan Road in his honor.
The most prominent Jew from Hong Kong is Lord Lawrence Kadoorie (1899-1993), who is recognized as the driving force behind Hong Kong’s phenomenal economic growth following World War II. Known as a visionary businessman, investor, hotelier, and entrepreneur, he was also recognized for his extensive philanthropic activities. He was the first person born in Hong Kong to be named to the British House of Lords, being honored with a CBE and named Baron Kadoorie of Kowloon and Westminster in 1981. He also received the Chev. Leg. Hon. from the French Government.
[Excerpted, with permission, from “Environmental Interactions of the Jews of Hong Kong,” by Dennis A. Leventhal, in The Jews of China, Vol. I: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, Jonathan Goldstein, ed. (M. E. Sharpe, 1999): 171-186. Updated and revised in 2009.]