Ohel Leah Synagogue, erected 1901 to honor Leah Sassoon, wife of Elias David Sassoon, Iraqi-Indian Jewish philanthropist and businessman
The Jewish Community of Hong Kong
By Den Leventhal
Origins & Evolution
On January 26, 1841, the British Navy planted a flag on Hong Kong Island. Until then, Hong Kong had been virtually an historical irrelevancy. The nearby mainland and surrounding islands hold some “digs” evincing inhabitants of various Chinese dynasties, such as the Ming, Song, and Han, and even the Neolithic period. But despite the extensive maritime activity of the Southern Song and early Ming, and the flood of coastal pirates coming out of Ashikaga Japan, “Fragrant Harbor” (the literal translation of “Hong Kong”) apparently had never developed into anything much more than a minor anchorage and careenage for fishermen and smugglers throughout the long course of Chinese imperial history. However, it did serve as a neutral point of contact with the outside world.
When the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 added Hong Kong to Britain’s mercantile/colonial network, it became a staging point for trade with the treaty ports of the China coast. It evolved slowly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and then exploded into a major entrepot with the post-World War II boom in East Asia, fueled further by the opening of the China trade in the late 1970s.
Jewry in Hong Kong followed a similar evolution. Jews were among the first settlers in the 1840s, and a Jewish community life began to develop from the mid-1850s. This early community consisted primarily of Baghdadi commercial pioneers whose families had migrated under the protecting wings of British imperial expansion from the Middle East, through India, and from there on to the China coast and Japan. The prime focus of their activities in Hong Kong was management of their commercial links (primarily in general trading) with the Chinese treaty ports.
These merchants of Baghdadi origin can be characterized as international family networks, with intermarriages almost as import as capital for the generation of business. Their paternalistic leaders assumed responsibility for organizing Jewish community life wherever they settled. In Hong Kong, this resulted in the establishment of a Jewish cemetery in 1858, and the construction of Hong Kong’s first and only synagogue building, Ohel Leah, in 1901-02. As Jewish community leaders, they also donated both funds and land to the Jewish community in the form of a trust (dated April 13, 1903), which remains today a prime support for the maintenance of Jewish community property and religious activities.
While some European Jews, primarily from France, also settled in Hong Kong and established new specialty businesses such as retailing, the core of the community remained Baghdadi. Even as late as 1925, when the community’s first cantor was imported from Baghdad, the primarily language of the majority of the community was still Arabic.
Estimating the size of this community in its earlier stages is problematical because of the lack of adequate internal records. We know the names of the leading families–Sassoon, Kadoorie, Somech, Sopher, Gubbay, and others; but we do not know the numbers of relatives and family retainers who formed the backbone of their business infrastructure. While a 1914 publication describes Ohel Leah Synagogue as having “accommodation for about 500 persons,” a 1933 publication states the community consisted of between fifty and seventy-five families, and a 1936 publication puts the Jewish population at around one hundred persons.
In both 1937 and the immediate post-World War II period, influxes of Jewish refugees from the China mainland, primarily from Shanghai, placed a strain on the resources of the local Hong Kong Community. However, these were transient phenomena, and most of these refugees eventually moved on to such places a North America, Australia, and Israel within a relatively short time. (Read more ...)
Sir Matthew Nathan, the first and only Jewish Governor of Hong Kong, 1903-1907
70 Robinson Road
Mid-Levels, Hong Kong
Over 100 years old, the Ohel Leah Synagogue was completed in early 1902 and formally dedicated by Sir Jacob Sassoon in commemoration of his mother Leah. The synagogue holds traditional Orthodox services.
The Happy Valley Jewish Cemetery
Shan Kwong Road
Burial ground was opened in 1852 by the Sassoon family, with the first burial taking place in 1857. It contains graves of the Kadoorie family as well.
One Robinson Place
70 Robinson Road
Founded in 1984, the JHSHK established a Jewish library with a Sino-Judaic collection, organizes lectures, gathers oral histories, mounts exhibitions and
organizes tours of Jewish Hong Kong.
Established in 1901 along with the Ohel Leah Synagogue, the original mikvah was destroyed during World War II, reconstructed in 1995, and renovated in 2010.
Cantor Joy Katzen-Guthrie offers tours of Jewish China which include Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Jewish Cemetery in Happy Valley
Leventhal, Den. Sino-Judaic studies: Whence and whither: an essay and
____. The Jewish community of Hong Kong: An introduction (Jan 1, 1988)
Lyons, Erica. The Jewish Community of Hong Kong
A Vision Fulfilled: Jewish Community Centre Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Jewish
Community Centre, 1995)
Article on Sir Nathan and Hong Kong. Points East 24:2 (2009)
Elias David Sassoon (top), offices of E.D. Sassoon & Co., Bombay (middle) and Jacob Sassoon (bottom)