A History of the Jews in Shanghai
by Steve Hochstadt
Jews in Colonial Shanghai
One of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world, Shanghai in the late 19th and early 20th century was an international banking city and the gun-running capital of Asia, a center for trade in textiles and opium, an open port where law was subordinated to profit.
After the British navy defeated Chinese forces in the Opium War of 1842, two large sections of central Shanghai became autonomous foreign entities: the International Settlement dominated by British and American business interests and governed by the Shanghai Municipal Council, and the French Concession run by the French government through its Consul General.
The extraterritorial governments controlled police, customs, and judicial matters in the two settlements. Shanghai became a capitalist paradise. Western businessmen controlled downtown Shanghai, with its great banks, port facilities, hotels, and warehouses. The Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC) was elected by the tiny proportion of foreigners who owned substantial property. Extremes of wealth and poverty jostled in the crowded streets.
Some of the earliest British subjects in Shanghai were Jews who originated in the Middle East. A few of these Baghdadi families became enormously wealthy and joined the financial elite in Shanghai, including the Sassoons, Kadoories, and Hardoons. In the early 20th century, poorer Baghdadi Jewish families fled from conscription in the Ottoman Turkish army. By the 1930s the Baghdadi community numbered nearly 1000. They congregated in the Ohel Rachel synagogue, built in 1920, and sent their children to the Shanghai Jewish School. (Read more ...)
Pass for stateless refugees in Hongkou issued by the Shanghai Stateless Refugees Bureau, 1940s
Baghdadi Jews in Early Shanghai
by Maisie J. Meyer
Many Baghdadi Jews (the term “Baghdadi” in this context encompasses Arabic speaking Jews from the Middle East, Aden and Yemen, and non-Arabic speaking Jews from Persia and Afghanistan) emigrated to escape political and religious harassment and deteriorating economic conditions in their countries of origin. Their search for new commercial opportunities brought them to a string of trading posts as far a field as London, Bombay, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Their experience in Shanghai was distinctive in the Asian Baghdadi diaspora, not least because of their efforts to “rescue” the remnants of the Kaifeng Jewish Community. In the course of time Shanghai Baghdadi Jews were hugely outnumbered by Ashkenazi victims of persecution that found refugee in the ten square miles of the British dominated foreign concessions of Shanghai.
Elias Sassoon (1820-80), the son of David Sassoon (1792-1864), patriarch of the Baghdadi Jews in Bombay, and a scion of the illustrious family of Baghdad, in ca. 1845 pioneered the settlement of Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai, a port opened in 1842 after the First Opium War. Ten square miles of Shanghai was set aside for foreign residence and in time evolved into the International Settlement. Within five years the Sassoon firm established offices in Hong Kong and along the entire China coast and monopolized the most lucrative part of the China-India trade and later between England and East Asia. Elias purchased land at incredibly low prices which in time rose astronomically. After 1895 the firm established spinning and weaving plants, and rice, paper and flour mills.
The Sassoons recruited office managers, clerks and warehouse men from Baghdad and India to work in their China offices, and Shanghai became a major centre of Sassoon operations, second only to Bombay. The firm safeguarded Baghdadi Jewish traditions which were crucial in maintaining their identity throughout the century of their sojourn in the foreign concessions of Shanghai. Initially, accommodation was provided for their staff. No business was done on Sabbath and festivals and services were held adhering to Baghdadi customs (minhagim). Employees were taught how to slaughter poultry in the ritual manner to ensure they had kosher food when they traveled. Their kinship, their religious traditions, their practice of endogamy, similar commercial interests, and not least their distinctive cuisine provided bonds with their kinsman elsewhere in the Baghdadi diaspora. (Read more ...)
The Cathay Hotel (now the Peace Hotel) in Shanghai, built by British Sir Victor Sassoon 1926-1929.
Huoshan Park, 59 Zhoushan Road, Hongkou District
A memorial to Shanghai's European Jewish refugees, this sculpture wall contains the names of 13,732 Jewish refugees who lived in Shanghai during the War.
118 Huoshan Road, Hongkou District
The Jewish cemetery in Shanghai was located behind Huoshan Park and, along with three other Jewish cemeteries, was scattered throughout the city. In a state-led effort to remodel the cityscape in accordance with Chinese communist aesthetics, Shanghai, in 1958, disinterred all the 3,700 Jewish tombs and transferred them to a large open burial ground, on the outlying fields to the west of the city.
Southern Hongkou and Southwestern Yangpu Districts
The Shanghai Ghetto, formally known as the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees, was an area of approximately one square mile in the Hongkou district of Japanese-occupied Shanghai, where approximately 23,000 Jewish refugees were restricted or relocated between 1941 and 1945.
Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum (Former Ohel Moshe Synagogue)
62 Changyang Lu, Hongkou District
Established by Russian Jewish immigrants in 1907, the current structure was created in 1927, and is now a museum devoted to the Jewish experience in Shanghai, featuring documents, photographs, films, and personal items documenting the lives of some of the more than 20,000 Jewish residents of the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees. The synagogue was confiscated by the government after the communist takeover in 1949 and converted into a psychiatric hospital. In 2004, it was inscribed on the list of architectural heritage treasures of Shanghai. It is closed for renovations through December 2020.
20 East Nanjing Road
Built in 1929 by Victor Sassoon, a descendent of the affluent Jewish family that migrated from Baghdad to India and then to Shanghai in the late 19th century, this art deco hotel was originally called the Cathay Hotel, and was once a glamorous social hub in the 1930s. It is also where Noel Coward wrote Private Lives.
54 Yan’an West Road, Jing’an District
The current Shanghai Children's Palace was the former villa of Sir Elly Kadoorie and is completely made of marble, hence its other name, "Marble Hall." Its construction started in 1918 and was completed in 1924.
Ohel Rachel Synagogue - Former Beth El Synagogue
500 Shaanxi North Road, Jing'an District
The Beth El Synagogue, established in 1887 on Peking Road by Sephardi Jews from Baghdad and Bombay, Jacob Elias and Edward Elias Sassoon was replaced with the Ohel Rachel Synagogue in 1920. It is the largest in the Far East, and one of only two synagogues still standing in Shanghai. It has been a protected architectural landmark since 1994.
The building on which the former Ohel Rachel synagogue now stands was built by the Baghdadi Jew D.E.J. Abraham in 1907, seven years after he built the Shanghai Jewish School to the left of the synagogue. The entrance to the school, on Xinzha Road, is still visible, with the main entrance located also at 500 Shaanxi North Road. A Mikveh used to stand next to the school, but is now a six-story building.
Center for Jewish Studies Shanghai
622-7 Huai Hai Road (M) Suite 472
CJSS staff assist people in arranging one-day tours of Shanghai's Jewish sites with Hebrew or English-speaking guides, and can schedule meetings and seminars with students and scholars of the Center.
Pacific Delight Tours - Lotus Tours
Phone: (800) 221-7179
Tokayer Heritage Tours was inaugurated by Pacific Delight Tours in 2018, with "Journey Home: Japan and China Through Jewish Eyes." As of 2018, Dr. Amiel Tokayer, born and raised in Japan, began leading tours of Jewish China, taking over for his father, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who led spectacularly successful tours to China and Japan for over 35 years.
Tours of Jewish Shanghai
Phone: 86-21-62839235 or 130-021-46702
Dvir Bar-Gal, an English-speaking Israeli living in Shanghai who has done considerable research and film work on Jewish tombstone of Shanghai, offers tours in English and Hebrew of all the Jewish sites in Shanghai.
Phone: (202) 248-0942
A retired Foreign Service officer who lived in Shanghai for many years, Tess is an expert on the Western presence in old China, Western architecture in China, and Jewish architecture in Shanghai. She has published 25 books, including fifteen volumes on Western architecture and the expatriate experience in old China.
Shanghai Bund (Riverfront), circa 1920s
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Shanghai Bund at night
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East Seward Road, Shanghai, 1940.