Free Shipping on Orders of $40 or More
The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

by Jonathan Kaufman
The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

by Jonathan Kaufman



Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now


"In vivid detail... examines the little-known history of two extraordinary dynasties."--The Boston Globe

"Not just a brilliant, well-researched, and highly readable book about China's past, it also reveals the contingencies and ironic twists of fate in China's modern history."--LA Review of Books

An epic, multigenerational story of two rival dynasties who flourished in Shanghai and Hong Kong as twentieth-century China surged into the modern era, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist

Shanghai, 1936. The Cathay Hotel, located on the city's famous waterfront, is one of the most glamorous in the world. Built by Victor Sassoon--billionaire playboy and scion of the Sassoon dynasty--the hotel hosts a who's who of global celebrities: Noel Coward has written a draft of Private Lives in his suite and Charlie Chaplin has entertained his wife-to-be. And a few miles away, Mao and the nascent Communist Party have been plotting revolution.

By the 1930s, the Sassoons had been doing business in China for a century, rivaled in wealth and influence by only one other dynasty--the Kadoories. These two Jewish families, both originally from Baghdad, stood astride Chinese business and politics for more than 175 years, profiting from the Opium Wars; surviving Japanese occupation; courting Chiang Kai-shek; and losing nearly everything as the Communists swept into power. In The Last Kings of Shanghai, Jonathan Kaufman tells the remarkable history of how these families participated in an economic boom that opened China to the world, but remained blind to the country's deep inequality and to the political turmoil at their doorsteps. In a story stretching from Baghdad to Hong Kong to Shanghai to London, Kaufman enters the lives and minds of these ambitious men and women to forge a tale of opium smuggling, family rivalry, political intrigue, and survival.

The book lays bare the moral compromises of the Kadoories and the Sassoons--and their exceptional foresight, success, and generosity. At the height of World War II, they joined together to rescue and protect eighteen thousand Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism. Though their stay in China started out as a business opportunity, the country became a home they were reluctant to leave, even on the eve of revolution. The lavish buildings they built and the booming businesses they nurtured continue to define Shanghai and Hong Kong to this day. As the United States confronts China's rise, and China grapples with the pressures of breakneck modernization and global power, the long-hidden odysseys of the Sassoons and the Kadoories hold a key to understanding the present moment.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735224421
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/02/2020
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: eBook
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 45,424
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Jonathan Kaufman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who has written and reported on China for thirty years for The Boston Globe, where he covered the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square; The Wall Street Journal, where he served as China bureau chief from 2002 to 2005; and Bloomberg News. He is the author of A Hole in the Heart of the World: Being Jewish in Eastern Europe and Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America, winner of the National Jewish Book Award. He is director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.

Read an Excerpt



The Patriarch


Through the darkened streets, the richest man in Baghdad fled for his life.


Just hours earlier, David Sassoon's father had ransomed him from the jail where Baghdad's Turkish rulers had imprisoned him, threatening to hang him if the family did not pay an exorbitant tax bill. Now a boat lay waiting to take thirty-seven-year-old David to safety. He tied a money belt around his waist and donned a cloak. Servants had sewn pearls inside the lining. "Only his eyes showed between the turban and a high-muffled cloak as he slipped through the gates of the city where generations of his kin had once been honored," a family historian wrote. It was 1829. His family had lived in Baghdad as virtual royalty for more than eight hundred years.


Jews fleeing oppressive rulers was a common historical theme even by the nineteenth century. Jews had been expelled from Britain in 1290, from Spain in 1492. Venice had ordered them confined to ghettos starting in 1516. The horrors of the Holocaust were yet to come.


The flight of David Sassoon was different. Jews had always lived at the margins of society in Europe. But for more than a thousand years, Jews had flourished in Baghdad, known in the Bible as Babylon. More than any city in Europe, more than Jerusalem, Baghdad was a crossroads of cultures from a.d. 70 to the 1400s. When Europe was mired in the darkness of the Middle Ages, Baghdad was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. It was home to some of the world's leading mathematicians, theologians, poets, and doctors. Raw wool, copper, and spices traveled along caravan routes across the desert. Pearls and silverware filled the bazaars. Merchants, doctors, and artists gathered in Baghdad's coffeehouses. The ruler's palace sat surrounded by three square miles of wooded parkland, with fountains and lakes stocked with fish.


Within this world, Jews flourished. They first arrived in 587 b.c., when Babylon's King Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, and upon victory carried 10,000 Jewish artisans, scholars, and leaders-Judaism's best and brightest-to Baghdad into what the Bible dubbed "the Babylonian Captivity." The book of Psalms famously documented the despair of these displaced Jews:


By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down


Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.


In fact, "the Babylonian Captivity" changed the course of Jewish history. Jewish learning and religious innovation blossomed, giving Jews the religious, political, and economic tools-and a way of thinking-they would use to survive and thrive around the world over the next millennia and through to today. It marked the start of the Jewish diaspora: the dispersal-and survival-of Jews around the world, even when they made up just a small sliver of the population. Rabbis modified Jewish ritual practices to accommodate Judaism to modern life and enable Jews to participate in business. Though he had kidnapped the Jews into captivity, Nebuchadnezzar didn't treat them as slaves. He turned to the Jews to strengthen Baghdad's economy. He encouraged them to become merchants and trade between the different parts of his sprawling kingdom. So important were Jews to Baghdad's business life that many non-Jews working in trade and finance didn't go to the office on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. When the Persians conquered Baghdad and offered the Jews the chance to return to Jerusalem, only a few accepted. Most decided to stay. Baghdad's Jews considered themselves the Jewish aristocracy. Like Jews in London and New York centuries later, Baghdad's Jews may have yearned to return to Jerusalem in their Saturday prayers at their local synagogue, but the other six days a week, they grasped the opportunities around them and built a thriving metropolis.


Presiding over this dynamic, self-confident community-leading it and nurturing it-loomed the Sassoons. Trading gold and silk, spices and wool across the Middle East, the Sassoons became Baghdad's richest merchants. Starting in the late 1700s, the Ottoman Turks appointed the leader of the Sassoon family as "Nasi," or "Prince of the Jews"-their intermediary in dealing with Baghdad's influential Jewish population. Preserved among the Sassoon family papers are memoranda in Turkish and Arabic that testify to the sweep of the Nasi's power. The Nasi Sassoon blessed marriages and resolved religious disputes. The Nasi also played a key role in advising the Ottoman ruler, especially in economic matters. He negotiated loans, planned budgets, devised and collected new taxes. He was the de facto secretary of the treasury, charged with building a modern financial system. When the Nasi traveled to meet Baghdad's Turkish ruler at the royal palace, he was carried on a throne through the streets; Jews and non-Jews alike respectfully bowed their heads.


Buoyed by these connections, the Sassoons built a multinational economic empire that extended from Baghdad across the Persian Gulf and Asia. The family stocked Baghdad's bazaars with a rich cornucopia of products and sent members of their extended family to travel among the Bedouin tribes to buy their wool in exchange for cotton garments, shoes, and spices. Merchants from across the Middle East and from India and China passed through the Nasi's luxurious home and compound. They lounged in his walled courtyard, shaded by orange trees, to escape the 120-degree heat. Underground storerooms held the family's gold.


In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as their wealth and fortune expanded, the Sassoons became accustomed to business allies and rivals calling them "the Rothschilds of Asia" for the rapid way their wealth and influence spread across China, India, and Europe. But privately they considered the comparison misleading-and a little demeaning. In the Sassoons' minds, the Rothschilds were arrivistes-a poor family that in one generation had leapt from the ghettos of Europe to business prominence and political influence. The Sassoons may have been unknown to the Chinese emperor, the Indian raj, or the British royal family, but they had been rich, prominent, and powerful for centuries.


David Sassoon was born in 1792 and trained from childhood to become the future Nasi. He was a business prodigy with an extraordinary gift for languages. At thirteen, he started accompanying his father to the "counting houses"-the forerunners of banks and accounting firms-where the Sassoon revenues were calculated. When the bazaars opened in the morning, his father sent him down to learn how to calculate in different currencies and master disparate systems of weights and measures. He was tutored at home in Hebrew (the language of religion), Turkish (the language of government), Arabic (the language of Baghdad), and Persian (the language of Middle Eastern trade). He sat in on evening visits from representatives of the British East India Company newly arrived in Bombay, who encouraged the Sassoons to expand their trade to India-though he never bothered to learn English. Six feet tall, David stood head and shoulders over his family and the people he would one day lead. His community approved of David's planned elevation; he radiated trust and authority and, as was the custom, he entered an arranged marriage with the daughter of a prosperous merchant when he was fifteen. His wife swiftly gave birth to four sons.


As David was preparing to assume his vaunted role as Nasi, the comfortable position the Sassoons and the Jews of Baghdad had enjoyed for centuries collapsed. A power struggle among the Ottoman rulers of Baghdad put a faction hostile to the Jews in power. Desperate for money to boost a collapsing economy, the Turks began harassing and imprisoning the Sassoons and other wealthy Jews, demanding ransom. One wealthy Jewish merchant was strangled to death outside his cell. As conditions worsened, some Jewish merchants fled to India, seeking British colonial protection.


Frightened by the volatile political situation, David's father made the unusual decision to step down as Nasi and hand power over to David, who would traditionally have had to wait until his father's death. But David refused, correctly sensing that the position no longer held much power. Instead, against his father's advice, David sought the help of the Turkish sultan in Constantinople on behalf of the Jews and Sassoons of Baghdad, accusing the city's rulers of corruption. But he was wrong to put his trust in the imperial government, and word quickly reached Baghdad of his betrayal. He was arrested; the Turkish pasha ordered him hanged unless the family paid for his release. Taking matters into his own hands, his elderly father bribed his son out of prison, hustled him through the city in disguise, and chartered a boat to get him to safety.


David left Baghdad in a state of rage and helplessness. He had just remarried following the death of his first wife of twenty-five years. He was abandoning his new bride and his children. All the glory of the Sassoons, their wealth and position, had been promised to him and was now snatched away. As the ship sailed away, he turned toward the disappearing shore and wept.


David landed at Bushire, a port city controlled by Iran beyond the reach of the Turks. Many of the refugees who had left Baghdad as conditions deteriorated had settled there. But while the stories they sent back home were of great riches and success, in fact they were struggling, crammed into poor neighborhoods, foraging a small living. Disoriented and despondent, David spent his first night away from Baghdad sleeping on the floor of a warehouse by the waterfront, which had been lent to him by a seaman. He kept a gun by his side to shoot rats that skittered across the floor.


As he gathered himself in the first few weeks, his mood improved. The traders in Bushire all knew the name Sassoon and had heard of the campaign being waged against the Jews. Several who had previously dealt with the family lent him money, so he could establish credit. His father, still in Baghdad, arranged caravans of goods and currency to be smuggled out of the city and delivered to his son. Like many immigrants forced to flee, David faced a choice: succumb to the anger and depression that surely consumed him or, at thirty-seven, reinvent himself. In those first few months, he received word from Baghdad that encouraged him. The campaign against the Jews in Baghdad was easing and his father was beginning to pay bribes to enable the family to join him in Bushire. The man who had once planned to become the Nasi of Baghdad became the peddler of Bushire. He put his fluency in multiple languages to work, talking in Arabic to Arab sea captains and Hebrew to his fellow Jewish refugees. He began exporting Arab and Asian horses, dates, carpets, and pearls. Careful to wear his expensive Arab robes and turban, he met the British representatives of the East India Company, reminding them how their colleagues had met with the Sassoons in Baghdad. The British wrote that they admired the heightened "dignity of his appearance" and urged him to consider moving to Bombay to set up a company there. A friend and fellow Middle Eastern trader, Samuel Zacharia, offered him an interest-free loan to start in Bombay.


What Zacharia saw-and the British saw, too-was a man very different from the other immigrants and refugees washing up in Bushire. He was better educated than most traders-more knowledgeable and experienced than even most government officials and British officers. He was driven by something almost Shakespearean-not a poor refugee struggling to seek a better life but a royal scion who had his birthright ripped from him and was now determined to win it back, if not in Baghdad then elsewhere. He had been raised to command a commercial empire and advise royalty. He wasn't seeking an ascent from poverty and obscurity to wealth and influence; he was pursuing a restoration.


In 1830, a year after David's flight from Baghdad, the rest of his family joined him in Bushire. The long journey proved too exhausting for his elderly father, who died in David's arms shortly after arrival. Reunited with his wife and children, David thought more about the opportunities that lay in Bombay. After a few years, with his wife newly pregnant, David finally decided to make the move, seeking the protection, and opportunity, of British rule.


Landing in Bombay, David Sassoon joined the British Empire at the height of its political and economic power. Almost one-third of the world was under British control, including parts of India, Australia, Malaysia, Syria, and Egypt. The British had crushed Napoleon in Europe and commanded the world's largest navy. Power and money flowed through London, the world's largest city. Some countries built empires primarily to capture slaves or natural resources, or to build a barrier between themselves and their enemies. Great Britain built an empire to fuel trade, finance, and business. "The great object of the Government in every quarter of the world," British prime minister Lord Palmerston told Parliament in 1839, is to "extend the commerce of the country." For decades, the British East India Company had held a state-sanctioned monopoly on trade within India and Asia. In 1832-the year David arrived in Bombay-the British government ended that monopoly, opening trade throughout Asia to private companies and individuals. A new laissez-faire era had begun.


From the moment he and his family arrived in Bombay, David allied himself with the British and the expansion of the British Empire. Though dark skinned and an immigrant, he chose to support imperialism. That wasn't surprising. David saw himself as part of the elite; the Sassoons in Baghdad had risen in part by advising and serving their Turkish rulers. The defining issue of his life-his flight from Baghdad-had been triggered by his misreading the politics of Baghdad and believing the sultan would side with him against Baghdad's rulers. He was determined that he and his family would never make that mistake again.


David arrived in India at a fortunate time. The expanding British Empire wasn't opening just trade routes, it was opening the British mind. Britain itself remained a stratified society, with clubs and landed aristocrats looking down on "outsiders." But business and politics were displaying more tolerance. In India, the British needed ambitious entrepreneurs to extend trade to the frontiers of a growing empire. Before leaving London for India, the new British governor-general of Bombay, Sir Robert Grant, had twice proposed in Parliament bills to end all discrimination against Great Britain's Jews. The bills were initially defeated, but soon official discrimination against British Jews came to an end. Jews might never be accepted in Bombay's British clubs, but their property and businesses were now legally protected-more than had ever been the case, even in Baghdad. And the new British ruler of the city was a proven friend to the Jews.


David was genuinely impressed by the British. He called the British government, in Hebrew, malka chased-a just and kind government. "I believe in the British because they are on the right side of history," David told his family. There was no bribery; Britain was a country of laws. In Baghdad, by contrast, bribery was the way business got done. The British colonial authorities welcomed a man they saw as intelligent, cultured, and a useful ally. Speaking through a translator, David began meeting with Bombay's British governor-general and with a British archaeologist to discuss the Old Testament.

Table of Contents

Cast of Characters xiii

Map xviii

Introduction xxi

Part 1 Shanghai Calling

1 The Patriarch 3

2 Empire of the Sons-and Opium 23

3 Laura and Elly 49

Part 2 Kings of Shanghai

4 Shanghai Rising 77

5 The Impresario 107

6 "Me Voila Therefore Walking a Tightrope" 145

7 War 177

8 "I Gave Up India and China Gave Me Up" 201

Part 3 Exile and Return

9 The Reckoning 223

10 The Last Taipan 257

11 Back on the Bund 281

Acknowledgments 299

Notes 303

Index 333

Customer Reviews

Explore More Items