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

In today’s dystopian world, China is portrayed as so overpowering and diabolical that it is willing to sicken much of humanity, including its own people. That narrative makes it hard to imagine a Middle Kingdom once so weak that a dozen countries, led by Britain, swooped in like vultures to feast on its choicest entrails—what China often calls its “century of humiliation.”

The Last Kings of Shanghai reminds us of that time in captivating detail, and even more surprising, reveals that those “last kings” were displaced Jews from Baghdad who mastered Great Britain’s tools of empire. In spite of Anglo anti-Semitism, two legendary Jewish dynasties, the Sassoons and the Kadoories, began their Chinese odysseys in the mid- and late 1800s, achieving fabulous wealth. Theirs is a complex ascendance built on opium trafficking that imposed terrible suffering on millions and was fundamental to China’s decline. Yet these families also invested heavily in the country’s infrastructure, playing a major role in China’s modernization, from which they profited greatly.

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jonathan Kaufman was a foreign correspondent in China starting in 1979, a pivotal time that followed the death of Chairman Mao Zedong and the tremors of a closed society about to reopen. China was stark, poor, and monochromatic when Kaufman stumbled upon the Peace Hotel on Shanghai’s famed riverfront. The faded Art Deco jewel dazzled him. He learned it had been the pride of Victor Sassoon, a Jewish magnate and one of Shanghai’s most powerful men pre-liberation, and became hooked on the idea for this book.

Sephardim, Arabs, and Englishmen

Kaufman starts his account of these remarkable Sephardic families in Baghdad, where for centuries the local rulers had valued Jewish talent and allowed an elite to thrive, with the Sassoon family rising to the top. The Sassoon patriarch was so well regarded that he was called “Prince of the Jews.”

David Sassoon, seated, with his sons.

The well-educated and multi-lingual David Sassoon headed to India in the early 1800s, astutely leveraging his family’s renown into partnerships with the British East India Company, once the monopoly traders of the Crown. David’s timing was felicitous: the British Empire was expanding and, needing talented subalterns, allowed distinguished Jews such as David Sassoon into their elite circle. He became an avid Anglophile, bringing up his eight sons to be proper Englishmen and masters of empire.

Sassoon dispatched his second son, Elias, to establish a Chinese foothold in the mid-1840s. Actively abetting British gunboat “diplomacy” to force opium on an unwilling China, Elias achieved spectacular success through opium smuggling. By the 1870s, the Sassoon empire controlled 70 percent of the opium trade. With the port city of Shanghai as his base, Elias multiplied the family’s opium-derived fortune through investments in its infrastructure, real estate, and manufacturing.

Shanghai’s “last kings” were displaced Jews from Baghdad who mastered Great Britain’s tools of empire.

In contrast to the manor-born Sassoons, Elly Kadoorie, also Jewish, was the youngest son of a widow in Baghdad. She arranged an apprenticeship for him in Bombay—with the Sassoons. After learning the basics of trading, Kadoorie was assigned to be an apprentice clerk in the British colony of Hong Kong in 1880. The bright 15-year-old moved up quickly until the bubonic plague threatened his warehouse. (Kadoorie took disinfectant from company stock to keep the plague from his Chinese workers. Chastised by Sassoon bosses for using disinfectant without permission, Kadoorie replied, “If you don’t value humanity, I resign right now.”)

In Hong Kong, Kadoorie began anew as a freelance stockbroker, then as a financier. With savvy partnerships and real-estate investments in the Peninsula Hotel, Peak tram line, electrical power, and utilities in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Kadoorie became as rich and influential as the Sassoons.

Elly Kadoorie, center, with his sons.

The Sassoon and Kadoorie global empires continued to grow from their Shanghai base, sometimes as partners but often as rivals. David Sassoon’s grandson Victor opened the glamorous Cathay Hotel (now the Peace Hotel that inspired Kaufman’s story) and took special pleasure in overshadowing, then shuttering, the Kadoories’ flagship hotel. Yet the Sephardic families came together when an estimated 18,000 Jews, most of them Ashkenazic, fled Nazi Europe for Shanghai—the only port in the world that would accept them—during World War II.

Battle Royal

Kaufman explores the triumphs of the two families and touches on their moral dilemmas. Elly Kadoorie and his sons Lawrence and Horace were interned by the Japanese during the war, while Victor Sassoon found relative safety outside the area of conflict, in occupied China. The Kadoories, especially Horace, committed some of their fortune to the needy. On the other hand, the Sassoons viewed their central role in the narcotics trafficking that devastated China as simply business, without regard to its ravages. Kaufman leans into this view, saying early in the book that their drug dealing was just “technically illegal.” Today, with many people questioning how the wealth of some is based on the exploitation of others, it seems off-key to view fortunes amassed by the drug trade or the contemporaneous slave trade as good business.

A few notable women appear in the book, but the families’ stories revolve around the patriarchs and sons, who wielded all the power. Occasionally the book’s chronology is hard to follow, and some important facts, such as the number of Shanghai refugees who settled in post-revolution Hong Kong, are not substantiated historically or in the endnotes. Other prominent Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai are barely mentioned, notably Silas Hardoon, who married a local Eurasian woman.

After the Communist revolution, both families suffered tremendous losses, yet they carried on. With the tumultuous birth of modern China as his backdrop, Jonathan Kaufman deftly weaves the achievements of two remarkable Baghdadi Jewish families. Their business acumen and ambition, grit, and serendipity led them through difficult choices, to navigate colonialism and exploitation, privilege and anti-Semitism, war and revolution, to become the last kings and empire builders of Shanghai.

Helen Zia is the author of Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution