First Wave of Jewish Immigrants


David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David.  [Public Domain]

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David. [Public Domain]

The first wave of Jewish immigrants to modern China was the Sephardic Jews from Iraq and India. Their story is closely related to that of the Sassoon family. David Sassoon, treasurer of Baghdad between 1817 and 1829, moved from Baghdad to Bombay in 1832. He later became the leader of the Baghdadi Jewish community in Bombay. As British citizens, the family enjoyed exemption from Chinese laws and soon became dominant players in the trading of cotton and opium.

After the Treaty of Nanking, David Sassoon sent his sons to the newly opened treaty ports – Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai – which, as new colonial outposts, was subject to lower tax rates, less competition, and less prejudice. David Sassoon’s elder son, Abdullah Sassoon, remained in Bombay to supervise the family’s existing business. The second son, Elias Sassoon, moved to Shanghai in 1850 in hopes to making it big in the far east.

The family made a huge fortune by exporting opium produced in India to China in exchange for tea, silk and other commodities, which were then shipped to England. By the 1870s, the Sassoon family was the leading importer of opium into China. With extreme foresight, they also bought land at unbelievably low prices; when the price rose in the following decades, the Sassoon family reaped large financial gains.

In 1921, the Sassoons constructed the Ohel Rachel (拉结会堂) with a seating capacity of 700 people. Thirty Torah scrolls were placed inside. The compound included a library, a playground and a ritual bath. It replaced the Beth El Synagogue which was built in 1887.

In 1943, the Japanese created the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees (无国籍难民限定地区) in the Hongkou district (虹口区). The Jews had to leave behind their beloved synagogue and move to the Shanghai Ghetto (上海难民营). Ohel Rachel was subsequently converted into a stable.

In 1949, with the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party allowed the Jewish community to continue using the Ohel Rachel until 1952 when the synagogue was took over and stripped most of its interior furnishings. During the Cultural Revolution, the building was use as a warehouse. In 1994, the Shanghai government made it a protected architectural landmark of the city.

Today, the Ohel Rachel is used by the Shanghai Association of Higher Education (上海市高等教育学会) and closed to the public. Out of the original six, it is one of the only two synagogues still standing in Shanghai.

Sir Victor Sassoon, grandson Elias David Sassoon, transferred much of the family’s wealth from India to Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. At one time, the family owned over 1,800 properties in Shanghai, including some of the most significant landmarks — the Cathay Hotel and the Cathay Theatre. 

In 1929, Sir Victor Sassoon opened the Cathay Hotel — now called the Fairmont Peace Hotel (上海和平饭店), setting an absolute new height and luxury standard for all of Asia. Situated at the intersection of the Bund and Nanjing Road — Shanghai’s busiest shopping street, this was the Sassoon’s grandest and most iconic masterpiece. It was also Shanghai’s first American-style, art deco skyscraper. Just below its copper-green, pyramid-shaped roof, on the 11th floor, was Sir Victor’s penthouse.

It was in this hotel that the most decadent tea dances, costume parties and grand balls were held, attracting socialites and celebrities from all over the world. Some speculated that Sir Victor’s extravagant parties were partly inspired by his spite for the many Shanghai clubs that denied him entry — because he was a Jew. His sarcastic response to the anti-Semitic world around him was to make them clamour for invitation to his opulent, air-conditioned ballroom which was designed to resembled the inside of a synagogue.

Interior of the Grand Ballroom at the Fairmont Peace Hotel.  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Interior of the Grand Ballroom at the Fairmont Peace Hotel. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

During the occupation of Shanghai in the late 1930s, the Cathy Hotel was taken over and occupied by the Japanese. In 1956, the hotel reopened under the name of Peace Hotel. It was one of the only two hotels in China at the time that was allowed to accommodate foreign envoys. During the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four used the hotel as its command centre for the Shanghai Commune. Over its turbulent history, distinguished visitors from Charlie Chaplin, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Chiang Kai-Shek, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have all stayed here.

In 1949, the hotel’s legendary Jazz Bar was closed down when China classified Jazz as “yellow music,” in the same category as pornography, and was banned completely. At the end of the Culture Revolution, in the late 1970s, no one in China knew how to play Jazz anymore. The Jazz Bar had to call back its original players, all in their 80s and 90s by then, to continue the tradition. Today, the Jazz Bar is vibrant and busy, playing to the tune of a bygone era. The band members, with an average age of around 80, proudly call themselves the Old Jazz Band.

The hotel’s main entrance, facing the Huangpu River (黄浦江), is permanently closed because Feng Shui master claimed the front door should not open onto running water to prevent wealthy from flowing out. Victor’s Cafe, named after Sir Victor Sassoon, serves a variety of western pastries while occupying the prime people-watching spot on the Nanjing Road. The cafe’s signature dish is Sir Victor’s favourite chicken curry.

Without a doubt, this is the most famous hotel in China.

Cathay Theatre (国泰电影院), located at the intersection of Huaihai Road (淮海路)and Maoming Road (茂名路).  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Cathay Theatre (国泰电影院), located at the intersection of Huaihai Road (淮海路)and Maoming Road (茂名路). [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

The Cathay Theatre (国泰电影院) was also a part of Sir Victor Sassoon’s real estate portfolio in the 1930s. Located at the intersection of Huaihai Road (淮海路) and Maoming Road (茂名路), this is one of the few Art Deco cinemas that is still operational today.

The theatre opened in 1932 with the screening of American film “A Free Soul”, starring Norma Shearer. It was not only the most magnificent and grand cinema at the time, it was also by far the biggest in Shanghai, with 1,080 seats all on one main floor.

Prior to 1949, the theatre frequently featured American and English movies, especially blockbusters from Paramount Pictures Corporation and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, making it exceptionally popular among the foreigners as well as the locals. All movies were shown with Chinese subtitles and earphones which gave spoken translation in Chinese. Movie premiers were often screened here and celebrity figures such as Eileen Chang spotted here.

During the Cultural Revolution, the cinema was renamed People’s Cinema; much of the original interior decoration stayed intact until this period. In 1979, it resumed its original name of Cathay Theatre. In 2003, the large auditorium was split into three separate screening halls, none of the original interior survived. In the 1990s, the exterior of the theatre was granted municipal preservation status. 

Sir Victor Sassoon was also a strong defender of Western rights in China and offered tremendous support to the Jews in the Shanghai Ghetto.

The Sassoons were strict Orthodox Jews who worked hard to maintain their Baghdadi Jewish identity. In the early days when Shanghai was still just a tiny fishing village along the Huangpu River (黄浦江)  and lacked the infrastructure to facilitate the maintenance of a Jewish lifestyle, the Sassoons hired other Jews from Baghdad and Bombay, provided them with food and accommodation, ensured everyone observed Sabbath and Jewish holidays, and lived according to the Jewish laws. Amongst those who came from Bombay to work for the Sassoons were the Kadoories and the Hardoons who later branched off and started their own extremely successful business empires.