The Last Kings of Shanghai, The Rival Jewish Dynasties that Helped Create Modern China by Jonathan Kaufman ’74. The Last Kings of Shanghai sweeps through the 19th and 20th centuries, telling the story of two families of the Jewish diaspora, originally based in Bagdad, the Sassoons and the Kadoories, who end up accumulating astounding wealth through trade. For decades they rule the elegant waterfront of Shanghai, living in the opulent splendor of their own grand hotels and mansions, while the Chinese, whom they barely notice, struggle to survive. Through the improbable lens of these families we glimpse the tumult of the great transitions that ended the centuries of dynastic empires in China – from the collapse of the Qing dynasty to Sun Yat-sen to Chaing Kai-Shek to Mao – all of which led to today’s People’s Republic.
Jonathan offers an absorbing and innovative angle on the story of east meets west. An educational precept suggests that we learn by beginning with the familiar and gradually edging into the unfamiliar. For me nothing could seem more exotically enigmatic than the history of China. This book is an exciting read because, in addition to depicting fascinating characters, it lifts a curtain and makes intelligible what had previously been opaque.
The Sassoon family tree is firmly rooted in Baghdad when David, in his thirties, finds that times have changed (1829) and after escaping incarceration makes his way to Bombay. Partly through acumen and partly through propitious circumstances, such as the First Opium War(1839), which opens legal opium trade with China, he amasses a fortune of unimaginable magnitude. The family thrives and produces an array of fascinating characters, the most striking of whom is Victor Sassoon, a playboy with a knack for making money and a passion for spending it on splendid buildings, most notably the Cathay Hotel, which looks out on the waterfront of Shanghai. Victor is buffeted by upheavals of the 20th century, but it is no stretch to call him one of the last kings of Shanghai. Though somewhat less flamboyant, the Kadoories nonetheless do their fair share of ruling Shanghai. Elly Kadoorie, who began as an employee of the Sassoons, amasses his own wealth and thrives despite the tragic death of his wife Laura. His sons, Lawrence and Horace, find a source of wealth in the production of electricity.
Jonathan takes a journalistic stance on the behavior of these tycoons and lets the reader do most of the moral judging (if there be any). Certainly vis a vis the Chinese, the Kadoories and the Sassoons exhibit little generosity or even curiosity. But there is a moment of true redemption for both families during World War II. While the US turns away refugees from the Holocaust, Shanghai embraces them in droves. The Sassoons and the Kadoories participate in welcoming 18,000 Jews. Horace Kadoorie, perhaps the most empathetic member of these clans, sets up a school for the children.
I hope many people will read this book.Surely you want to know what happens to Lawrence, and Horace when the Communists take over and where all those Jewish refugees finally land when the war finally ends.And what about Victor?He is the hero and anti-hero of the book.You really want to know how his life takes a turn.