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'The Last Kings Of Shanghai' Delves Into Role Of Competing Jewish Business Empires

A new book looks at the history of China’s development and the important role played by two Jewish families with massive business empires.

Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with Jonathan Kaufman, author of “The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China.” He is also director of the journalism school at Northeastern University.

Book Excerpt: ‘The Last Kings Of Shanghai’

By Jonathan Kaufman 

It was a muggy late-summer day in 1979 when I stepped out of the Shanghai heat into the cool marble lobby of the Peace Hotel.

I was twenty-three years old, a fledgling foreign correspondent on assignment. The United States had just established diplomatic relations with China after thirty years of the Cold War. China had begun opening itself to the world. The hotel sat on a curve of the Bund, the pedestrian promenade that runs along the busy Huangpu River waterfront. Its façade, like the prow of a mighty ship, jutted toward the sea, anchoring a skyline of art deco buildings that overlooked the river below. China was preserved in amber, circa 1949, the year the Communists seized power and “liberated” the country from capitalism and foreign invasions. Everything was cast in black and white. No billboards or advertising or colorful storefronts enlivened the streets. Sturdy, thick, black-framed bicycles thronged the roadways, interrupted occasionally by boxy black roadsters.

Chinese men and women alike wore white shirts and stiff dark-blue Mao suits draped over their frames. All the clothes looked one size too big. For thirty years, China had been cut off from the world, certainly from most Americans.

If Shanghai back in 1979 was a black-and-white movie with stilted dialogue, stepping into the Peace Hotel was like entering a 1940s movie. In color. With French subtitles.

Chandeliers hung from the vaulted ceilings. Wall sconces ran along corridors leading from the lobby, illuminating the path to marble and carpeted stairways. Off in a corner, a poster advertised a nightly jazz band. I walked toward the bank of elevators. An elderly bellhop, dressed in white pants, a cropped white jacket, and a small white cap, stepped up to me.

     “Puis‑je vous aider? Que voulez-­vous voir? Can I help you? What would you like to see?

     “Je ne parle pas français,” I stammered back in long-forgotten high school French.

     “Quel dommage,” he said with a smile. What a pity.

What was this place? What was this relic of European luxury—even hedonism—embalmed in a city, and a country, that thirty years of Communist totalitarianism had turned drab, egalitarian, regimented, and a little kooky?

A decade passed before I visited Shanghai again. It was 1989, a few days after the Tiananmen Square massacre that killed hundreds of students in Beijing and sent the rest of China into shock and armed lockdown. I spent much of my time speaking furtively to students and other Chinese. One of the few official visits I was allowed was a tour of the “Children’s Palace.” I knew it would be an innocuous and obviously staged contrast to the anger that was seething outside: Chinese children playing piano and taking ballet lessons—a forced normalcy.

I was right about the propaganda, but the “palace” overwhelmed me. It was a European-style mansion, a “great house” that wouldn’t have been out of place on the outskirts of Paris or London: soaring ceilings and elaborate chandeliers, sumptuous room after sumptuous room with inlaid wooden floors, elegant wainscoting, and fireplaces. It felt like the home of a British noble family. That’s not surprising, my Chinese guide told me earnestly. For twenty-five years, from 1924 until the Communist takeover in 1949, it had been home to a rich British capitalist family—the Kadoories. I stopped.

The Kadoories? I knew from my time in Hong Kong that the Kadoories—led by Sir Lawrence Kadoorie—were one of the city’s richest and most powerful families, owners of the legendary Peninsula Hotel with its elegant lobby, afternoon teas, and exquisite—and expensive—rooms. The Kadoories also owned Hong Kong’s largest electric company.  They were “taipans”—a leftover colonial term that conveyed power and money and roots that stretched back to the Opium Wars.

They weren’t just British. I knew, in fact, that they were Jewish. So too was the man who had built the Peace Hotel that soared over the Bund—Victor Sassoon.

A few years my reporting took me to a neighborhood away from the waterfront and away from the hustle and bustle of the business districts. On a street corner, I spotted two elderly Chinese women picking over fruit at a nearby market. They looked old enough that they might remember Shanghai before the Communists conquered the city in 1949.

I went up to them and, with the help of my Chinese assistant, explained that I was visiting the old synagogue building. Before “Liberation,” as the Chinese called the Communists’ 1949 victory, Jews might have lived in this neighborhood. Did they remember that?

“Have you come back for the furniture?” one of the women asked brightly.

“What do you mean?” I asked, baffled.

She heaved two sacks of groceries into her arms and, declining my offer to help carry them, brusquely directed us across the street and up a flight of stairs to the one room where she lived. It had clearly been part of a larger apartment at one time. Now it was chopped up into a series of rooms with dividers of plywood and fabric to accommodate a half-dozen families. A mahogany double bed clearly predating World War II took up one corner of the room, a companion chest of drawers next to it.

“The Jewish people, they lived here,” she said. “Then they left.

They left the furniture.” I quickly conferred with my Chinese assistant. Did she mean the Jews had been taken away, deported by the Chinese or the Japanese? Taken to camps or made to disappear or killed?

No, no, the woman explained. “They lived here during the war. After Liberation, the Jews stayed for a while, then they left. For Israel, for Palestine. Far away.” She pointed again at the mahogany bed and chest.

“Have you come back for the furniture?”

In a sense, I guess I had.

From THE LAST KINGS OF SHANGHAI by Jonathan Kaufman, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Jonathan Kaufman.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

"The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China" by Jonathan Kaufman. (Courtesy)
"The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China" by Jonathan Kaufman. (Courtesy)