On my recent visit to Shanghai, there were many things that left me smiling. I was pleasantly surprised by the ease and safety of the underground, the honesty in restaurants when women left behind their handbags while going to the buffet, the expected air pollution that thankfully never appeared – and the moreish taste of red date yogurt.
Yet my favourite experience in China’s largest city – which is the most populous city in the world – was a Jewish tour led by Israeli-born journalist Dvir Bar-Gal.
I was lucky to get a place in the group. Bar-Gal seems like a busy man, but we did meet and it seemed appropriate the chosen location was at the Fairmont Peace Hotel, the glamorous art deco masterpiece where the rich and famous have gathered for years, and which underwent a renovation in 2010.
The surprise was learning that the place owes its existence to the Sassoons, a wealthy Iraqi-Jewish family. It was David Sassoon’s son, Elias, who first left their Bombay base in 1844 to trade in China and it was grandson Victor who founded what was then The Cathay Hotel, living in the penthouse floors.
Famous guests include Charlie Chaplin, Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward – who here completed his play, Private Lives.
After exploring some of the beautiful rooms and hearing that Victor at one time owned more than 1,800 properties in Shanghai, we walked to the very heart of Shanghai, The Bund, which consists of dozens of beautiful historical buildings lining the Huangpu River.
It was there with a backdrop of boats, eager tourists and, just over the water, the Pudong district’s futuristic skyline that we learned Jewish settlers came to Shanghai in three waves and this, the first tranche, consisted mainly of Sephardic Jews.
They also included a branch of the philanthropic Kadoorie family from Baghdad, who built another famous hotel, The Peninsula. Between them all they set up many of the city’s landmark buildings, including Sassoon House, the Metropole Hotel, and the Embankment Building, enabling the Bund to develop into the major financial centre of East Asia.
Later, Silas Hardoon, also from Baghdad, was responsible for constructing the main shopping street, The Nanking Road.
Suddenly I began to see the largest city in China through a quite unexpected Jewish lens.
In the 1920s, Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms began to arrive, and the community increased further in 1938 to 30,000, with arrivals from Germany, Austria and, later, Poland, as Jews escaped Nazi persecution.
The next stop on our Jewish tour was to the north of the city, to the Hongkou district. During the war, the Japanese occupying forces interned the population and relocated them to the ‘Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees’ in an overcrowded square mile.
American-Jewish charities and local families aided them with shelter, food, and clothing.
It was sobering to visit the tiny tenements in what is still one of the poorest areas of the city, and even to see a decorative wrought-iron Star of David on a front door, but of course the good news is that nearly all of the residents survived the war.
Following the war, and with the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the community dwindled, with many emigrating to Israel, the United States, Australia and Hong Kong. Today the Jewish community numbers approximately 2,000.
Arriving back to my hotel, there was just time to regather my strength to visit the Shanghai World Financial Centre and get a panoramic view of China’s biggest and richest city. A city that hugely benefited from its Jewish citizens and which did much to save their lives.
- Lucy stayed at the Dorsett Hotel, Shanghai, dorsetthotels.com/shanghai.
She was a participant on Dvir Bar-Gal’s tour of Jewish Shanghai,
shanghai-jews.com, and visited the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. For more information, visit chinajewish.org
Shabbat Shalom from Shanghai!
Despite travelling to China for 30 years, I have only just discovered the full extent of the Jewish community in Shanghai, writes Peter Harris.
On a previous visit, I met Kevin Whyte, a Jewish businessman living in Shanghai and warden at one of the three Chabad synagogues in the city. He invited my son and I to join him for Friday night dinner the next time we were in town.
After candle-lighting and synagogue service, we sat down to enjoy a five-course Shabbat meal in their restaurant. There were more than 50 of us, thousands of miles away from home, sitting down to dinner from all walks of life and varied Jewish backgrounds and observance. There were visitors from Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Canada, France and Israel.
Rabbi Shalom Greenberg came to Shanghai 18 years ago with his wife, and enthused the crowd with plenty of singing and clapping. The atmosphere was joyous.
Aside from providing services, the Shanghai Jewish Centre has a restaurant, a kosher shop, pre-school, Sunday Hebrew classes even a mikveh.
The community imports beef from Uruguay, chicken from Beijing and lamb from Mongolia. In fact, a supply arrived from Mongolia while we were there to provide the Jewish community with lamb for a year.
Other Jewish community centres operate in Hong Kong, Kowloon, Beijing, Chengdu, Yiwu, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Ningbo.
If you are on holiday in Shanghai, visit The Bund, the old colonial area, and all the other places of interest, but don’t miss Friday night with the Shanghai Jewish Hongqiao community.