“The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China” by Jonathan Kaufman— Two Families

Kaufman, Jonathan. “The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China”, Viking, 2020.

Two Families

Amos Lassen

Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Kaufman’s “The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China” is the multigenerational story of two rival dynasties who in Shanghai and Hong Kong when twentieth-century China moved into the modern era. Two Jewish families, the Sassoons and the Kadoories that were Iraqi in origin had already been doing business with China for more than a hundred years.
The Cathay Hotel on Shanghai’s waterfront, is one of the most glamorous in the world. It was built Victor Sassoon, the billionaire playboy and scion of the Sassoon dynasty and has hosted such celebrities as –the hotel hosts a who’s who of global celebrities: Noel Coward has written a draft of Private Lives in his suite and Charlie Chaplin has entertained his wife-to-be. And a few miles away, Mao and the nascent Communist Party have been plotting revolution. 

By the 1930s, the Sassoons had been doing business in China for a century and their only rival in terms of wealth were the Kadoories. For more than 175 years, these two families had their say in Chinese business and politics. They profited from the Opium Wars; survived Japanese occupation; courted Chiang Kai-shek; and almost lost everything when the Communists came to power. Here is the remarkable history of how these families participated in an economic boom that opened China to the world, but did not see the country’s deep inequality and the political turmoil. The  story goes from Baghdad to Hong Kong to Shanghai to London, and as we read we go into the lives and minds of these ambitious family members and learn of opium smuggling, family rivalry, political intrigue, and survival. 

Both families had to deal with moral compromises and both had exceptional foresight, success, and generosity. During World War II, they joined together to rescue and protect eighteen thousand Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism. Their tenure in China began as a business opportunity and eventually, China became their home from they were reluctant to leave, even on the eve of revolution. Their buildings and the businesses they began still define Shanghai and Hong Kong today. The long-hidden odysseys of the Sassoons and the Kadoories hold a key to understanding the present moment in China.

Twentieth-century China was intrinsically connected to Baghdad and Bombay, London and World War II. It all began with an accidental visit to the Cathay Hotel. Reading about the  two rival Jewish dynasties that flourished in Shanghai sheds light on how and why China is the global power it is today. 

Victor Sassoon was a man lost to Chinese history.  The communists fought to keep his life secret from the outside world and its own people.  They also had hidden the history of another wealthy foreign family, the Kadoories.  Their story is told through private diaries, letters, coded telegrams and many interviews. The two families were not only part of history, they also shaped it. Their story is  a gripping family saga,  and a 180-year history that still shapes how China views the United States and the rest of the world today.

“China has never been more important and never been so little understood.  Shanghai was China’s melting pot, the crucible in which all the forces that shaped China, including capitalism, communism, imperialism, foreigners and nationalism, came together. Shanghai became China’s New York, the capital of finance, commerce, and industry. The world of the Kadoories, the Sassoons, and Shanghai, much like our world today, was defined by innovation and globalization, growing inequality and political turmoil. I hope readers will appreciate how this history affects how China still views the outside world today.” The moral choices of both families were made as opportunity, revolution and danger were everywhere around them.

The women of these families who came to China the 19th and early 20th century came as wives and mothers, confined by the era’s gender roles.  They came to understand the human cost and the revolution brewing among the Chinese and they tried (often unsuccessfully) to warn their husbands and lovers. 

The behind-the-scene efforts of the families to save and protect 18,000 Jewish refugees from Berlin and Vienna who fled Nazism for Shanghai are miraculous. Jewish billionaire playboy Victor Sassoon was wooing the Japanese in his elegant Cathay Hotel, and an anti-Semitic Japanese captain put in charge of Shanghai’s “Jewish problem” believes the Jews will persuade Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to end the war.  All the time, the Nazis keep pressuring the Japanese to kill the Jews under their control.

The result of this meeting was one of the miracles of World War II. In a city occupied by the Japanese, allies of the Nazis, not a single one of the 18,000 Jewish refugees was killed, thanks to the Sassoons and the Kadoories.

But the Sassoons and the Kadoories did some terrible things even though they also helped bring great changes to China and showed moral courage in helping not just Jews but hundreds of thousands of Chinese refugees. Their legacy is complicated.  China itself has begun to recognize and accept the good these families did, and that is a positive sign. The Kadoories and the Sassoons are complicated, rich, and powerful still today. Kaufman’s research is amazing as it his mastery at prose.  This is untold history that reads like fiction.

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