The Rival Jewish Dynasties that Helped Create Modern China

What an eye-opener!

I learned so much from The Last Kings of Shanghai, a truly informative and engaging book by Jonathan Kaufman.

So what’s with the headline of this blog post? Well, that’s not my phrase; it’s the subtitle of the book, but it’s more informative, more accurate, and less like clickbait than the actual title, cited in the last paragraph above. (I’m guessing the title came from the publisher and the subtitle from the author, but I have no inside knowledge.) To clear up any confusion right from the start, The Last Kings of Shanghai is a history book, not a novel—i.e., it’s nonfiction. It is meticulously researched and carefully annotated in endnotes. But I can see why some readers thought it might be a multi-generational novel, since it reads like fiction and will hold your attention the way a novel does.

So why do I call it an eye-opener? Mostly, I have to confess, because of my own ignorance. My personal knowledge base includes remarkably little about Asia, and I certainly never learned much in school about the role of Jews there in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A brief digression at this point before we return to discussing The Last Kings of Shanghai. You may wonder just why I had learned so little about Asia, given my first-class education. The #1 best course I took in high school was a history course, despite my primary interests in languages and mathematics. And the #1 best course I took in college was also a history course! But no Asia: the high school course was AP US History, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, and the focus of teacher Leonard James was all about The Supreme Court in American Life, so we got nothing about Asia. What made the course so great was that there was no textbook: every topic in the syllabus required us to go to the library and research both primary and secondary sources to help us synthesize facts and opinions. I spent 20 hours a week on homework for that class alone. So I learned invaluable skills—but nothing about Asia. And my favorite college course, Western Thought and Institutions, had a different problem: the focus of the professor, Sam Beer, was (no surprise here) Europe, given the title of the course, so nothing about Asia in that course either.

So, to put a positive spin on it, I approached The Last Kings of Shanghai with an open mind, shall we say. Revelations hit me over the head right at the beginning: who knew that there had been a thriving Sephardic Jewish community in Baghdad? Iran, yes—but Iraq? The heroes of the book, the Sassoon and Khadoorie families, had left Baghdad to become wealthy businesspeople in India and China, which started the ball rolling for the rest of the book.

There is a small overlap here with another book that I read and reviewed last month: People Love Dead Jews. That was my first exposure to a piece of the role of Jews in China, especially Harbin and Shanghai. It was enough to initiate the process of opening my eyes.

One of the misleading non-metaphorical parts of the title, “The Last Kings of Shanghai,” is that Kaufman deals with Hong Kong almost as much as Shanghai. So don’t put too much stock in the title.

Although I referred above to the Sassoon and Khadoorie families as “heroes of the book,” that is only partially true. Perhaps we’re talking about tragic heroes in the ancient Greek sense of the word. Both families made gigantic contributions to the economies of Shanghai and Hong Kong, and rescued thousands of European Jews during the Holocaust, when even the US was turning away refugees, but neither family had any interest in promoting democracy, even during the Tiananmen Square massacre—and subsequent crackdowns, such as we’re seeing right now in Hong Kong. You’ll have to make up your own mind whether the flaws of the billionaire Sassoons and Khadoories are outweighed by their contributions, not only to their fellow moneyed class but also to many low-income Chinese.

Finally, I give heartfelt thanks to my colleague Kim Uyen Dang for recommending this wonderful book!

Categories: Books