Whether it’s Nien Cheng’s 1986 memoir Life and Death in Shanghai or Paul French’s 2018 offering City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai I can’t resist a good book about, or set in Shanghai. It’s no wonder it was hard to resist The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China when I came across a copy during a visit to the public library. Thanks to French’s above-mentioned City of Devils I already knew Shanghai was home to a vibrant Jewish community in the decades preceding the Second World War and was looking forward learning more courtesy of The Last Kings of Shanghai.
Jonathan Kaufman’s 2020 book tells the story of the Sassoon and Kadoorie families and how they were instrumental in transforming Shanghai from a sleepy coastal trading outpost into not just China’s premier city but a city of global significance. Thanks to the two families’ respective contributions by the end of the 1930s it was the fourth largest city in the world. According to Kaufman “Shanghai became China’s New York, the capital of finance, commerce, and industry. It also became China’s Los Angeles, the capital of popular culture.” The Sassoon’s and Kadoorie’s world-class hotels, restaurants, horse racing venues and country clubs drew in the rich and famous from around the world: movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and his wife Mary Pickford; playwright Noel Coward and American socialite Wallis Simpson, “who reportedly learned in Shanghai the sexual techniques that would entice a king to leave his throne a few years later.” Jet-setters in an era before jets, silver-age glitterati flocked to the city in search of luxurious Western indulgence amidst a backdrop of Asian mystique.
The Sassoon and Kadoories families hailed not from Central or Eastern Europe but instead Bagdad. It was here the patriarch of the Sassoon family beginning in the 1700s served as “Nasi,” or “Prince of the Jews” blessing marriages and resolving religious disputes” and also acting as a liaison between the Arab city’s ruling Ottoman officials and Bagdad’s Jewish community. But after falling out of favor with corrupt local rulers the talented and multi-lingual David Sassoon relocated to British India, where his international connections, strong business acumen, and admiration of the British and their imperial ways served him well. Eventually, the commercial enterprise he founded would establish deep and lucrative roots into China making him and the Sassoon family wealthy.
But as Balzac once wrote, behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Opium was the Sassoon clan’s great moneymaker. After incorporating the latest technological innovations like the telegraph and streamlining business practices before long the Sassoons had vanquished their rivals and controlled 70 per cent of China’s opium trade. Flush with resources, the Sassoons founded a network of schools and internships to educate, train and instill loyalty into legions of young Jewish men throughout the Ottoman Empire. Seizing the opportunity, a young Jewish youth from the Kadoorie family threw in his lost with the Sassoons. Years later, he left his employer and benefactor and struck out on his own, eventually founding his own business dynasty in Shanghai and would go on to rival his former masters.
But all great empires, be they commercial or geopolitical eventually fade with time. World War II brought an end to Western dominance of Shanghai, and the city’s Japanese overlords had no use for the Sassoons and Kadoories. (Although Shanghai became a sanctuary for European Jews fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust.) Although the Japanese were defeated in 1945 before the end of the decade the Communists had taken control of China and with it Shanghai. Seen as Western rapacious capitalists, the Sassoons and Kadoories were driven out and their properties, like all other businesses in China nationalized. Long associated with the Western powers and viewed as an imperialist beachhead Mao and the ruling Communist Party favored Peking (Beijing) as China’s premier city. Only after the death of Mao and the rise of Deng Xiaoping, and revolutionary changes he unleashed transforming the formerly Communist nation into a capitalist dynamo did the city reclaim its former glory. And would do so with a vengeance.
Just like First Principles, The Last Kings of Shanghai is one of the pleasant surprises of 2022. If you’re looking for books on how to understand modern China, it’s a great one to add to your list.