Book Club October 2021 – The Last Kings of Shanghai by Jonathon Kaufman

The Last Kings of Shanghai by Jonathon Kaufman

In his eye-opening The Last Kings of Shanghai, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jonathan Kaufman traces the tumultuous history and glamorous lives of two powerful Iraqi Jewish dynasties, the Sassoons and the Kadoories, who helped open China to international trade.

Kaufman, a former longtime correspondent in the Far East with The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal and current director of the journalism school at Northeastern University, engagingly describes how the two families played significant roles in the transition of Shanghai—and China—into the modern world. Today, only the Kadoories’ formidable wealth remains. In 1949, after the communist takeover of China and confiscation of their holdings, the Sassoons retreated to Britain and left the world of movers and shakers. The Kadoories fled from Shanghai to British-ruled Hong Kong, managing to amass an $18 billion portfolio over the next 25 years. Today, the family controls CLP Holdings, the largest electricity supplier in Hong Kong and southern China, as well as the luxury Peninsula Hotels group.

But first Kaufman takes readers through the histories of the two families.

The Kadoories are the young upstarts who built their first fortune in Shanghai between the world wars, as the city became a global crossroads where middle-class and wealthy Chinese were drawn by economic opportunity and glamorous department stores, hotels, nightclubs and gambling casinos (often set amid the squalor of impoverished neighborhoods).

Once known as the “Rothschilds of the East,” the Sassoons’ wealth and fame reached back to Baghdad, where they worked in finance and trade for more than 800 years. The book describes how, in 1829, David Sassoon, then 37 and heir to the family empire, was kidnapped by Ottoman authorities who threatened to hang him unless the family paid a high ransom. Upon his release, the family left for British-controlled Bombay, what is today Mumbai, where David Sassoon extended the family’s import and export empire by trading in cotton, wool, gold, silver—and opium. At the time, opium was legal in the Far East, and China was the principal market; one in every 10 people in China was addicted to the drug (the Sassoons barred family and their employees from using it).

The British outlawed opium in 1906 and the Sassoons turned to construction in Shanghai, where they built hotels and skyscrapers. They also invested in a bank that would become one of the world’s largest: HSBC.

In Shanghai, David Sassoon created a Jewish community from scratch, setting up schools, a hospital and a synagogue, and thereafter encouraged the Baghdad Jews to send a steady stream of youths to Shanghai to work in Sassoon enterprises. Among these ambitious newcomers was Elly Kadoorie, hired as an apprentice clerk, who became the Sassoons’ greatest business rival.

Kaufman details the glittering excess of the two families’ attempts to outdo each other. In the 1920’s, Elly Kadoorie built a family home in Shanghai. Known as Marble Hall, the palatial residence was designed in the style of the Palace of Versailles, with parking for a fleet of Rolls-Royces and a ballroom the size of a soccer field.

Nearby, he constructed the Majestic Hotel, the grandest hotels on the continent—that is, until the Sassoons built the Cathay Hotel to eclipse the Majestic. Their glittering parties, and rivalries, elevated the status of Shanghai, attracting celebrities like Charles Lindbergh. Elly Kadoorie’s son Lawrence wrote in his diary, “There never was and never will be another city like Shanghai. A city of extreme contrasts, combining the attributes of East and West. Shanghai was a place where one could dance all night, go riding at 6 o’clock in the morning, work all day and yet not feel tired.”

To their credit, the rival families cooperated in bringing Jewish refugees from prewar Europe to Shanghai, supporting the 18,000 Jews who fled to the city.

In the modern era, it has been business as usual for the Kadoories, largely because of family alliances with powerful Chinese partners as well as an inclination to remain silent on political matters regarding the pro-democracy efforts in China and Chinese relations with the United States.

See Hadassah Magazine.