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‘The Last Kings of Shanghai’ examines the little-known history of two extraordinary dynasties

Two families — both emerging from the Jewish quarters of Baghdad — built a financial empire that shaped Shanghai, protected the Jews who fled the charnel house of World War II Europe for China, suffered in the upheaval of the Japanese occupation and the Communist revolution, and eventually rebuilt their reputations and their fortunes in the modern China.

They were the Sassoons and the Kadoories, and their World War II efforts saved, among thousands of others, former Treasury secretary Michael Blumenthal, the artist Peter Max, and Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe. After their mainland empire crumbled after the Communist revolution, they literally brought light, in the form of electricity, to Hong Kong, and eventually won the thanks of Deng Xiaoping for investing in mainland nuclear power and survived to see the Shanghai Peninsula Hotel return to its early prominence and splendor. Jonathan Kaufman, the director of the journalism school at Northeastern who reported from China for the Globe and Wall Street Journal, has written their sweeping, captivating history.


“Both the Sassoons and the Kadoories showed the great things that business, especially enlightened business, could do,” Kaufman writes in “The Last Kings of Shanghai,” a book that almost certainly will revive interest in a much-forgotten wrinkle of Jewish and Chinese history. “They went where governments wouldn’t, or couldn’t, go. Their decisions changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people.”

For two millennia, from Babylonia to China, the Sassoons were traders and merchants, sometimes known as the Rothschilds of Asia, though their commercial suzerainty — in horses, carpets, jewelry, spices, metals, silks, even (and especially) opium — spanned continents, and empires, from the Ottoman to the British to the Qing dynasty that provided China’s final emperors. By sailing ships and then steamships, they spread their network across the globe, an empire in its own right, one of piety and prosperity grounded in company towns (with their own hospitals, schools, stores), binding relationships (with merchants and leaders of manifold cultures, even covering the gambling debts of the Prince of Wales), and a peculiar brand of social and political progressivism (with an outlook not unfamiliar to liberal Jews of our own time and place).


Eventually four Kadoorie sons went to work for the Sassoons in India but in time the family struck out on its own, spawning a financial empire, a school for girls, and a burgeoning trade in rubber. This would eventually provide the foundation of a veritable fortune that would include massive stock holdings in the Shanghai exchange, a Hong Kong electric company, extensive commercial real estate, and a 12-bedroom mansion with 48 sofas and an 80-foot-long ballroom illuminated by 3,600 light bulbs. Plus a chain of hotels, including the aptly named Majestic Hotel, where more than 2,000 guests once attended a dance in honor of Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford. The two stayed for a week.

“For those sipping tea in leather club chairs, seated in heavily carpeted and draped rooms, with the muffled chaos of China safely outside, it would be easy to believe the hotel was owned by a British lord,” Kaufman writes of the place.

Not to be outdone, the Sassoons created the Cathay hotel, with its deep bathtubs filled with spring water flowing out of silver taps and its hallways lit by Lalique crystal lamps. Victor Sassoon lived on the ninth floor in a suite with two such tubs. Guests dined below on vegetables that, the hotels assured them, had not been fertilized with human waste.


“Victor Sassoon was pioneering the idea of the businessman as celebrity,” Kaufman writes. “Staying at the Cathay, renting an apartment in one of his buildings, sitting with him in his box at the races, attending one of his parties — all brought visitors into Victor’s charmed circle.”

These families could create celebrity and luxury but they could not escape history, in the form of Mahatma Gandhi (whose preference for homespun cotton undermined the Sassoons’ textile operations in India) and Mao (whose growing Communism movement moved the Sassoons into the close embrace of the doomed Chiang Kai-shek). Asia was a playground for Europeans but a battleground for the millions beyond the elegant afternoon teas and glittering evening balls of these family fortunes.

“Shanghai boomed while China’s farmers and countryside fell deep into economic depression and the Communist political messages became more appealing,” Kaufman writes.

Then came the threat from Japan — and the flood of Jewish refugees from Europe. The combination brought the two families together to create a refugee haven in the most unlikely place, thousands of miles from the European theater of World War II but in one of the centers of conflict in the Asian theater. Feeding, housing, training, and employing refugees, they saved countless Jews, arriving at the rate of 1,000 a month, from perishing or penury.


“While the Jews pouring into Shanghai were overwhelmed and complained endlessly about crowded housing, poor sanitation, and the lack of jobs,” Kaufman writes, “they were also free.” One of them carried a Torah scroll from his synagogue, ransacked during Kristallnacht.

The Japanese invasion of Shanghai’s International Settlement and of Hong Kong changed everything, promoting prison sentences and privation, the creation of a grim ghetto, and rampant death. Kaufman sets out all of this, and the Communist revolution (and the expropriation of property and businesses) that followed, in vivid detail. “The bubble the Kadoories and the Sassoons had lived in since the 1840s disappeared,” he writes. In the end, if not in the beginning, they were, as Kaufman puts it, “on the wrong side of history.” But now, thanks to him, they are at least part of history,

THE LAST KINGS OF SHANGHAI: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

By Jonathan Kaufman

Viking, 384 pp., $28

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.