IN PICTURES: 26 family stories that tell history of Shanghai's Jewish community

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 August, 2015, 3:38pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 August, 2015, 3:58pm

Kadoories and Sassoons among those to relate sometimes delightful anecdotes in this insightful book about the lives of Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai from mid-19th century on, through two world wars and waves of refugees, until the Communist revolution that saw some move to Hong Kong .

An initial flick through Maisie Meyer's book provides some very familiar names - the Kadoories, the Sassoons, all descendants of Baghdad's Jewish community, who made their way to Shanghai and other parts of Asia to escape prejudice and pogroms back home. This is a collection of 26 biographical accounts taken from Jewish families who first came to the Treaty Port of Shanghai in the mid-19th century.

Meyer interviewed a number of the 20th-century descendants herself, some of whom have since died. She also uses diary accounts and archives to provide a real family insight into Sephardic Jewish traditions, celebrations, marriages, food and worship. Some of the earlier photos show women in Baghdadi dress with bells on little chains adorning their ankles. Meyer has written the interviews well and edited other accounts in such a way that the voice and individual character of the teller come through, even though I was confused at times whether we were in Shanghai or Hong Kong.

Some of the titbits and anecdotes are delightful. One describes a mother as huge but "surprisingly agile" on the tennis court. Then there are the two uncles who traded in a cat's testicles to make perfume. The fun, as children, of heading to Wing On and Sincere, not for the shopping but to go up the new invention there - the escalator.

These accounts take the reader back to the civil war in China and the Japanese occupation. Besides the interviews, more information comes from archives, including those created here in the Hong Kong Heritage Project by Michael Kadoorie about his family and the employees of the Kadoorie businesses. There are also reports from the English-language Zionist periodical Israel's Messenger.

Fifty black-and-white photos also illustrate life in Shanghai - family get-togethers, outings and for the upper crust, balls and socials where the hostess didn't need to lift a finger. Some accounts show how certain families lived like princes with many servants and home schooling. Others were less fortunate but, while not always getting on, they were a community.

There's also some lovely colour. Israel's Messenger reports how, in 1931, a gang of Belorussians plotted to kidnap Arthur Sopher, who was rumoured to be in line to inherit after the very rich Silas Hardoon died that year. But one of the kidnappers tipped off police.

It's an education in Sephardi Judaism, the rituals and the celebrations that at times were difficult to carry out under the Japanese occupation, when food was scarce and Jews were forced to wear red armbands and their houses and furniture became the property of Emperor Hirohito.

While many of the well-known families made their fortunes in the treaty port and some lived very privileged lives, there was always an inherent racism underlying community ties. Fortunes were made, lost and remade. They also found some of the Jewish traditions of their Russian and eastern European counterparts quite curious, though there are many accounts of generosity and philanthropy shown towards traumatised European Jews who had been fortunate enough to make it out of Nazi Germany's concentration camps and onto ships to Hong Kong and Shanghai. Leah Jacob Garrick describes the civil war and Japanese occupation as times of starvation: "I recall walking to school, sidestepping packages of straw in which dead Chinese babies were wrapped and collected daily. I once saw a Chinese man gnawing the bark of a tree in hunger."

The accounts show how life changed forever under occupation and the later Communist revolution, when some moved to Hong Kong. These are subjective, oral accounts of the lives of this vibrant community, but Meyer provides plenty of historical background and timelines to give it context.

Shanghai's Baghdadi Jews edited by Maisie J. Meyer (Blacksmith Books)

For this story and more see The Review, published with the Sunday Morning Post, on August 16