The Great Jewish Families

The Sassoon family consisted of generations of shrewd businesspeople from Baghdad to Bombay, whose achievements brought them wealth, knighthoods and far-reaching influence. Though it was David Sassoon who initiated cotton trading out of Bombay (now Mumbai), India, to China, and son Elias Sassoon who had the ingenuity to buy and build his own warehouses in Shànghǎi, it was Sir Victor Sassoon (1881–1961) who finally amassed the family fortune and enjoyed his wealth during Shànghǎi’s heyday. Victor concentrated his energies on buying up Shànghǎi’s land and building offices, apartments and warehouses; at one time he owned an estimated 1900 buildings in Shànghǎi. Victor left the city in 1941, returning only briefly after the war to tidy up the business, then he and his assets relocated to the Bahamas. He had plenty of romantic affairs but remained a bachelor until he finally married his American nurse when he was 70.

Today the Sassoon legacy lives on in the historic Fairmont Peace Hotel and Sassoon Mansion (known to Sassoon as ‘Eve’) – now the Cypress Hotel in Hóngqiáo – each the site of some infamously raucous Sassoon soirées. For one of his celebrated fancy-dress parties, he requested guests to come dressed as if shipwrecked.

The company of David Sassoon & Sons gave rise to several other notables in Shànghǎi, among them Silas Hardoon and Elly Kadoorie. Hardoon began his illustrious career as a night guard and later, in 1880, as manager of David Sassoon & Sons. Two years later he set out to do business on his own and promptly went bust. His second independent business venture in 1920 proved successful and Silas Hardoon made a name for himself in real estate. In his father’s memory he built the Beth Aharon Synagogue near Sūzhōu Creek, which later served as a shelter for Polish Jews who had fled Europe. It has since been demolished. Once a well-respected member of both the French and International Councils, Hardoon became the subject of scandal when he married his Eurasian wife, Luo Jialing, and adopted several multicultural children. He then began to study Buddhism. His estate, including the school he had erected (now the grounds of the Shànghǎi Exhibition Centre), went up in smoke during the Sino-Japanese War. At the time of his death in 1931, he was the richest man in Shànghǎi.

Like Silas Hardoon, Elly Kadoorie began a career with David Sassoon & Sons in 1880, and he too broke away and amassed a fortune – in real estate, banking and rubber production. His famous mansion is the result of too much money left in the hands of an unreliable architect; after returning from three years in England, Kadoorie found a 19.5m-high ballroom aglow with 5.4m-wide chandeliers and enough imported marble to warrant the name Marble Hall. Architecture detectives can still visit the staircases and peek at the ballroom of the former mansion, once the site of Shànghǎi’s most extravagant balls and now home to the Children’s Palace. Kadoorie died a year before the end of WWII; you can visit his mausoleum in the International Cemetery.

With their immense wealth, many Jewish families were pivotal in aiding the thousands of refugees who fled to Shànghǎi, principally Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1941. The Kadoorie family now resides in Hong Kong and is still involved in charity work.