Historic Hóngkǒu

For a mini walking tour of the streets of the Jewish Quarter – aka 'Little Vienna' – surrounding the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, turn right outside the synagogue, then right again past the former Jewish tenements of Zhoushan Rd (formerly Ward Rd), once the commercial heart of the district. At Huoshan Rd (formerly Wayside Rd), head southwest past the art deco facade of the former Broadway Theatre, to the Ocean Hotel. Turn right up Haimen Rd (Muirhead Rd), past Changyang Rd, to what was once a row of Jewish shops and a kosher delicatessen. Until just a couple of years ago, faded painted signs from the 1940s above the shops declared 'Horn's Imbiss Stube' (Horn's Snack Bar) and 'Cafe Atlantic', but the shops were recently demolished.

At the top of the road (the crossing with Kunming Rd), you’ll see the largely rebuilt Xiàhǎi Buddhist Monastery. Take a right turn, then another right, down Zhoushan Rd once again to complete the circle back to the synagogue.

Zhoushan Rd is also home to the British-built Ward Road Jail, once Shànghǎi’s biggest. Used by the Japanese during WWII, it’s still functioning as a prison (renamed Tilanqiao Prison) and is probably as close as you’ll get, or would want to get, to a Chinese detention facility.

If you’re interested in learning more about Hóngkǒu’s Jewish heritage, contact Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli Shànghǎi resident who offers informative English and Hebrew tours of the area.

Shànghǎi’s Jews

Shànghǎi has two centuries of strong Jewish connections. Established Middle Eastern Sephardic Jewish families, such as the Hardoons, Ezras, Kadoories and Sassoons, built their fortunes in Shànghǎi (the Sassoons' fortune came largely from opium and the cotton trade), establishing at least seven synagogues and many Jewish hospitals and schools. It was Victor Sassoon who famously remarked: ‘There is only one race greater than the Jews and that’s the Derby.’

A second group of Jews, this time Ashkenazi, arrived via Siberia, Hā’ěrbīn and Tiānjīn from Russia after anti-Jewish pogroms in 1906. The biggest influx, however, came between 1933 and 1941, when 30,000 mostly Ashkenazi Jews arrived from Europe by boat from Italy or by train via Siberia. Many had been issued with visas to cross China by Ho Fengshan, Chinese consul general in Vienna, who was recently honoured as the ‘Chinese Schindler’.

Shànghǎi was one of the few safe havens for Jews fleeing the Holocaust in Europe, as it required neither a passport nor visa to stay. Gestapo agents followed the refugees and, in 1942, tried to persuade the Japanese to build death camps on Chongming Island. Instead, in 1943, the Japanese forced Jews to move into a ‘Designated Area for Stateless Refugees’ in Hóngkǒu.

The Jewish ghetto (stateless Russians didn’t have to live here) became home to Jews from all walks of life. It grew to shelter a synagogue, schools, a local paper, hospitals and enough cafes, rooftop gardens and restaurants to gain the epithet ‘Little Vienna’. Those Jews who held jobs in the French Concession had to secure passes from the Japanese, specifically the notoriously unpredictable and violent Mr Goya. Poorer refugees were forced to bunk down in cramped hostels known as Heime, and had to rely on the generosity of others. As the wealthy Anglophile Jewish trading families had left in 1941, the situation was tight. Still, the refugees heard of events in distant Europe and realised perhaps that they were the lucky ones.

Today there are a few remainders of Jewish life in Shànghǎi, such as the Ohel Moishe Synagogue and the former Jewish Club (1932) in the grounds of the Conservatory of Music, where concerts are still performed. The Ohel Rachel Synagogue was built by Jacob Elias Sassoon in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, it remains closed to the public. Nearby are the remains of the school founded on the grounds by Horace Kadoorie.

Hóngkǒu Architecture

Hóngkǒu has a rich crop of architectural gems, from rundown terraced houses and dilapidated shíkùmén (stone-gate houses) to riverside art deco apartment blocks, noble concession-period classics, heritage hotels and converted abattoirs. The lavish Foster + Partners Bulgari Hotel project is proceeding apace on North Suzhou Rd by Sūzhōu Creek and is set to open in 2017, further revitalising the North Bund area.

Examples of shíkùmén (stone-gate house) architecture can be found if you stroll north along Zhapu Rd from Kunshan Rd and pop into the first pinched alley at No 313 (乍浦路313弄) on your left, where a line of typical shíkùmén awaits, decorated with distinctively carved lintels. Emerging from the alley, turn right along Baiguan Jie (百官街) for a short walk north to admire a further cluster of shíkùmén through the archway on your right. Other areas that are good for shíkùmén buildings are on Zhoushan Rd, especially at its southern end. The market street of Dongyuhang Rd (东余杭路), which it crosses, also has some interesting shíkùmén entrances. Shanyin Rd is a pleasant tree-lined street with a number of shíkùmén-filled alleyways branching off it.

Notable buildings to look out for:

  • 1933 A magnificent concrete slaughterhouse transformed into a shopping complex. The shops themselves are of less interest but the very photogenic ‘air bridges’ are intact.
  • Hongkew Methodist Church Dating from 1923, this is the church where Chiang Kaishek, leader of the Republic of China, married Soong Meiling. It’s generally closed to the public, but the caretaker may let you in.
  • Main Post Office Overlooking Sūzhōu Creek, this supremely grand building dates from 1924. It is topped with a cupola and clock tower, and ornamented with bronze statues coated in a green patina.
  • Broadway Mansions Looming over Sūzhōu Creek, this classic brick pile (resembling a Ministry of Truth) was built to great fanfare in 1934 as an apartment block and later used to house American officers after WWII. Today it’s a hotel.
  • Astor House Hotel Bursting with history, this classic old-timer has a yarn or two to tell and a lot of admirers: it’s an excellent place to base oneself for swift access to the Bund.
  • Embankment Building Designed by architects Palmer & Turner, dating from 1935 and home to Chai Living Residences.
  • Russian Consulate (俄罗斯领事馆; Éluósī Lǐngshìguǎn) This grand red-roofed concession building rises up just north of Wàibáidù Bridge.

Shànghǎi Slogans

Unlike Běijīng and other towns and villages across China, Shànghǎi has largely scrubbed away its slogans (政治口号; zhèngzhì kǒuhào) from the Cultural Revolution, despite the city’s once heady revolutionary zeal. In the French Concession, two almost vanished slogans decorate either side of the door to the minimalist Xīntiāndì saloon Dr Bar. An imposing and well-preserved scarlet slogan survives high up on the north wall of the Huángpǔ Hotel (黄浦饭店; Huángpǔ Fàndiàn) at 106 Huangpu Rd (黄浦路), not far from the Hyatt on the Bund in Hóngkŏu. The Maoist-era slogan is visible through the gate, but note that the hotel is for Chinese military and naval guests (foreigners not accepted), so be discreet when looking for it.