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  • Writer's pictureJody Ferguson

The Last Kings of Shanghai - Book Review

In his history The Last Kings of Shanghai, Jonathan Kaufman, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter from The Boston Globe recounts a fascinating tale of two Sephardic Jewish families from Baghdad that came to dominate two Western trading houses in Asia in the first half of the twentieth century. The British East India Company, and British firms such as Jardine-Matheson and the Swire Group, are well known for having opened the China trade and for bringing the celestial kingdom and its riches into the Western consciousness. But lesser known—at least in the West—is the story of the Kadoories and the Sassoons.

Kaufman tells us about these two families, expelled from Baghdad in the early 19th century, who first established themselves in British India. There they made a wide network of connections and branched out into the China trade in the latter half of the 19th century. Through hard work, the gathering of intelligence, technological innovation, and timing they grew small trading companies into global giants, eventually amassing billion-dollar fortunes. Almost all of this was done on the back of investments and deals in China.

We learn of the early days of the British presence in Shanghai, the city that was the door to the Yangtze River basin and hence the hinterland of all Central China. Shanghai overshadowed its southern sister port Hong Kong for the first hundred years or so after trade was established. The Sassoon family put deep roots down in Shanghai and some of its most notable landmarks, even today, are Sassoon buildings, including the famous Cathay Hotel, playground for the rich and famous who came to Shanghai in droves on ocean liners before the Second World War. Suave, sybaritic Victor Sassoon, a prodigal son of the Sassoon family, came to run the family company in the 1920s. He epitomized Shanghai’s society smart set, even as he bore the brunt of English anti-Semitic humor by jealous rivals in other British firms in China.

The Kadoorie family was led by its patriarch Elly, who escaped Baghdad and learned business with the Sassoon firm before forming his own company. He faced discrimination in London and decided to focus his business in Asia. His eldest son Lawrence would come to lead the Hong Kong branch of the family firm, while younger son Horace took over the reins in Shanghai.

Both families suffered mightily under Japanese occupation during World War II. Elly would die during imprisonment under the Japanese. Victor Sassoon was able to escape captivity and spent the war years in England and India. But the Sassoon firm would never recover. Victor did, however, have the foresight even in the darkest, earliest days of the war to tell his friends that China would come to dominate in the succeeding decades. “If just learning a few Western tricks enables Japan to almost beat the United States and Great Britain, what a chance for China with 400 million people. We used to rule the world and why shouldn’t we again?” (p. 193) The Kadoorie brothers were much more astute and managed to rebuild themselves on the wreckage of post-war Asia. They moved all their holdings to Hong Kong and were instrumental in making that city into the trading dynamo that it became in the late 20th century.

I felt that the story dragged at times, but Kaufman succeeds in deftly bringing to light this history of two Jewish dynasties with outsized influence in the final decades of the British Empire. One of Kaufman’s most acute observations comes at the end: “The Sassoons [and Kadoories] were in many ways the first globalists. Their experience foreshadowed the problems and anger that globalization would bring in later decades.” (p. 291)


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