American Jewish Congress


September/October 2003

Maisie J. Meyer. From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Life in Shanghai. Lanham, New York, Oxford: University Press of America, Inc., 2002.

Reviewed by Michael Pollak

Of the countless sparsely populated settlements that have been part of the Jewish diaspora for the past two millennia few (if any) have had a more telling impact upon the political and economic developments of their host countries and upon world-wide financial conditions than the tiny Sephardic community of Shanghai. Drawn to the port city by the economic advantages they foresaw following the signing in 1842 of the Treaty of Nanjing, which stipulated inter alia the opening of China to foreign trade, groups of Sephardim hailing mainly from Baghdad and the regions abutting it made their way eastward, often via Bombay. Some decided to settle permanently in India, but others went on to Shanghai. Once there, they organized a community that never numbered more than a thousand, and yet grew to be one of the pivotal financial centers of the world.

Distantly separated from the mainstream adherents of Judaism, and living for the most part in those districts of Shanghai that were administered under the extraterritorial laws that China had been compelled to extend to an assortment of foreign powers, the Sephardic Jews of Shanghai were occasionally -- though unsuccessfully -- beseeched by various missionaries to embrace the Christian faith. In short, the overwhelming majority of these Baghdadi Jews (as all the Sephardic Jews in Shanghai came to be called, even those who had immigrated from other parts of the world than Baghdad) succeeded in retaining the vibrant Jewish loyalties and religiosity of their forebears for the century or so during which their community existed. In the end, having endured the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and its subsequent conquest by the Communist forces of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), they found it necessary to leave the city. About half of them, like their Ashkenazic coreligionists who had either lived in Shanghai nearly as long as they, or had sought refuge there during the Holocaust years, moved to Israel. The remainder, again like their non-Sephardic Jewish townspeople, found new homes in other countries.

Dr. Maisie Meyer, who is herself of Baghdadi Jewish descent, has written extensively about the Baghdadi Jews of Shanghai. Hence, her most recent work, From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo, which recounts the history and nature of the close-knit Baghdadi community that arose in Shanghai, affords us a rewarding opportunity to delve into the motives that led to the relocation of Jews from the region of Baghdad to the eastern coast of China, their religious and philanthropic activities, their gradual adaptation to the cultural surroundings into which they had immersed themselves, the outstanding roles they played in Chinese and international finance, and, ultimately, their dispersion to states other than China.

From the Rivers of Babylon provides the reader with a splendid and reliable overview of the story of the Shanghai Sephardic community and its efforts to retain the religious and cultural ways of life that its originators had enjoyed before departing from their homeland. The work is replete, moreover, with innumerable details concerning the people who made up the community—members of the skilled and unskilled working classes, merchants, financiers, doctors, lawyers, rabbis, etc. In addition, it engages in extensive discussions of the institutions that were developed by the Sephardim, either on their own or in collaboration with their Ashkenazic cousins -- synagogues, Hebrew and secular schools, clubs, cemeteries, entertainment facilities, women’s associations, sports teams, Zionist groups, an armed defensive force that served in the British-organized Shanghai Volunteer Corps, committees that provided safe accommodations and monetary, educational and medical assistance to the 18,000 or so refugees who fled to Shanghai during the Nazi era, and so forth. One reads about men of tremendous wealth and influence in the Sassoon, Hardoon, Kadoorie, Abraham, Elias, Benjamin, and other families, the community’s rabbinic, cultural and artistic figures, the substantial help provided by the Baghdadis to Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen) and his followers in their successful rebellion against the despotic and corrupt Qing Dynasty, occasional intra-community disputes, and the reasons why so many Baghdadi Jews found it desirable to become British subjects, emulate much of the English way of life, and persist, at the same time, in remaining loyally Jewish.

While the opportunities for financial advancement in the Chinese trade appeared very promising, the exodus of Sephardim from lands under Muslim domination was also spurred on by the problems they faced at home, where, like Christians, they were legally classified and treated as dhimmis (inferiors), and were constantly apprehensive of being cast into even worse positions as new political or military leaders came into power. In Shanghai, as they were informed by the Jews who were already residing in the city, they might encounter social discrimination by the Christians in the extraterritorial sections of the city, but that the law would see to it that they would not be subjected to intolerance or mistreatment by reason of their religious beliefs and ethnic origins.

In 1845, Elias David Sassoon (1820-1880), who may well have been the first Baghdadi Jew to arrive in Shanghai, engaged in commercial and banking affairs there and in Hong Kong and Canton. Five years later, he made Shanghai the hub of all his operations within and outside China.

Elias’s capital was furnished by his father David, the head of the eminent and wealthy Sassoon family of Baghdad; and, in fact, the Shanghai firm’s ownership and management were in time extended to two of Elias’s younger brothers, thereby justifying its name, David Sassoon Sons and Co. Interestingly, the books of the Sassoon firm, as well as those of other Baghdadi Sephardic business organizations, were for some decades kept in the Judeo-Arabic script by employees who knew the language. These men were generally recruited from indigenous Sephardic Jewish communities situated in and near Baghdad and brought to Shanghai by their employers.

While the Sassoons were the first Baghdadi Jews to engage in a business venture in Shanghai, their success encouraged the development of competing Sephardic entrepreneurial and financial establishments, some owned by employees who started in on their own, others owned by Jews who had decided to make the long journey from Baghdad and open shop in Shanghai, and a number that were created by Sephardim who came from Egypt, Istanbul, Italy, and other starting points. There were, in addition, Ashkenazim who migrated from Germany, Poland, Russia, and elsewhere.

A large portion of the trade in which the Baghdadi Jews and their non-Jewish counterparts took part was the importation of cotton grown in British-controlled India to China and the exportation in return of tea and silk to England. One is compelled to report, however, that a high percentage of the income of almost all the Jewish and non-Jewish firms came from the shipment from India to China of opium. British law, it should be understood, permitted this sordid form of commerce to be practiced inasmuch as it consistently reaped huge profits for the English economy. Thus, a highly placed Chinese official who wrote Queen Victoria that the easy availability of Indian opium throughout his country was encouraging the spread of drug addiction to vast numbers of his compatriots, and asked her almost piteously to put a stop to the trade, never even received a response to his plea. In fact, it was not until 1917 that the trade that so disturbed him was made illegal.

In the course of time, the business activities of the Baghdadi Sephardim grew astoundingly large, encompassing such undertakings as international banking, real estate and hotel ownership, manufacturing, commodity dealings, and other income producing ventures -- many, many times greater, it should be stressed, than one could normally expect from so miniscule a community. And, it should perhaps also be mentioned as a minor point of interest that one of their last and most outstanding titans and philanthropists, Sir Victor Sassoon, was probably better known to the international public for his ownership of the foremost private racing stable on earth than for his extremely effective financial achievements or his charitable contributions.

It will be apparent to any reader of Dr. Meyer’s new book that the research that went into its making approaches the awesome, and that its contents are logically arranged and exceedingly well presented. It is accordingly highly recommended to both the academic specialists in her field and to those lay readers who possess even a passing interest in Jewish or Chinese history.

Michael Pollak is the author of Mandarins, Jews and Missionaries: The Jewish Experience in the Chinese Empire and The Jews of Dynastic China: A Critical Bibliography.