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Shanghai is One of the Greatest Jewish Cities Ever Constructed

Its current success is a function of that history

Feng Li/Getty

Shanghai today is many things: a phantasmagoric, almost extraterrestrial metropolis, a truly global city with a truly global reach, and the world’s largest city proper, home to more than 24 million people. But the city’s global present rests on a decidedly global past.

Its contested history as an international trading zone carved into foreign concessions and later occupied by invading Japanese forces has been an enduring trauma in Chinese history. It also famously became a major sanctuary during World War II, when tens of thousands of Austrian and German Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution sought safety within its walls. But as the city cements its twenty-first-century position as China’s foremost bastion of free trade, the influence of the Jewish people on Shanghai’s wealth and contemporary Chinese capitalism should not be overlooked. The city’s long Jewish history, after all, has been an integral component in its astonishing present-day success.

As early as 1845, when Shanghai was forcibly opened to foreign trade under the unequal treaties that concluded the Opium Wars, a network of prominent Sephardic Jewish merchant families—the Kadoories, the Hardoons, the Ezras, the Nissims, the Abrahams, the Gubbays, and, most prominently, the Sassoons—took root in the city and eventually joined the ranks of its Western occupying elite.

Small but powerful, this Sephardic merchant class financed many of the Beaux Arts mansions along the stately Bund, Shanghai’s version of Vienna’s Ringstrasse. Completed in 1929, Victor Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel—today the Peace Hotel—was the Bund’s crown jewel, the center of their cosmopolitan social world. In that sense, much of what survives today from prewar, European Shanghai is an artifact of Jewish Shanghai. When Nazi refugees arrived in the mid-’30s, Shanghai’s existing Jewish community became even more visible, swelling in size to nearly 30,000.

Sassoon Papers, DeGolyer Library, SMU
Victor Sassoon was one of many Jewish merchants who settled in Shanghai in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Sassoon's Cathay Hotel—completed in 1929—was the Bund's crown jewel.

It was in this period of traumatic conflict—in Europe and in Asia—that Chinese leaders across the ideological spectrum, relying on stereotype but not necessarily on a Western anti-Semitic vocabulary, began to discuss the Jews as a people worthy of special attention. Sun Ke, for instance, the son of Sun Yat-sen and eventually the premier of the Nationalist Party, which battled with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for control of China after the Japanese defeat at the end of World War II, argued that “Jews were wealthy and talented; if we could make a favorable impression on them and obtain their support, it would be a great help to us.”

Ironically enough, this was a line even the Communists would eventually adopt—after an era of isolation and arbitrary rule under Mao Zedong. Mao, who saw himself as a champion of the oppressed peoples of the world, recruited Jewish individuals to his cause. (This was especially odd since anti-Semitism was rampant in the Soviet Union after 1948.) Maoist China did not emphasize “Jewishness” as a distinct category, however, perhaps because “racial discourse” was officially banished upon the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

After Mao’s death in 1976, the reemergence of a specific interest in the Jews accompanied the opening of China to the outside world. By December 1978, Deng Xiaoping had solidified his position as China’s paramount leader and promised sweeping market reforms. Shanghai—and, with it, China—boomed, embarking on a path of staggering economic success. But what’s often overlooked is that those successes were accompanied by a deliberate study by Chinese elites of perceived Jewish financial practices. 

Deng pushed socialist China, which had a per capita GDP of only $175 in 1978, to embrace the idea that “to get rich is glorious.” The image of Jews as a source of economic wisdom was visible at even the highest levels of the Communist Party apparatus. Although many prominent Western economists were invited to China in these years, many of whom were not Jewish, the Oxford professor Włodzimierz Brus and the Chicago monetarist Milton Friedman nevertheless formed a significant part of the delegation, the latter receiving an honorary professorship at Fudan, Shanghai's leading university, in 1988. More explicitly, in 1991, Vice Premier Qian Qichen met with a delegation of “distinguished American Jews,” where he publicly declared that Jews were an especially “industrious” people.  

China unleashed capitalist energies that escalated at this time in a distinct and unprecedented way. Shanghai in 1980 had no skyscrapers; by 2012, it would have at least 4,000. And Chinese commentators and political leaders increasingly applauded the Jews as the world’s preeminent exemplars of precisely those energies. In 1996, a Middle East correspondent for the state-run People’s Daily, Huang Peizhao, reported to his Chinese readers: “The excellence of the Jews in business is known throughout the world.”  After conceding the negative connotations of the religious identity, Huang concluded that the Chinese should find Jewish entrepreneurs to be “well worth learning from.”

It has been easy for Chinese readers to follow Huang’s advice, as books on “101 moneymaking secrets of the Jews,” “the financial secrets of the Talmud,” and “the wisdom of the Jews: how to make the world’s money flow into your pocket” have begun appearing on Chinese bestseller lists. As more and more Chinese people seek to cash in on their country’s rise, the success of this genre has helped spread the image of the Jew as a model of economic sophistication.

Whether this association is philo-Semitic in its enthusiasm or anti-Semitic in its reliance on caricature is difficult to say, perhaps because the Chinese popular imagination seems to have imbued a historically negative Western stereotype with a decidedly positive meaning. At the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which commemorates the city’s hospitality during World War II, an elderly Shanghai native working as a security guard recalled to us that he had known what Jews were as he was growing up because “Jews lived in Shanghai” and “Jews built the Peace Hotel.” He grinned broadly. “We say that a person who is very shrewd is ‘like a Jew.’” A compliment? At least in Shanghai.

The city of Shanghai today emerged from two distinct periods of explosive growth on both sides of the Huangpu River. On the Bund, there are the traces of the economic activity of the 1920s and 1930s that made Shanghai the “Paris of the East,” activities fundamentally linked to a Jewish merchant class. Across the river, in Pudong, there is the breathtaking reality of a new Chinese and global city devoted to the spirit of commerce—understood, in some part, as the spirit and “secret” of the Jews.

And some of the most successful practitioners of this spirit of commerce even see their success as exemplifying a Jewish spirit. When the Chinese tycoon Chen Guangbiao—one of the wealthiest men in the country, whose recent shenanigans on a trip to New York made headlines around the world—announced that he wanted to buy the not-for-sale New York Times early in 2014, he said that his business success demonstrated that he and the paper’s Jewish owners were “equally competent,” reported the South China Morning Post.

“I am very good at working with Jews,” Chen bragged. As a plutocrat who came of age in the context of modern China, it’s easy to understand why he considers that a plus.