Many a Shanghai surprise: the story the Communists want to forget

Lifestyle

Many a Shanghai surprise: the story the Communists want to forget

Jonathan Kaufman’s ‘The Last Kings of Shanghai’ delves into the fascinating Sassoon and Kadoorie dynasties

Michele Magwood

Behind every great fortune lies a great crime, wrote the French author Honoré de Balzac. The crime, in the case of the dizzyingly wealthy Sassoon family in Asia, was opium smuggling. In The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China (Viking) Jonathan Kaufman excavates the fascinating story of two families, the Sassoons and the Kadoories, that has been buried under drifts of Communist propaganda. Kaufman is an old China hand, having reported on the country for more than 30 years for The Boston Globe, and he brings a balanced and nuanced perspective to a tricky history.

“As China’s power grows and its rivalry with the US intensifies,” he writes, “understanding the stories that it tells itself matters. They can help us understand what makes China tick.”

The Sassoons were powerful Baghdadi Jews, having lived there for some 800 years. Unlike their European kin who lived precariously on the outskirts of society, Jews thrived in Baghdad, which was a crossroad of cultures and boasted some of the world’s leading mathematicians, poets and doctors. The Sassoons were “Nasis”, economic advisers to the ruler, and the eldest son, David, was readying himself to take over the position from his father when a power struggle between the Ottoman rulers put a faction hostile to Jews in power. David, who was a business prodigy and multilingual, was forced to flee after a new Turkish pasha threatened to hang him. He stowed away on a boat, with a handful of pearls sewn into the hem of his cloak...

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