The Jews of Shanghai

Step inside a Chinese ghetto to find Jewish heritage in the Pearl of the Orient


The display on the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai shows that our current speed is 351 kilometres per hour — around 218mph. This is the fastest passenger service in the world, a marked improvement on the old ways of travelling to this exotic city.

In the late 1930s, Jewish refugees, escaping persecution by the Nazis had to take a 30-day boat journey via India, or brave the longer route across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express to Manchuria.

My trip takes less than five hours and I arrive in time for an evening boat cruise on the Huangpu River, the easiest way of getting a feel for the city.

On one side is the new neon skyline of Pudong, home to the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower and China’s tallest structure, the twisted glass 632m Shanghai Tower.

On the other is the famous Bund, lined with early 20th century Art Deco and neoclassical buildings, which helped give the city its nickname of the Paris of the East.

And it was the first wave of Jewish migration which was responsible for many of these mansions being built. At the end of the Opium Wars in 1845, Shanghai opened up to foreign trade and Sephardic merchant families from Baghdad and Bombay — including the Sassoons and the Hardoons — arrived to do business here.

Victor Sassoon completed his landmark Cathay Hotel in 1929 and Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward all stayed there. It’s now been renamed the Fairmont Peace Hotel and the famous old jazz band plays in the art deco lobby on most evenings.

Strolling along the riverside the next day, I get to see the Bund’s historical buildings up close. Many were home to banks and trading houses from the United Kingdom, as well as the rest of the world, and the consulates of Russia and Britain were situated here.

The Italian marble columns of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank Building are guarded by a pair of bronze lions, while inside a ceiling mosaic depicts the signs of the zodiac.

Next door is the Custom House, built in 1927 and still in use today, with a clock tower modelled on Big Ben’s own iconic home, including bells and mechanism to match the London original.

But it’s half an hour’s walk away that the city’s Jewish past is to be found, in the Hongkou district, a square mile of narrow lanes, cramped tenements and dark alleys. From 1933 onwards Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria began to arrive here as Shanghai was the only place in the world that did not require entry papers.

Helped by a sympathetic Chinese Consul in Vienna who issued thousands of transit visas, they came by steamer from Trieste and Genoa. Later on they were forced to travel across Siberia to Vladivostok and then by boat to Kobe in Japan and finally onwards to China.

The escape route was blocked in 1941 after Russia and Japan entered the war, but by this time the district was home to around 14,000 refugees, complete with cafes, delicatessens and bakeries and became known as Little Vienna.

In 1943, at Nazi Germany’s request, the Japanese occupiers confined the stateless refugees to this area, effectively creating the Shanghai Ghetto. Although there were no walls, checkpoints and armed guards prohibited freedom of movement and food was scarce.

The Ohel Moshe Synagogue, built in 1927, still stands and is now the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. In the courtyard, names of more than 13,000 Jews who once lived in the city are embossed on the wall and the surrounding buildings tell the story of their experience.

Exhibits range from boat tickets to a recreation of a cramped living room — and even a copy of the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle dated 19th January 1941. Old black and white photos instantly evoke the era of Little Vienna, transporting me back in time.

Although many other historic buildings have been lost to the wrecker’s ball, including four of old Shanghai’s six synagogues, surprisingly many in the surrounding streets have survived.

I follow a signed trail past landmarks like the Mascot Roof Garden at the top of the Broadway Theatre, a famous gathering place for musicians during the war.

Most of the refugees survived too although many left to search for their family members in Europe after the war. Later, the Communist revolution of 1949 became the trigger for mass emigration to the USA and other countries.

Huoshan Park, originally Wayside Park, was one of the few green spaces in the ghetto and a favoured meeting place to escape the cramped living quarters.

Today, among the mah-jong players and Tai chi devotees, they’ve erected a bronze plaque in Mandarin, English and Hebrew commemorating the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees”.

I can’t leave without seeing the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, built by the Sassoons in the Western section of the Shanghai International Settlement.

Completed in 1920, it was consecrated the following year and became a place of worship until 1952 when, during the Cultural Revolution, it was used as a warehouse and many artefacts were smashed.

It was restored for the 2010 Shanghai Expo but it’s in the middle of a private car park and unfortunately I’m not allowed access.

An imposing building, covered in green ivy, it’s large enough to accommodate 700 people. At the moment the city’s Jewish population numbers only a few thousand but I’m told it’s growing every year.

Almost a century may have passed since the first synagogue was built in Shanghai, but the city hasn’t forgotten its Jewish past. Hopefully next time, I’ll time my visit for when it’s open — and discover its beautiful interior along with Shanghai’s ever-growing congregation.


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