Dr. Maisie J Meyer

Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, Volume 39, pp. 222-3.

Reviewed by John Cooper

John Cooper studied history at Balliol College, Oxford, and is in private legal practice until his retirement. He has many publications in the field of Jewish Social History.

Port Jews are very much in fashion, Court Jews are not. Therefore it is good to welcome Maisie Meyer’s meticulously researched book on the Jews of Shanghai, which was the premier port city in the Far East. At the same time her volume is an enthralling read. Her account is above all, the story of three migrations to the city; the Baghdadi Jews from the Middle East and India, followed by waves of 6000 – 8000 Russian between 1895 and 1939 and some 20,000 refugees in the 1930’s escaping Nazi oppression.

Meyer devotes most of her attention to the Baghdadi community in Shanghai, which was small but vibrant, numbering only 1000 persons in 1938. Baghdadi Jews assisted Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai to develop into some of the greatest trading and financial centres in the nineteenth century and the early part of the next century. Until the 1960s Baghdadi Jews shared the role of intermediaries in Britain’s trade between India and China with the Parsees, but in the late Victorian age the Baghdadi Jews came to surpass their rivals. There was a triangular trading system between Britain, India, and China. Cotton goods were exported from Lancashire to Asia and opium was exported from India to China in exchange for tea and silk and other commodities.

Elias Sassoon (1820-80) built up his father’s business, David Sassoon & Co., into a leading force in the trade between India and China. In 1867 he founded E.D. Sassoon as bankers and property dealers, their activities soon eclipsing those of the older firm. Many of the more enterprising of their trainees, such as Sir Elly Kadoorie, Edward Isaac Ezra, and Silas Hardoon, started their own businesses, prospering as merchants and dealers themselves. As their businesses expanded, the Baghdadi merchants traded in many other commodities and branched into banking, shipping, public utilities and, most important of all, into property dealing and financial services. They built the tallest buildings in the city, the Palace Hotel, Sassoon House and Broadway Mansions. The port city of Shanghai became China’s commercial capital and by the 1930s the greatest city in Asia.

The Baghdadis mostly lived in the International Settlement, which was controlled by a Western expatriate elite. They identified closely with the British, so that by the beginning of the twentieth century they spoke English in their homes, anglicized their names and wore English attire. So strongly did the Baghdadis identify with British rule that with the demise of the rabbinate in Baghdad, they applied to the then Chief Rabbi, Dr J.H. Hertz, for suitable British-trained Ashkenazi rabbis to administer to the religious needs of the community, though they followed their own liturgy. The Baghdadi community celebrated all British royal anniversaries, were extremely patriotic and attributed their prosperity to British rule.

The deteriorating situation in Europe during the 1930s impacted on Shanghai, however, and refugees continued to arrive from Central and Eastern Europe until the autumn of 1941. Of these refugees, 18,000 remained in the city, while the rest used Shanghai as a staging-post and moved to the United States, Palestine and other countries. The Baghdadi Jews generously raised funds to house and feed the refugees, who lived in increasingly squalid conditions after the Japanese takeover of the city in December 1941. Some Baghdadi Jews were interned in camps with other Western nationals by the Japanese. After the War, and the Communist triumph in China, the Baghdadi community fled, migrating to England, North America, Australia and Israel. Maisie Meyer’s book is a welcome addition to studies of Jewish communities in Asia.