Dr. Maisie J Meyer

The China Morning Post, 10th August 2003, p.8.

Reviewed by Jason Wordie

Maisie J. Meyer provides a well-researched, if at times heavy-going, introduction to the Sephardic Jews, for a century and a half one of the China coast’s most fascinating, least understood communities. The Sephardic Jews have been likened to figures from the Arabian Nights; the group’s principal members colourful, exotic and fabulously rich but, like Jews the world over, only ever partially accepted.

Many Bagdadhi Jews moved on to India in the mid-18th century and settled mainly in Bombay, where they prospered under British rule. As the British commercial presence in China expanded in the 19th century the Sephardic Jews followed, and a community eventually became established, mainly in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

But what did the Sephardic Jews do when they got to China? One potentially controversial issue which Meyer — thankfully — has discussed openly and addressed honestly is the community’s longstanding immensely profitable involvement in the opium trade. One of the results of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842-which opened the first five Treaty Ports to foreign trade and ceded Hong Kong Island to the British Crown ‘in perpetuity” - was that opium importation from India to China became as legitimate as any other commodity. Opium sales provided the principal source of revenue for the government of India until well into the 20th century, and immense private fortunes were created.

As in India, Shanghai and Hong Kong’s Sephardic Jews became very Anglicised in time; witness the Sassoon family in Shanghai; David Sassoon and Co. was heavily involved in the opium trade, but later the family established themselves in Britain and became famous in artistic and literary circles, largely through first world war poet Siegfried Sassoon and aesthete Sir Philip Sassoon.

Hopefully studies like this book will spark interest for similar work on the Hong Kong community’s parallel and subsequent evolution, where the Sephardic Jewish presence was, while smaller than Shanghai’s, no less important. Numerous prominent Shanghai Sephardic Jewish figures who moved to Hong Kong after the Communist takeover, such as Ellis Hayim, are given prominence, while others whose lives had straddled the two cities, such as the Kadoorie family, are also discussed.

Like other communities that contributed much to China coast life over the past century and a half, such as the local Portuguese, White Russians, Parsees and the Eurasians, the Sephardic Jews have greatly declined in recent decades. But evidence of their lives can still be seen all around us. Where would Hong Kong be today without having had such far-sighted, philanthropic entrepreneurs as the Kadoorie brothers?