The Rich History of Jewish Life in China

THE MAIN synagogue in Harbin, a refuge for many Jews who fled the Former Soviet Union. (photo credit: CHINESE EMBASSY)

The first contact between the Jewish and Chinese peoples occurred in the ninth century, in the Song Dynasty, when Sephardi Jews who hailed from present-day Iran, Iraq and India came to Kaifeng via the Silk Road for business. The first synagogue was built with the permission of the emperor in 1163 CE. The emperor also gave the Jews several Chinese last names in order to assimilate them into Chinese society. He also allowed the Jews to intermarry with the local population. As such, after generations of intermarriage, the Kaifeng Jews began to slowly integrate into local culture.

Historically, there were three large waves of migrations of Jews to Shanghai. The first wave began in the 1840s, right after the Opium War, when Sephardim from Baghdad, Bombay, Singapore and Hong Kong came to Shanghai for business.

These Sephardi Jews, about 1,000 in all, were mostly British and settled in the International Settlement south of the Suzhou River and in the French Concession, an affluent area in Shanghai. Over the years, they formed a strong network that influenced the economy and development of Shanghai.

The second wave came at the end 19th century and the early 20th century when Russian Jews came to Shanghai, fleeing a Russia that was plagued by antisemitism, revolution and civil war.

To escape persecution back home, they first came to Harbin in northeast China where they built their own communities. Beautiful synagogues and European buildings built by these Jews remain intact today. When the Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1905, though, they were forced south to Shanghai. By the 1930s, there were about 4,000 Russian Jews in Shanghai. They settled in an area north of the intersection of the Huangpu Suzhou rivers, where the cost of living was much lower. This area is now called Tilanqiao, Hongkou district. This wave of Jewish immigrants was mostly middle-class. They opened grocery stores, served as lawyers, doctors and musicians.

The third wave came between 1933 and 1941, when Jewish refugees from Nazi-ruled Europe fled to Shanghai. After traveling for at least one month, these Jewish refugees escaped Hitler’s evil hands. They settled in Tilanqiao Hongkou district because it was in the north of the International Settlement, where life was convenient for them.

Rough numbers indicate that more than 25,000 Jewish refugees came to Shanghai and about 17,000 to 18,000 lived in the designated area (Hongkou Ghetto) set up by the Japanese occupation. Here the Jewish refugees still suffered, but remained hopeful. They survived in spite of the Nazi threat and the Japanese restrictions. They regained freedom in 1945 after World War II ended.

After the war, Jew left Shanghai with a deep affection for the city and her people, starting their voyage for family reunions and rebuilding their homes. Some of them went back to Europe and others went to other countries such as United States, Canada and Australia and, of course, British Mandate Palestine.

Although they left Shanghai, they have never forgotten the years they spent with the help of their Shanghai neighbors. Many of the former refugees, or their children or grandchildren, have returned to Shanghai from time to time to revisit their former residences in Hongkou. They refer to Hongkou as their second homeland – the Noah’s Ark for the Jews endangered by the Nazi Holocaust.

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