The Role of Jews in the Making of Hong Kong
“We’re so lucky to be in Hong Kong – it’s a fantastic place for Jews. It always has been.”
Judy Green, chairwoman of the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong, has lived here since she was 11 years old. We meet at the Jewish Cemetery, a green and peaceful spot in a hidden corner of Happy Valley, tucked behind a Buddhist temple and surrounded by a cluster of tower blocks. It’s dotted with gravestones bearing with a mix of English and Hebrew script. The earliest recorded burial plot, belonging to a Leon Bin Baruel, dates from 1857. The most recent gravestone is dedicated to Mervyn Gatton, who died in February.
Hong Kong’s Jewish population, currently estimated to be 5,000 strong, is thriving. “It’s a close-knit and dynamic community,” says Green. And it’s a community that has deep roots, stretching right back to the earliest days of the colony.
The first Jews to set up home in Hong Kong were Iraqis who arrived in the 1840s. They were descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition (which lasted from the late 15th to early 19th centuries) who had worked their way east to Baghdad, where a sizeable community developed.
During the 19th century, Baghdadi adventurers travelled to India and set up trading operations in the booming ports of Bombay and Calcutta. Later, as China gradually opened to international trade, they crossed the Indian Ocean and established outposts in Canton, Macau and Hong Kong.
Although there were only a handful of Jewish families in Hong Kong in the mid-19th century, they enjoyed enormous success and several became fabulously wealthy.
“The Iraqis are supposed to be the cleverest Jews as far as business is concerned, at least that’s what my Iraqi friends tell me,” says Green. “I think they had a lot of courage. They saw opportunities that other people either didn’t see or weren’t brave enough to pursue.”
The cemetery was created by the Sassoons, a family that was once dubbed “the Rothschilds of the East”. They bought the parcel of land from local farmers. Green points out a plaque on the back wall that commemorates the opening of the burial ground, in 1855.
The family patriarch, David Sassoon, left Baghdad in 1832 and established himself in Bombay, modern-day Mumbai. He had seven sons whom he dispatched to outposts across the Orient, using his offspring to build a business empire.
“He had a son in practically every port,” says Green. “As well as in Hong Kong, he had offices in Singapore, Burma, Canton, even as far as Japan and Indonesia.”
The family started trading back and forth and invested in shipping, hotels and property, but its real fortune came from the less salubrious trade in opium. By the 1870s, the family was one of the leading importers to China of this incredibly lucrative commodity.
The Sassoons and their staff formed the core of the Jewish community in Hong Kong.
“Most of their employees were also Baghdadi Jews whom they sent over from Bombay,” says Green. “They were deeply religious people and always made sure they had somewhere to worship – until they built a synagogue, it was usually just a room in one of their offices.”
The Sassoons had fingers in pies across the breadth of Hong Kong society and helped to get the fledgling colony up and running. One of David’s sons, Arthur, was on the provisional committee that founded the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in 1864. Another son, Frederick, was elected to the Legislative Council in 1884.
As Green continues her tour, we come across a small chapel and a tahara room, where bodies are ceremonially washed and prepared for burial. She explains that this building stands on ground that was leased in 1904, to expand the cemetery, with the assistance of Matthew Nathan – Hong Kong’s only Jewish governor.
Nathan served as governor from 1904 to 1907. Born in London, he was a soldier and an engineer with a reputation as a competent and decisive administrator.
“He wanted to develop Kowloon, which was a muddy backwater in those days. My husband’s grandfather remembers walking around in gumboots because it was a swamp. Nathan decided that for Kowloon to flourish it needed an access road, to link it to the hinterland of the New Territories. Many thought he was making a mistake but he was determined to push the project through.”
Once dubbed “Nathan’s folly”, Nathan Road – the shopping megastrip that bears his name – catalysed the development of the whole area, proving the wisdom of his decision.
Although gifted in practical matters, Nathan didn’t thrive socially.
“He was a bachelor and didn’t have a wife to act as hostess at functions at Government House,” says Green. “I think he found that aspect of colonial life very difficult. A lot of expat socialising was centred on the Hong Kong Club, which didn’t admit Jews in those days, and there were Sunday gatherings at church, which he couldn’t attend.”
In 1907, Nathan was transferred to South Africa. On his departure, the South China Morning Post reported that “the general regret at the departure of Sir Matthew Nathan from Hong Kong is a tribute to his fine personal qualities as well as to his splendid administration …”
At the front of the cemetery’s main burial ground stands a pair of marble sarcophagi, marking the final resting places of brothers Lawrence and Horace Kadoorie, members of the best known Jewish family in Hong Kong. Green puts a small stone of remembrance on each sarcophagus. The Kadoories were family friends.
“The brothers were lovely. Lawrence was very warm-hearted, easy-going and generous-spirited. He would talk to anybody – he didn’t seem to think of himself as the special person he was. Horace was extremely jovial, really interested in young people and enthusiastic about his philanthropic work.”
Like the Sassoons, the Kadoories are of Iraqi extraction by way of Bombay. The first member of the dynasty to arrive in Hong Kong was Elly Kadoorie, who came in 1880, at the age of 15, to join the Sassoon family company. Brother Ellis joined him later. Elly subsequently moved to Shanghai while Ellis concentrated his efforts in Hong Kong.
The brothers amassed a fortune by investing in rubber plantations, banking, docks and real estate. In 1914, Ellis made a major investment in Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, which now operates 10 properties under the Peninsula brand across Asia, Europe and the United States. The flagship Peninsula, in Tsim Sha Tsui, an iconic Hong Kong landmark, was said to be “the finest hotel east of the Suez” when it opened, in 1928.
Four years later, he bought into China Light and Power (now CLP Holdings), the largest electricity-generation company in Hong Kong.
Ellis was to remain a bachelor and died aged 55, but Elly married in Shanghai and had two sons, Lawrence and Horace. As the boys grew older, they became increasingly involved in managing the family’s affairs. In 1937, Lawrence, who had been born in Hong Kong, moved back to the city to run the hotel business.
When Hong Kong fell to the Japanese in 1941, Lawrence was interned in Stanley with his wife and two small children. After five months, the family transferred to Chapai camp, near Shanghai, to be closer to Horace and Elly, who were living in the former stable block of the family mansion. Elly died in 1944 and succession fell to the brothers.
After the war, Lawrence returned to Hong Kong to reclaim his family’s assets. He set up home at the Peninsula. During the occupation, the hotel had been requisitioned as the headquarters of the Japanese and, afterwards, by the British military, and was in a terrible state of disrepair. Just as restoration work got under way, refugees started arriving from Shanghai.
In the lead-up to the second world war, about 20,000 European Jews, fleeing Nazi persecution, had taken refuge in Shanghai, one of the only cities in the world for which a visa wasn’t required.
“They had no money, no nothing,” says Green. “The Jewish community in Shanghai galvanised and looked after them and Horace was particularly active in that. It was a huge undertaking – because there was an awful lot of them and only a relatively small Jewish community.”
After the war, the refugees were repatriated to Europe or went on to start new lives in the US, Australia and Israel. Most of them had to transit through Hong Kong to collect their visas.
The Kadoories joined forces. Horace gathered information about each batch of refugees at the Shanghai end and sent it to his brother. In Hong Kong, Lawrence visited the Immigration Department almost daily, bearing lists of names, final destinations and petitions for permission to transit.
Once they arrived in Hong Kong, the refugees had nowhere to stay so Lawrence threw open the doors of the Peninsula. Most stayed only a few days but one group of nearly 300 people, who were due to sail to Australia, were stranded when their ship was diverted to carry troops. Lawrence repurposed the hotel’s ballroom as a dormitory and accommodated them there for several months until alternative transport was found.
“Lawrence wasn’t known for being observant, religiously,” says Green, “but the Jewish people were very important to him and he was unstinting in his efforts to help them.”
He had the support of Hong Kong’s other Jews, who banded together to provide clothing and medical aid, and handle baggage, change currencies and assist the refugees in planning their journeys.
Once the refugees had dispersed, Lawrence turned his attention to the family business, becoming a key player in Hong Kong’s phenomenal post-war economic growth. By the time of his death, in 1993, the Kadoorie portfolio included stakes in the Star Ferry, the Peak Tram, the Cross Harbour Tunnel and the Daya Bay nuclear power station, in Shenzhen.
As the Kadoories acquired money, they also gave it away. They were legendary philanthropists and their generosity was not confined to the Jewish population.
Elly built a number of schools and hospitals in the Middle East that were open to all-comers, irrespective of race or religion. His brother endowed the Ellis Kadoorie Chinese Schools Society in Hong Kong, which originally served the poorer sections of the Chinese population and now caters mainly to the children of lower-income South Asians.
After the war, Horace and Lawrence pioneered social initiatives to help an influx of Chinese refugees escaping the civil war across the border become self-supporting and secure.
Horace – who had always wanted to be a farmer – was instrumental in the founding of the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association in 1951. It established an experimental farm and provided training in sustainable agriculture, interest-free loans and livestock. Starting in 1968, thousands of Gurkhas (Nepalese serving in the British Army) stationed in Hong Kong were offered training, so they could work as farmers when they left the army and returned home. Later, as agriculture declined, the farm shifted its focus to environmental issues and is now run as the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.
Lawrence, together with six friends, established an enterprise to provide employment for boat girls and preserve the traditional Chinese craft of making fine carpets. Tai Ping Carpets started life in a house in Tuen Mun. Sales soon soared. Prior to the 1950s, carpets were rarely seen in Hong Kong and the floors of smart hotels were made of polished wood, but that changed with the proliferation of air conditioning, which protected carpets from damaging humidity. Tai Ping also cornered the market in the US. A trade embargo meant goods could not be imported from mainland China, creating a vacuum that Lawrence and his friends promptly filled.
In 1959, Tai Ping moved its headquarters and factory to Tai Po, bringing new vitality to the small market town. The company remained there for 32 years before all production was moved to the mainland. Still based in Hong Kong, Tai Ping is now the world’s largest hand-tufted carpet company.
Lawrence’s multifarious achievements were rewarded when he became the first person born in Hong Kong to be elevated to a British peerage. In 1981, he was named Baron Kadoorie of Kowloon and Westminster in the House of Lords.
He and his relatives have sprinkled the SAR with the family name. While the Sassoons have only a road in Pok Fu Lam named after them, the Kadoories are credited with an avenue in Mong Kok, a beach at Castle Peak and, of course, the farm and botanical gardens.
The Kadoories still maintain a presence in Hong Kong. Lawrence had two children, one of whom – Michael Kadoorie – chairs both CLP Holdings and Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels.
The Sassoons and Kadoories may be the best known but a host of other Jewish characters contributed to Hong Kong’s prosperity, enriched its cultural scene and added colour and spice to the social fabric.
Emanuel Belilios, a contemporary of the Sassoons and another opium millionaire, built a huge mansion on The Peak and filled its garden with a menagerie of exotic animals, including a camel. As generous as he was eccentric, he helped to fund the Alice Memorial Hospital and Hong Kong’s first school for girls. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1881 in recognition of his contribution to Hong Kong Society.
The flamboyant Harry Odell, known as Hong Kong’s first impresario, arrived here in 1921, fresh from a stint as a tap dancer in Japan. He started a film business, persuaded famous performers to visit and successfully lobbied the government to support the foundation of the City Hall theatre complex.
Solomon Bard, who died last month, was a talented musician with a prodigious intellect. The founding director of the student health service at the University of Hong Kong, he also led the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, became music director of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and co-founded the Hong Kong Archaeological Society.
After the war, many Jews relocated but some stayed on, laying the foundations of today’s community. From the 1960s onwards, there was a steady influx of expats and the Jewish community is now bigger, and busier, than at any other time in Hong Kong’s history.
“There’s some kind of Jewish activity on every day of the week,” says Erica Cohen Lyons, “which, I think, is remarkable.”
Lyons is founder and editor of Asian Jewish Life, a quarterly journal that covers Jewish activity throughout the region. She moved here from New York 12 years ago and her three children attend Carmel, Hong Kong’s Jewish school.
We meet at Ohel Leah, a synagogue in Mid-Levels that was built by scions of the Sassoon family in 1902 and named after their mother.
“It’s laid out in the Baghdadi style, with the lectern in the centre,” says Lyons, who is on the synagogue’s management council.
She shows me where the Torah (the scrolls bearing the Old Testament that are taken out and read during services) are stored, in a hidden space at the back called the Ark.
“The Jewish community in Hong Kong is very special,” says Lyons. “It’s extremely diverse, with Jews from Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. There’s also great diversity in terms of how people practise Judaism. We have the complete range represented, from those who are entirely secular to those who adhere to Orthodox streams of Judaism.
“In the US, people from different denominations of Judaism tend not to mix. Here in Hong Kong, we all share one school and one community space [the Jewish Community Centre, located in the building adjacent to the Ohel Leah Synagogue]. This pluralism is very unusual. It makes me really proud of this community.
“We are really fortunate that anti-Semitism is essentially non-existent here. Historically, we’ve always had a good relationship with the local community – I think there’s a mutual respect between the Chinese and Jews in Hong Kong. They have similar traits and cultural values in some ways, and we’ve always been welcomed and made part of society.”
Some Jewish cultural activities are being embraced by the wider community. Lyons points to the Jewish Film Festival, which took place earlier this month. Now in its 15th year, it is steadily gaining in popularity.
“The festival attracts many non-Jewish people [about 30 per cent] to its screenings,” she says.
Looking to expand its reach, the festival organisers this year partnered with the Asia Society, a group that is also playing host to an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, on loan from the Israel Museum, in Jerusalem.
“We aren’t just a community with an extraordinary history to take pride in,” says Lyons. “We have a bright future built on solid foundations.”