Tour of Jewish Shanghai
The best introduction to Jewish Shanghai is provided by a tour run by Dvir Bar-Gal. Offering a history lesson as much as a tour, Bar-Gal has perfected a succinct explanatory narrative. He is able to deal with vast areas of Chinese history (from the First Opium War to the Cultural Revolution and beyond) in a few minutes and in such a way that those with little background are educated without patronizing those already familiar with the broad outlines of the topic.
The focus of his narrative, of course, is the Jews of Shanghai. He tells the story of all the main characters (such as the Sasoons and Kadoories) but also attends to lesser known figures, like Silas Hardoon who came to Shanghai as a penniless teenager and left as Asia’s richest man and Dr. Feng Shan Ho, a Chinese ‘righteous gentile’ who issued thousands of travel permits to Austrian Jews.
Bar-Gal also peppers his tour with tidbits on Chinese culture and offers interesting insights into the most popular pets, the issue of face, the problem of relocation and the history of lilongs.
Much of the tour takes place in the former ghetto in the Hongkou District. Although the street names here have changed, the house numbers have remained the same. This has meant that many of Shanghai’s old Jewish residents are able to locate their original homes.
In addition to conducting tours of Jewish Shanghai, Bar Gal is conducting a project to preserve a tangible part of Shanghai’s Jewish history by unearthing and restoring the gravestones of the old Jewish community. By the early years of the Second World War, Shanghai had four Jewish cemeteries. One – the Sephardi Mohawk Road Cemetery – was centrally located right next to people’s square on the current site of the JW Marriott Hotel. By the time Jews began to return to the city, with the era of openness and reform, all of these had disappeared.
In 2001 Bar-Gal found that an old stone with Hebrew engraving was being sold at a local antique store. This sparked a hunt which led to the rural areas on Shanghai’s western outskirts, where he has since found more than 70 old gravestones. These he has excavated from doorsteps, home foundations, river beds, washboards, floors, tables, steps, and bridges.
Bar-Gal, a documentary film maker, has recorded each step of his quest and a clip of the movie is shown at the end of his tour (it can also be viewed on his website at www.shanghaijewishmemorial.com). His ultimate goal is to resurrect the stones as a monument to Shanghai’s Jewish past.