The foreign businessmen who helped build modern China

A GREAT FORTUNE BUILT ON THE OPIUM TRADE

Today, Forbes counts 61 billionaires in Shanghai, all of them Chinese. But a century ago, two Jewish families, “the Sassoons and the Kadoories were Shanghai’s first billionaires.” The Kadoories made their money the hard way, beginning late in the 19th century through shrewd investments and wise management. But the Sassoons had emigrated to the city in an earlier era when the opium trade was legal around the world (though not in China) and dominated commerce there.

THE LAST KINGS OF SHANGHAI: THE RIVAL JEWISH DYNASTIES THAT HELPED CREATE MODERN CHINA BY JONATHAN KAUFMAN (2020) 382 PAGES ★★★★★

Some of the many Jewish refugee children at school in Shanghai late in World War II. Shanghai’s Sassoon family helped rescue 18,000 Jews from Nazi Germany and Austria and transport them to refuge. The Kadoories and Sassoons then built nonprofit schools, housing, and social services to support them. Image: Holocaust Encyclopedia

A SUCCESSION OF REMARKABLE CHARACTERS

The drive and talent that leads to the creation of great wealth tends to dissipate over time. Sons, and sometimes grandchildren, may prove equally successful as the founding patriarch. But in the third generation, or the fourth, the allure of leisure bought by unlimited riches diverts some from the businesses that built their fortune. And others are attracted by careers in professional pursuits or the arts. Moreover, the family’s wealth is divided among successive generations into smaller and smaller shares. Typically, the result is that the family’s wealth gradually dissipates. And that appears to have been the pattern with the Sassoons and, to a lesser degree, the Kadoories.

DAVID SASSOON

Kaufman’s saga begins in Baghdad, the ancestral home of these two remarkable families. For 800 years, the Sassoons had lived at the apex of Iraqi society. The head of their family was routinely recognized as the Nasi, or prince, of the wealthy and influential Jewish community of the city. But early in the 19th century, teenage David Sassoon (1792–1864) was imprisoned by local authorities in a brazen attempt to extort a huge sum of money from his family. His father managed to break him out of prison and hustle him onto a ship bound for Bombay.

ELLY KADOORIE

Elly Kadoorie (1867–1944) “started out as a student and employee of the Sassoons [in Hong Kong], but he quickly set out to seek his own fortune. Always an outsider, he built alliances with Chinese revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen, immigrants like himself, and local Chinese, accumulating a fortune that made him one of the richest and most powerful men in Asia.” And eventually his fortune exceeded even that of the Sassoons.

VICTOR SASSOON

David’s grandson, Victor Sassoon (1881–1961), was a “billionaire playboy, crippled at age thirty” in World War I. He “transformed Shanghai into a world-class city, bankrolled the Nationalist government, defied the Japanese, and saved thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism.” But he saw his fortune shrink when he made the bad call to keep the family’s wealth invested largely in Shanghai. The Communists were near the climax of their drive to power in China, but Victor was oblivious. Their seizure of the city in 1949 cost him half a billion dollars, roughly $5.5 billion in today’s currency, and cemented the family’s decline.

ELLY KADOORIE’S SONS

Lawrence Kadoorie (1899–1993) and his younger brother Horace Kadoorie (1902–95) both sought careers overseas independent of their father, Elly, but he forced them back to China to take the helm of the family business. Lawrence took the top spot and proved to be a brilliant investor and manager. Horace devoted himself largely to philanthropy. Both brothers collaborated closely with Victor Sassoon in establishing a network of nonprofit social service agencies and schools to serve the fast-growing Jewish refugee population. While Victor Sassoon persevered in Shanghai, Lawrence gradually shifted the family’s resources to Hong Kong. And, unlike Victor, he and his brother fled the city when the Red Army came near.

THEY EPITOMIZED THE FOREIGN CAPITALISTS WHO PLUNDERED CHINA

Although both families consistently proved generous to their own staff members and household servants, both remained heedless of the racism inherent in their operations. They never seemed to notice the abysmal poverty of the millions of Chinese who barely survived from day to day in both cities where their fortunes were built. The Sassoons compounded the problem by speaking out openly against the Communists. By contrast, the Kadoories wisely refrained from making negative public statements. And that policy paid off when Lawrence successfully negotiated the expansion of his Hong Kong power company into operations on the mainland as well.

WHERE THE FAMILIES ARE TODAY

Today, Elly Kadoorie’s grandson, Michael Kadoorie, appears on Forbes‘ Real-Time Billionaires list at number 330 with a fortune estimated at $7 billion. He remains one of the richest persons in Hong Kong with his holdings in the luxurious Peninsula Hotel Group and the publicly traded power company that supplies electricity for much of the city. But his fortune pales beside that of his grandfather, who was one of the richest men in the world a century earlier.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Kaufman. Image: Wikipedia

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