The Kadoories and Sassoons, Iraqi Jews, 'the cleverest Jews as far as business is concerned,' made Hong Kong. But they were not the only ones, according to this fascinating, in-depth feature in the South China Morning Post (with thanks: Michelle):
"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
Although there were only a handful of Jewish families in Hong Kong in
the mid-19th century, they enjoyed enormous success and several became
"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
"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
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
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
As the Kadoories acquired money, they also gave it away. They were
legendary philanthropists and their generosity was not confined to the
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
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 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.
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