Jews Dominate Fresh Account of 1930s Shanghai

Montreal writer’s new book spotlights strong Jewish connection behind Chinese city’s dramatic bygone era.

By Robert Sarner, Times of Israel, Sept. 17, 2016

Sitting in his daily perch in a café on Montreal’s east side, writer Taras Grescoe is a world away – both in place and time – from the focus of his new non-fiction book. In Shanghai Grand, he recreates the long-vanished glamour and opium-fed decadence of the Chinese metropolis in the 1930s when it was known as the “wicked old Paris of the East.” As he discovered in the course of research, it was a doomed world in which Jews had a starring role.

In a recent conversation with Grescoe at Café Club Social near his home in Montreal’s hip Mile End quarter where he goes every morning for a dry macchiato, he speaks authoritatively about Shanghai, past and present. And the tales he can tell, all of them true, following four years of extensive research and several trips to China.

The treaty port of Shanghai in the 1930s was a special moment in history that Grescoe evokes deftly in the book through a novel-like narrative. He presents a compelling portrait of the city, especially its foreign-controlled International Settlement and French Concession in which people from 14 mostly Western countries enjoyed extraterritorial rights, free of Chinese law.

At the time, pre-revolutionary Shanghai had an exotic, seductive allure as one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world. It was famous for its extravagance – sometimes glitzy, sometimes sordid. Its rich cultural mix, lucrative business opportunities and hedonistic nightlife attracted a constant flow of adventurers, shape-shifters and bon vivants from Europe and North America who often crossed paths in the city’s hotel lobbies, exclusive clubs and dockside dives.

“Shanghai was a place to which the ambitious, the wily and the desperate could escape to discard old identities and recreate their lives from scratch,” Grescoe writes early in the book.

The city also attracted high profile visitors, such as Hollywood stars Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard and Douglas Fairbanks and writers Noel Coward, W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and George Bernard Shaw.

By then, Shanghai’s Jewish community, which dated back to the mid-19th century, had a significant presence. 

“In the 1930s, the city had the largest Jewish population in the Far East,” says Grescoe, 49. “The treaty port of Shanghai was founded in 1842 by the English, French, and Americans, after the First Opium War. Later, the first entrepreneurs to really understand the potential of the city’s strategic location and access to a large population were Sephardic Jews from the Middle East.”

Among those were the Sassoons, Hardoons, Ezras and Kadoories, who thrived in the opium, cotton, and eventually, the real estate business. Then, after the Soviet Revolution in 1917, Russian Jews came.

During the three years following Hitler’s Kristallnacht progrom in 1938 when the world closed its doors to Jews fleeing the Nazis, Shanghai became “the port of last resort” for 20,000 Jewish refugees escaping Europe.

The book abounds with intrigue, drama and colourful characters. Events unfold against growing turmoil and squalor among the local Chinese as war and revolution loom large, inevitably piercing the bubble in which the expatriates live. As Japan invades and occupies Shanghai, both Chinese communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedung and his nationalist rival Chiang Kai-shek fight for power, with the former prevailing with the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

At the heart of Shanghai Grand is an unusual three-sided love story between British real estate mogul Sir Victor Sassoon, swashbuckling American writer Emily (Mickey) Hahn and Chinese poet Zau Sinmay. When Grescoe set out to write the book, he had little idea Jews would figure so prominently in its pages, including two of its three main protagonists.

“I knew from the start that two main characters in the story were Jewish,” says Grescoe, referring to Hahn and Sassoon. “I was surprised, however, at just how many of the subordinate figures – outlandish adventurers, idealistic dreamers, selfless heroes and yes, a fair share of scoundrels – turned out to be Jewish.”

A rough count of people in the book of Jewish ancestry turns up no less than 30, spanning a wide range of ages, professions, personality types, political leanings, religious observance and geographical origins. Had it not been for reasons of space, Grescoe could have easily added several more Jews.

In addition to Hahn and Sassoon, who dominate the book, other Jewish larger-than-life figures appear on the page, all of whom Grescoe clearly relishes introducing to the reader and still talking about today.

“I wonder if some Jewish readers have a conflicted attitude toward individuals like Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen and Trebitsch Lincoln,” says Grescoe. “Cohen was a real tough who spoke with a bastard Cockney-Canadian accent and became a general in the Chinese Nationalist army. As for Lincoln, he was a rabbi’s son from a small town near Budapest who had an astonishing career as an international triple agent.”

Other Jewish figures, who make brief appearances, include Mikhail Borodin, a delegate to the Chinese Communist Party from Moscow's Politburo; Freddie Kaufmann, manager of the Tower Club in Sassoon’s majestic Cathay Hotel in Shanghai; Al Israel, a nightclub entrepreneur; Harold Isaacs, Newsweek’s correspondent in China; Aline Sholes, Director at Shanghai’s International Arts Theatre;  and Serge Voronoff, a Russian-born surgeon, who became famous for grafting monkey testicle tissue onto men’s testicles to supposedly rejuvenate the recipients. (I’m not making this up.)

Even some of the non-Jewish characters cited in the book have a Jewish connection, such as Ladislav Hudec, the architect of several landmark buildings in Shanghai. As Hungary’s Honorary Consul in Shanghai during World War 2, he helped Jewish refugees from Europe by issuing them passports to travel safely to Canada and the United States.

By his own admission, Grescoe fell head over heels for Emily Mickey Hahn, as did many others during her lifetime. The more he learned about her and her trailblazing exploits as a writer and globetrotting adventurer, the more she mesmerized him.

“I liked her style (daring in fashion, breezy in prose), her utter lack of snobbery and prejudice, her fragile yet intrepid heart,” he writes. “In the heyday of the flapper, she looked like a proto-beatnik, one of nature’s born individualists.” 

While researching the book, Grescoe learned China had a small Jewish community as far back as the 10th century AD but Jews were unknown to most Chinese. As a result, anti-Semitism was a foreign concept. He also discovered that after the Japanese occupiers established a Jewish ghetto in Shanghai in 1943 under pressure from their Nazi allies, the Jews and local Chinese had decent relations.

“For the common Chinese in Shanghai, especially those in Hongkou, the site of the ghetto, the Jews were just neighbors, and they tended to get along,” says Grescoe. “The overall impression you get is of people thrown together in poverty but willing to laugh together, work alongside one another, and help one another.

“We also shouldn’t forget the extraordinary ‘Schindler of China,’ Ho Feng Shan, who used his position at the Nationalist Chinese consulate in Vienna to write thousands of transit visas for Shanghai. He’s the one who alerted European Jewry to the fact that Shanghai was a Free Port, open to all comers. Despite opposition from his superiors, he saved at least 5,000 Jews.”

Grescoe, who is not Jewish, was born in Toronto and grew up in Calgary and Vancouver. He moved to Montreal in 1996 after also living in Paris. Shanghai Grand is his sixth non-fiction book and the first to have such pronounced Jewish content.

Not surprisingly, the preponderance of Jewish characters in the book added to his perception and understanding of Jews.

“Characters like Mickey Hahn and [novelist] Vicki Baum made me reflect on the interesting status of Jews in the Diaspora,” says Grescoe. “As outsiders from gentile culture, they were put in a position to be observers and chroniclers. They could function in the dominant culture, and often thrive, but they remained distinct. Their marginalization, even if it was subtle, gave them a fresh outlook.”

That perspective of course has long manifested itself in various ways in different fields and places, notably in literature.

“The majority of the writers who have influenced me have been Jewish, and outsiders in their own communities,” says Grescoe. “Franz Kafka in Prague. Marcel Proust in Paris. Giorgio Bassani in Ferrara and Rome, author of the brilliant Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Grace Paley in New York, Saul Bellow in Chicago, the list is never-ending.”

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