Shanghai Social Diary: Shanghai Tour of Jewish History

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Shanghai, a major port, was one of China's first cities to open to Westerners. View of Pudong on the other side of the river and Shanghai's financial center.

Shanghai – Not far from the famous Bund district in Shanghai is Hongkou district (pronounced “hong koh”), a quiet neighborhood with a history of Jewish immigration; it was once known as the Jewish Ghetto.

Shanghai-based Israeli photojournalist Dvir Bar-Gal introduced me to the remarkable history of Jews in Shanghai, when I joined his comprehensive walking tour, Jewish Shanghai.

In our group were tourists from around the world. Some had been inspired to come after hearing stories told by Jewish relatives who had actually lived in the Ghetto during World War II.

Our Jewish Shanghai tour group assembled at the Fairmont Peace Hotel facing the Bund. On the right is the old Bank of China.
The legendary Peace Hotel, formerly the Cathay Hotel, was renovated and re-opened in 2010, was once the glamorous social hub in the 1930s.
An Art Deco gem, the Peace Hotel was built in 1929 by Victor Sassoon, a descendent of the affluent Jewish clan that migrated from Baghdad to India and then to Shanghai.
We crossed from the Peace Hotel to the Bund promenade, which runs along the Huangpu River.
Dvir Bar-Gal delivered a passionate, informative, and comprehensive account of the incredible story of the three waves of Jewish migration to Shanghai.
The popular Bund promenade was completely re-built by 2010, in time for the Shanghai Expo 2010.

The First Wave: Seeking Business Opportunity (1840s) 

The first Jews arrived in the 1840s. They were Sephardic traders originally from Baghdad looking for business opportunities. Many had climbed the social and economic ladder by making fortunes in India trading tea, textiles, and opium. But others were poor people who made their success in Shanghai.

David Sassoon, seated, with his boys, c. 1840.

Among the early arrivals were David Sassoon, Elly Kadoorie and Silas Hardoon. Sassoon’s great-grandson Victor Sassoon was a real estate magnate who built the Cathay Hotel, Grosvenor House, Cathay Cinema, and other landmarks and led the life of a bon vivant when Shanghai was called the “Paris of the East.”

The Kadoorie family founded the China Light & Power Company and today owns the Peninsula Hotel Group. In the early 20th century Silas Hardoon helped turn Nanjing Road into a commercial center – “The Fifth Avenue of Shanghai.”

Elly, Lawrence, and Horace Kadoorie.

The Second Wave: Fleeing Czarist Russia (1920s)

Several thousand Ashkenazi Jews had arrived in Shanghai by the 1920s to escape the persecution and pogroms in Czarist Russia and the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Many of the Jews settled in Shanghai’s French Concession district and opened small businesses or got involved in real estate and the stock exchange.

The Third Wave: Escaping the Nazis (1930s)

Shanghai was an “open city” that allowed immigration without visa or passport. As the rest of the world had closed their doors to the Jews escaping Europe, Shanghai became the destination for these refugees.

Japan invaded and took over Shanghai in 1937, the open port policy continued. Initially, just a few refugees from Hitler’s Germany arrived, but after Krystallnacht (1938), an estimated 20,000 flocked to Shanghai from Germany, Austria and Poland. New arrivals poured in until the attack on Pearl Harbor stemmed the tide.

A self-contained Jewish community—sometime referred to as “Little Vienna” — flourished, with European-style cafes and bakeries, seven synagogues, four cemeteries, a club for musical performances and a Jewish school.

East Seward Road in 1940, one of the main thoroughfares through Little Vienna.

But in 1943 the Japanese army moved the “stateless Jews,” those without passports, into a less than one-mile-square area in the Hongkou (then Hongkew) District, which they designated a “Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees.”

The restricted area was already one of the poorest and most crowded areas in the city where Russian Jews and poor Chinese lived, and now with the “stateless Jews” it was referred to as the Shanghai Ghetto.

Food was scarce and disease was rampant. Still, since the Japanese refused its Nazi allies’ request to deport or murder them, the Jews living there were spared the fate of the six million who were exterminated in the Holocaust, and the Chinese residents fared better than the 35 million who perished in the Sino-Japanese war.

The local Iraqi and Russian Jewish community and American Jewish charities helped provide shelter, food, medicine, and clothes to those in the ghetto, though the flow of goods and money diminished once America went to war against Japan.

The US liberated Shanghai in 1945. After the WWII and the 1949 Communist revolution, most of the Jewish population relocated to Israel, America, Hong Kong, and Australia.

After the lecture, we were driven by van to see Hongkou District for ourselves. Even today a poor neighborhood, it retains much of its 1940’s character.

I was struck by the obvious European influence on the architecture: grey row houses inlaid with bricks, with arched windows and pointed roofs.

We stopped first in Huoshan Park, a peaceful green place in the heart of the Ghetto area, just across from several blocks of residential housing dating from the 1920s.

Jewish refugees once came to relax and socialize.
A memorial sign.
We gathered around the only memorial to Shanghai’s European Jewish refugee, which is marked by signage in Chinese, English and Hebrew.
The Shanghai Municipal and Hongkou government put up this stone monument in honor of the wartime Jewish refugees.

In the senior citizens’ building, we sat while Bar-Gal described the Jews’ modern-day Exodus – their flight to freedom from Europe to Shanghai during World War II – and spoke of the unrecognized heroes who saved many Jews from death.

In July and August 1940, for example, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul general in Lithuania, issued more than 2,000 transit visas permitting Jews to escape via Japan to Shanghai.

Dr. Ho Feng-Shan, 
a Chinese diplomat in Vienna, was known as China’s Schindler (the German who saved the lives of many Jews), because he issued many “visas for life” that permitted Jews to flee Austria for China.

In the park, this senior citizens center was restored with funds from Israel and Israeli companies in collaboration with the Hongkou District government.
L to R.: Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul general
in Lithuania.; Dr. Ho Feng-Shan, consul general from China to Vienna, Austria.

We walked from Huoshan Road to Zhoushan Road, the center of the Ghetto and once the heart of the Jewish community referred to as “Little Vienna,” as so many came from Austria.

Bar-Gal’s vivid narrative took us down the lanes of the residential area, making it easy to picture what life was like for the residents crowded into the Ghetto.

Broadway Cinema, an art deco former movie theatre in Hongkou.
A Star of David marks a house inside the Hongkou ghetto.

From there, we headed around the corner to the three-story gray-and-red brick Ohel Moishe Synagogue, the place of worship for Russian Jews who lived in the area in the 1920s and 1930s. In 2007 the People’s Government of Hongkou District donated funds to help restore it as it appeared in 1928.


Museum for Jewish Refugees
One flight up, the synagogue houses the Museum for Jewish Refugees, displaying ephemera like passports, photos and a newspaper produced by the refugees in the ghetto.

More Jewish History in Annexes

Behind the Moishe Synagogue, across the courtyard, are two annexes that house additional artifacts.
Photos, letters, and videos tell the stories of Jewish life in old Shanghai.

We made a final stop in a lane (longtang) house – a small row house where as many as 30 Jewish residents might be crammed into a single room with bunk beds and curtain dividers. Poorer Chinese families currently inhabit these houses, where even today there is no running water, toilets or showers, and the kitchen is communal.

Many such refugee quarters have been torn down, and more are slated to be, but I hope Shanghai officials will preserve some for their historical significance. Bar-Gal believes that knowledge of this part of history and awareness of their mutual hardships during WWII brings Jewish and Chinese cultures together.

Dvir Bar-Gal’s tour isn’t a superficial “highlights” excursion, but rather a five-hour mini-course for 400 RMB (about $60) that gives you a greater appreciation of the diversity of this amazing city and an insight into a side of Shanghai of which many may be unaware.

Because he takes you on foot, you have a more intimate experience than riding around on a bus. I highly recommend his tour ( He also gives customized private and group tours.

Bar-Gal is spearheading a project to preserve Jewish area buildings and tombstones (scattered when Jewish cemeteries were destroyed). For more information, go to

Among the people who lived in the Restricted Sector for Stateless people during World War II were Peter Max, the pop artist; Mike Blumenthal, U.S. Treasury Secretary; Eric Halpern, co-founder of the Far Eastern Economic Review; and Michael Medavoy, who has headed several major Hollywood studios and is a major independent producer.

Medavoy developed the film Shanghai (2010), produced by Harvey Weinstein and starring John Cusack, Gong Li, and Ken Watanabe. The film is about an American living in 1940’s Shanghai, and gives a different perspective of the wartime experience.

So does Steven Spielberg‘s Empire of the Sun (1987) with Christian Bale, John Malkovich, and Miranda Richardson, based on J. G. Ballard‘s autobiographical novel about a colonial boy’s life after the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1937.

Also, my San Francisco friend Deborah Strobin and her brother Ilie Wacs, recently published their memoir An Uncommon Journey, about their escape from Vienna to Shanghai and eventually America.

Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.

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