AS A SHANGHAI-BORN WRITER, when I was invited to review journalist Jonathan Kaufman’s new biographically driven history of the city’s pre-1949 era, I readily agreed. One reason was its title, The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China, which led me to assume, correctly, that it would deal in part with the Sassoon family. I knew the Sassoon name from a book series I read in my childhood titled Shanghai Stories. The series included intriguing bits and pieces of information about the family and the stamp it made on the city in which I grew up. On the cover of Shanghai Stories was a silhouette of the iconic structures of Shanghai’s waterfront Bund: the Peace Hotel buildings. One was the Sassoon House, which is now dwarfed by taller buildings across the Huangpu River in hypermodern Pudong.

Victor Sassoon (1881–1961) was mentioned only briefly in the series, portrayed as an evil “imperialist” who built his fortune from the opium trade in China. Likewise, the Peace Hotel was presented as having once been full of the decadent debaucheries of Western colonialists and capitalists like Victor. According to that text, it was not until Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule after 1949 that the building was granted “a new lease on life” as a place to be used by the Chinese people.

I came to know this old hotel well. I often walked past it when I began my English studies at the Bund Park in the early 1970s. My frequent encounters with its old colonial facade imbued the building with an air of mystery. Years later, after staying at the hotel to conduct research for an installment in my Inspector Chen mystery series, I decided to put my sleuth there for a story in which he investigated international mafias. Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai deconstructs, complicates, and expands upon my partial knowledge of old Shanghai, especially the Sassoon family’s role in it, that I had acquired during my youth.

Who, then, were the key members of the famous, or in the Communist Party’s eyes, infamous Sassoons? David Sassoon (1792–1864), the patriarch of the Sassoon dynasty, fled from Baghdad to Bombay in the mid-18th century. In Bombay, he made an unbelievable fortune through the opium trade and built a business empire with his eight sons. In the 1920s, his great-grandson, Victor Sassoon, made the fateful decision to move the family business from India to Shanghai. Victor bought the most prominent site on the Bund, no less than a full city block, at the intersection of Nanjing Road and the waterfront. There, he built a new headquarters for the family business known as the Sassoon House — 50 feet taller than the tallest building in the city at the time. With it, he incorporated a magnificent hotel that carried the name Marco Polo used for China: Cathay. Party after party, night after night, the Cathay was the entertainment hub for the rich and fashionable of old Shanghai.

The Sassoon family soon became one of the mightiest and wealthiest business dynasties in all of Asia. Much more than a one-dimensional business tycoon, “Victor bankrolled the Nationalist government, defied the Japanese, and saved thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime.” It is perhaps no exaggeration to credit him with the incredible transformation of Shanghai into a world-class city at the time. In the end, however, when his properties were snatched away by the Communist Party after 1949, Victor remarked, “I gave up India and China gave me up.”

The Last Kings of Shanghai also features the Kadoorie family, another business dynasty that rivalled the Sassoons, but whose name I had not encountered in my youth. I learned, however, that I had in fact encountered their physical legacies in many ways. For example, in the early 1960s, I once visited the Children’s Palace on Shanghai’s West Yan’an Road with a group of my elementary school classmates. It was a magnificent marble mansion with an immense lawn sporting a variety of games for children. I had never seen such a fairy-tale-like place. I was selected to be a ceremonial red-scarf-wearing Young Pioneer and present a bouquet of flowers to visiting “foreign guests.” For my school homework, I described myself in that moment as “so happy to live in the socialist China.” Later, when I studied English at Bund Park, I often found my eyes drawn across the Suzhou River to a spectacular hotel named “Pujiang.” Like the Peace Hotel, it too sat beyond my reach.

Both the Children’s Palace and the Pujiang hotel are remnants of the Kadoorie dynasty, which also experienced its fair share of dramatic ups and downs. Elly Kadoorie (1865–1944), also born in Baghdad, started out as an employee of the Sassoons, but quickly set out to build his own fortune. Despite being an outsider, he succeeded in forming alliances with local businessmen and revolutionary leaders like Sun Yat-sen. Elly built the “best, fanciest hotel in Asia” — the Majestic, in which Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling had their wedding. He then built another magnificent hotel in Hong Kong, the Peninsula. In 1924, he built Marble Hall and established it as the family residence. It was the city’s largest mansion and was modeled on the royal palace at Versailles. Marble Hall was later renamed to “Children’s Palace.”

During the first half of the 20th century, the two families found themselves in constant competition. But they also joined forces in their effort to aid Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II. Kaufman writes of a conversation between Elly and Victor, “Elly appealed to his ego and his heritage. ‘Victor, there is a war going on,’ Elly said. ‘You are a Sassoon. You are the leader.’ […] Elly pulled out his checkbook and wrote out a check for $50,000. […] Sassoon smiled. ‘Whatever Elly gave, I’ll give.’”

They not only gave the refugees meals and helped them look for jobs, but they also urged Chinese intellectuals and politicians to help. They encouraged Madame Sun Yat-sen to lead a delegation to Shanghai’s German consulate to protest anti-Jewish policies. Sylvia Chancellor, a longtime British resident in Shanghai who had once “criticized Victor for being a playboy and for ignoring the poverty and inequality of the city, changed her mind,” declaring, “God will forgive him all his sins because of the charity he gives [to the refugees].”

The rival dynasties made drastically different choices, however, with the arrival of the communists in 1949. After his property was seized by the CCP, Victor Sassoon exiled himself to the Bahamas, vowing to never again set foot in Shanghai — like the haughty third-century BC king of Chu in a famous Song Dynasty poem: “Even today, the thought of Xiangyu stops me / from crossing the river to the east.” His last days spent brooding over the ruins of his dynasty offered a glaring contrast to the Kadoories, who refused to abandon China after the Communist Party took over Shanghai. Though they also suffered huge losses, Lawrence Kadoorie rebuilt the family fortune in Hong Kong, refrained from openly criticizing the CCP (even during the Cultural Revolution and the Tian’anmen crackdown), and was eventually welcomed back to Shanghai after China’s reform and opening under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. The contingent making and unmaking of the Sassoon and Kadoorie dynasties reminded me of the Chinese expression yin cha yang cuo 阴差阳错. Literally, it means that the operations of yin and yang have been altered and are causing unexpected things, but it is often used to describe the strange combination of circumstances that drive historical events.

Much of what happened to the Kadoorie and Sassoon families were subversive revelations to someone like me who grew up reading the Chinese characterizations of their lives. Take, for example, the affair between Emily Hahn, an American writer for The New Yorker, and Victor Sassoon. About a decade ago, the affair between Emily Hahn and the Shanghai writer Shao Xunmei was unearthed to great fanfare in China. Long condemned as a decadent bourgeois writer, Shao staged a popular comeback solely for having an American woman as his lover — or as his “concubine.” This inverted orientalism was clearly appealing to the Chinese collective subconscious. However, Hahn was not just Victor Sassoon’s lover, but also a close friend and confidante. As depicted in The Last Kings of Shanghai, she noticed the seeds of communist victory in Shanghai’s stark inequalities. Through Shao Xunmei, she became acquainted with leftist Chinese intellectuals and politicians, including Zhou Enlai. Victor, though, dismissed her fears: his jealousy of Hahn’s ongoing affair with Shao clouded his judgment. The comparative success of the Kadoories poses an intriguing question: would Victor have been able to avert the downfall of the Sassoon dynasty if he accepted her warning about the coming political upheaval?

The Kadoorie family also found itself at the center of a web of contingencies. In 1917, after the Balfour Declaration in which the British government stated its support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, Elly Kadoorie approached Sun Yat-sen asking for his support. Sun responded in a letter to Elly, “[A]ll lovers of democracy cannot help but support the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation.” In return, Elly offered to buy bonds to support Sun’s new republican government.

When Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, the Kadoorie-Sun relationship was sustained by his widow, Madame Sun Yat-sen. After 1949, when all the efforts by the Kadoories to save Marble Hall and their other properties proved to be futile, they were “donated” to the newly established People’s Republic of China. Marble Hall became the Children’s Palace through a foundation run by Madame Sun Yat-sen, one of the leaders in the new government. The Kadoories’ “donation” made it easier for them to return to China decades later. They invested more than $1 billion at the beginning of China’s period of reform and opening — a time when others remained unsure about investing in post-Mao China.

With these reforms came also an increase in materialism and consumerism. The Bund is now the most expensive and luxurious area in Shanghai, even more so than in the heydays of the Sassoons and Kadoories a hundred years ago. Michael Kadoorie, the third-generation scion of the Kadoorie dynasty, naturally had his eye on a historic lot there: the old British consulate. Margaret Thatcher had asked for this space back in the 1980s, but was rebuffed. Michael swooped in and nabbed it for the prestigious Peninsula on the Bund hotel. At a later meeting with Hong Kong business leaders, Michael was the sole Westerner present. Xi Jinping, China’s powerful new leader, told Michael: “Your family has always been a friend to China.”

Though the offspring of the Sassoons have been far less fortunate in their effort to stage a comeback in Shanghai, Victor Sassoon did at least have his portrait restored in his eponymous suite in the Peace Hotel — a room that goes for $1,100 per night. Kaufman writes of the portrait: “Victor looking distinguished and statesmanlike in contrast to earlier photographs showing the younger, rakish bon vivant […] always ready for the next deal, the next party, the next turn in Chinese politics.” This version of Victor stands in stark contrast to the caricatured debauched capitalist as told in Shanghai Stories.

Perhaps a more ironic instance of what I referred to earlier as the “misplaced yin and yang causality of history” can be seen in the person of Gu Zhun (1915–1974), the economist and Party official responsible for imposing unbearably high taxes on the Sassoons and Kadoories and, as a result, eventually confiscated their properties after 1949. Once a fervent believer in communism, Gu was labeled a “Rightist” in the 1950s and later persecuted to death when he questioned the track record of the Party’s communist orthodoxy in favor of the once “capitalistic” market economy.

Lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” eloquently point to the fundamental questions that a reading of The Last Kings of Shanghai raises:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities.

The Last Kings of Shanghai is not just a brilliant, well-researched, and highly readable book about China’s past, it also reveals the contingencies and ironic twists of fate in China’s modern history.

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Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, China. He published prize-winning poetry, translation and criticism in Chinese in the ’80s, and became a member of the Chinese Writers’ Association. In 1988, he came to the United States as a Ford Foundation Fellow and obtained a PhD in comparative literature at Washington University. He is the author of the critically acclaimed, award-winning Inspector Chen series.