China & the Jews

Posted on April 30th, 2014 by

We are less than a month away from the eighth annual Herbert H and Irma B Risch Program on Immigration.  This year’s program, to be held at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation at 2 p.m. on May 18, features Rabbi Marvin Tokayer.  Rabbi Tokayer will be speaking on the topic of the Shanghai refugees, the remarkable Jewish community that not only survived WWII but also flourished in the years that followed (former Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal among them).   The selection of this year’s program was influenced by JMM’s current exhibition, Project Mah Jongg, and its focus on cultural connections between Jewish Americans and Chinese traditions.

Mark Your Calendar!

Mark Your Calendar!

The connections between Jews and China are far older than most people think.  The merchant trade of the Silk Road brought the first Jews to this part of the world by the time of the 8th century Tang Dynasty.  When Marco Polo arrives in Beijing in the late 1200s he finds an active community of Jewish traders.  Kaifeng contained perhaps the largest and most enduring Chinese Jewish population, preserving kashreit and shabbat well into the 1700s.

Jews of K’ai-Fun-Foo (Kaifeng Subprefecture), China. Image via wikipedia.

In the modern era China has been a place of refuge for Jews on more than one occasion.  When the Inquisition reached Goa, India in 1560, the demand was made that Portuguese marranos and “New Christians” return to Portugal and the punishments meted out to the unfaithful.  A group of Portuguese marranos went further east to Macao instead.  “Captain” Bartolomeu Vaz Landeiro was among the most notable of these refugees. Taking on a role that combined piracy and diplomacy, Landeiro became an agent for the local Chinese authorities in their dealings with the European powers.  Without any sense of irony, his Chinese neighbors would call Landeiro, “The King of the Portuguese.”

Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, painting by Moshe Maimon. Image via wikipedia.

Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, painting by Moshe Maimon. Image via wikipedia.

In 1844, it was the opium trade that brought Elias David Sassoon, son of the treasurer of Baghdad, to China.  Initially setting up shop in Hong Kong, Sassoon becomes the first Jewish member of the international colony in Shanghai in 1850.  The big break for the Sassoons is the American Civil War.  Suddenly, Chinese cotton becomes an important international commodity and Elias David Sassoon its most prominent dealer.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David. Image via wikipedia.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David. Image via wikipedia.

In the early 1900s, Jews fleeing pogroms in Western Russia, managed to make it across the Trans-Siberian Railway to settle in Harbin, China.

And perhaps the most interesting Jewish emigre to China is Morris Cohen (known more commonly as “Two Gun Cohen”).  Cohen was a British born pickpocket, pugilist and con artist (as a boy, in a scene right out of American Hustle  Cohen is employed by glazier, breaking  windows to bring in business).  After leaving reform school in England, Cohen headed to Saskatchewan, Canada where he was hired on as a farmhand and taught to shoot with a gun in both hands.  He made an unlikely friendship with a Chinese restaurant owner in Saskatoon whom he saved from an armed robbery.  This brought him into the inner circle of Cantonese Canadians who were supporting Sun Yatsen independence movement against the child emperor PuYi (think Last Emperor of China).  He eventually became a body guard for Sun Yatsen and his family and later a “Brigadier General” under Chiang Kai Shek.

Image via.

Image via.

If these stories pique your interest, I have two resources to suggest:

1) There is a terrific on line magazine called Asian Jewish Life at www.asianjewishlife.org.  You will find much more detail on “Two-Gun Cohen” in one of their archival issues – this one to be exact!

2) In addition to his lecture in May, Rabbi Tokayer runs a series of highly-rated kosher tours of Jewish history in Asia.  His next China-Japan tour is in July.  You can find more information at www.jewisheyes.com.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click here. 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland