The Jewish Ghetto of Shanghai

It never occurred to me that there might be a Jewish history here in Shanghai. We hear about the French all the time, but the Jews? Nope, never.

Today I learned that a few British Jews had come to Shanghai in the mid-19th century and built grand hotels, like the Peninsula, which are still alive and kicking. But the majority of them came–30,000 to be exact–during the period of 1933-1941 because they could enter Shanghai without a passport or visa. Fleeing Hitler and Germany, they were stripped of their passports, so this was an ideal place to come.

This particular area I visited in Shanghai is called Hongkou. It is located at the bend of the river that runs through Shanghai and it was once known as the American Concession during the period of 1854 to 1943.  Bends in rivers are considered to be bad luck because of their bad Feng shui, so that is why this area was given to the Americans. To this day it is still the poorest part of Shanghai and has yet to be slated for development.

But, that means we can see what the city actually used to look like!

Back in the 1850’s the area was filled with missions that catered to the poor and orphans.

Immigrants began to move in, especially Russians escaping the rise of Communism, and then migrant laborers.  Factories were built and child labor began to be a huge problem. There was a small Russian Jewish population at that time.

The Japanese came to Shanghai in December 1941 (I believe it was the day after Pearl Harbor) and conquered the city in 5 minutes. They were planning to make Shanghai their new capital in Asia, so they didn’t want to destroy it.  They did however want to keep track of who their friends and enemies were.

Friends: Germany, Italy, Russia

Enemies: British, Americans

The enemies were taken to 11 prison camps throughout the city. These were similar to the Japanese interment camps in the US. There was no hard labor and the prisoners were fed adequately enough, but they didn’t have their freedom either.

The non-passport holding Jews didn’t fall into Friends or Enemies, so as has happened so often in history, in 1943, 20,000 people (10,000 had left by then) were crowded into a 12 block area with a fence on each end. A pass was required to leave, but they were allowed to work outside in the city.

But wait. What about those Jews that held a British passport, that had come earlier? They were sent to the internment camps.

Anyway, back in the ghetto, the Jews set up their own little municipality within the gates with their own services like a fire brigade. It wasn’t just 20,000 Jews crammed into this 12 block area, though, there were also Chinese and Estonians, among others.

Their most famous resident was Michael Blumenthal, the Secretary of the Treasury during the Carter Administration.

A lot of the reason that the history of this area is even known is because Hilary Clinton and Madeline Albright wanted to see his house when they came here for a visit.  Everyone had to scramble to find out where it had been. Mr. Blumenthal had good things to say about that time in his life.  He said it was fun–and he learned a little Russian from the Estonian girls!

After the war, all but 110 Jews decided to leave Shanghai. Those 110 stayed to take part in the great Communist experiment. Unfortunately, by 1956 they realized that things were not going to be going so well for them and they managed to escape to Singapore with a Singaporian minister who happened to be visiting.

According to Wikipedia there are remnants of Jewish communities still in Shanghai and Hongkong, but officially, Judaism is not one of the government recognized religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism) which you can worship in China.

Long intro, and now to the pictures:

Even though this is the "poor" district these boat planters with the dolphins and musical notes line the streets

Original tenement buildings

This is an art deco style cinema that was run by a Jewish Viennese businessman. This made me smile as Mark's mother's father also owned and operated cinemas, but in England. These cinemas would have roof top clubs where people would go to dance and listen to jazz on hot summer Shanghai evenings.

This group of buildings was built by the London Missionary Society around 1911 to take care of orphans, drunks and battered women. When the British missionaries were sent to prison in WWII, the Jews moved in. It's built in the Queen Ann style and reminds me somewhat of the Queen Ann row houses back in West Philly!

The pointy bits were all adorned with crosses

I finally caught someone actually hanging their laundry out to see how they do it! The laundry is placed on the pole first, inside. Then the person, balancing carefully, leans out the window with the heavy pole and threads it through the ring on the metal frame.

This is the view down the rows of tenements that were hastily put up to meet the demands of the influx of immigrants. If you have ever been to the Tenement Museum in New York City you will have seen the US equivalent there. (I highly recommend a visit there!)

Our guide has lived in Shanghai for 16 years so he was able to tell us that this sign was advertising "tooth pulling".

As you can see from the height of these windows, some of the rooms in the apartments have very low ceilings

We saw several of these colorful chalkboards. I think they were there to give inspirational messages, like "be clean". (Perhaps Andy or Ben could translate this one for me)

Originally these tenements were what were called "stone gated warehouses". There would be a big door as seen here that closes everything off to the outside world, then a garden area, then the house. There would have been four houses connected together, side by side and across the alley, probably owned by numerous members of the same family. Now they have all been split up and many people live in each individual apartment.

Spencer Dodington, our guide, is an architect specializing in historic architectural preservation in Shanghai. Here he was pointing out the problem that a lot of buildings have here because of all the water and salt that is in the ground and the lack of proper foundations. That eroded area on the wall is where the water level has risen in the concrete and the salt has leached out and eaten away the concrete. He says you can see this all over Shanghai. Makes for really damp, miserable living.

Somebody's kitchen

down another alley

Space is very limited, but lots of people had tiny gardens

Outdoor sinks for washing up. Are there indoor sinks? Not sure. The whole plumbing situation is unclear as you will see later.

Somebody has opened up a shoe store.

Growing peppers and onions in a pot

Plants to make things prettier

This must be where the owners of three wheeled bikes live

The public toilet. There were a lot of these, so I'm thinking this is what you use if you live here. It must be a squatter, but it's not like any squatter I've ever seen. Can't quite work out the mechanics of this one.

This restaurant had some really yummy looking food and the place was as immaculate as his shiny bald head.

Suddenly we walked down this street--it looked like England! But it was built by the Japanese as corporate housing for the shipping companies. It is now used by retirees.

This is another beautiful Queen Anne building. Unfortunately like many of the buildings its facade has been marred by wires and pipes and other modern updates.

The windows sport this blue stained glass which was made by orphans who were trained by the Jesuits. This glass can be found throughout Shanghai.

We paused briefly to buy roasted sweet potatoes from this man. These vendors have popped up all over Shanghai in the past couple of weeks. They also sell corn on the cob.

He puts the potatoes in a bag and weighs them with a little weight on a stick. Three small potatoes cost less than 5 kuai or about 75 cents. They taste slightly different than our sweet potatoes and are really good.

A child's ride outside a store.

This is a wide view of one of 5 remaining farm houses left in Shanghai. To the far left you can see the entrance gate, and over and behind the blue and red store fronts you can see the original roof. The compound is made up of a garden in the middle, with rooms encompassing it on 4 sides

Here's a close up of the gate.

There's the roof. The original family ancestors still live there. It's a case of "I'm not moving" and everything has been built up around them.

This section of store fronts to the right of the property would have been their farmland, but they sold it, or perhaps they developed it themselves.

This is the hospital section of what was once the largest prison in Asia. (Because you always put prisons in the poor section of town, right?) It was also one of the internment camps in WWII

Even the ghetto was allowed a small green space: Wayside Park, the only space people had to congregate. It is now a memorial.

The left side of this building was purchased by the Joint Distribution Committee, a Zionist group that helped Jews to resettle to Palestine in 1945. It enabled all 20,000 Jews in the ghetto, except the 110 who didn't want to leave, to get out.

view down another street

This is the house where Michael Blumenthal lived

The plaque on the wall

This man was walking down the street calling out that he would de-feather your duck. Said ducks were periodically flapping unhappily in the baskets he was carrying. I assume he would also stop them flapping for you.

This is the Shanghai Jewish Refugees museum which was restored in 2007 back to its 1928 state when it was used as a Jewish Synagogue

The building was originally a private residence built in 1907, but there is no record of the owner. This is the back of the house from the inner courtyard. It looks like a house from New Orleans.

The house was converted to an Orthodox Jewish Synagogue by using the living room and covering over the fireplace.

The museum was small but interesting, telling the stories of some of the people who had lived in the ghetto. This was one surprising picture I saw.

All in all a fascinating day’s visit to a part of Shanghai I would likely never have thought to go.

I was also supposed to go harvest rice this week. but it has been postponed because of all the rain we have been having. Hopefully that will be happening in the next week or two.

Until next time…

About DECRYPTKNIT: knitter on the loose in Shanghai

Hi, I'm Marisa Newhouse, a former pharmacist (for a brief time during the Reagan administration) who's real calling was probably anything that has to do with cooking, plants, literature and especially knitting; hence my last and favorite job, working at Woolyminded, a wonderful yarn store. But now, I have moved half a world away to Shanghai where my husband will be working. Lots of people are interested in what we will be doing here and I have always kept journals of our travels, so I thought I'd do it the modern way and keep a blog.
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