China’s infatuation with the Jewish people
“Hello hello hi hi hi foreign person, are you Jewish!” I’m sitting in the courtyard of the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum sipping an earth black coffee; the mother of a rowdy toddler who only moments ago was running and screaming around the Anne Frank exhibition, has suddenly appeared in front of me. She hastily draws up a chair and sits next to me, her diamond-studded Gucci sunglasses slipping off her sweaty nose in the 30C degree heat.
The Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum is at number 62, Changyang Road in Hongkou district, which sits north of the Huangpu river running through Shanghai, just before a small stream of water breaks away and floats west. The museum building was once the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which since 1907 served as a religious centre for the Russian Jewish community.
I’m tempted to strike up a conversation with this bling bling Chinese mumma and reply: “No I’m not, but I’ve been reading up on Judaism for a while now so I came here to explore some more”, but before I’ve had time to switch into my Chinese brain, she’s already blasted me with questions, or rather, bizarre statements I think she’s expecting me to answer.
“Wow Tsinghua University you must be intelligent – all Jewish people are intelligent!” (I’m wearing my Tsinghua cap from when I spent a year on exchange in Beijing) “Such a beautiful nose big – all Jewish people have big noses” (it’s my Dad’s big Roman nose, and I’m slightly offended).
Documentation of contemporary China’s infatuation with the Jewish people in mainstream Western media is few and far between. However, an interview with James Ross, editor of “The Image of Jews in Contemporary China”, published by Academic Studies Press, has said:
“I was taken aback by people’s admiration for me because I was Jewish. And their assumption that I was rich and smart because I am a Jew. I found that really awkward. I tried to suggest several times, without making any progress, that any kind of stereotyping was dangerous and could turn to bad directions very easily. One of the central issues in all this is that the Chinese have lost their belief systems. Now that everything is focused on getting rich and attaining power, there is not much to believe in, and the interest in Jewish people involves what Jews believe in, even though the Chinese cannot study what Jews believe in. So it is still a mystery to them. They feel that they want to be like Jews, but have no idea what Jews believe in.”
In Chinese Mandarin, the word for Jew 犹太人 youtairen can refer to money, deviousness, stinginess, poverty, trustworthiness, warm-heartedness, individualism, tradition, and modernity. Is it any wonder the Chinese are confused? In his book “Are There Really Jews in China? – An Update”, Daniel Elazar writes that “for the moment, the Jews of China remain something between an exotic memory and a transient whisper”. Whilst there are a growing number of Jewish study programmes at universities in China, ignorance remains blatant.
(I personally don’t think it helps that the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum is smothered in not-so-subtle propaganda pushed out by the Chinese government’s one and only Chinese Communist Party). An elderly Chinese man catches my eye as I leave the museum and walks over; he stares me up and down and asks if I am Jewish. I say no, but that China was right to let in so many refugees when they were turned down by so many countries including the UK and the US. He smiles knowingly and says Chinese people never discriminate against race or religion. I wonder to myself whether he knows what’s happening in Xinjiang …
Whilst it is suggested there are very few Jews residing in China today, there is nonetheless a fascinating history of the Jewish people in Shanghai.
Throughout World War Two, despite Nazi efforts to include the Shanghai Jewish refugees into their final solution – the Holocaust and attempted extermination of the world’s Jewish population – the Japanese-occupied district in Shanghai never gave them up. They did, however, force them to live in unpleasant conditions known as the “Shanghai Ghetto”.
In August 1938 after Kristallnacht, the first Austrian Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai – aided by Chinese consul-general in Vienna Ho Feng Shan, an outstanding individual who granted visas during 1938-1940 against the orders of his superior Chen Jie, the Chinese ambassador in Berlin. Between November 1938 and June 1941, the total estimated number of Jewish refugees arriving into Shanghai was: 1,374 (1938), 12,089 (1939), 1,988 (1940) and 4,000 in (1941).
Between 1941 – 1945, approximately 23,000 Jews were forcibly restricted to the (1 mile squared) “Shanghai Ghetto” – the aim of which was to facilitate the control of the Jews. The conditions were dire; the holdings could accommodate only 10 per room, there was poor sanitation, almost no employment, and people were starving. It was a “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” in which a curfew was imposed, armed guards patrolled, food rationed, and passes were needed to enter and exit.
Organisations such as the International Committee for European Immigrants (IC) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) provided relief. Yet gradually, and in spite of their circumstances, “Jewish cultural life flourished: schools were established, newspapers were published, theatres produced plays, sports teams participated in training and competitions, and even cabarets thrived”
The attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 had devastating ripple effects for the Jewish community in the Shanghai Ghetto – the wealthy Baghdadi Jews (many of whom were British subjects) were interned, and American communication (but more importantly their charitable funds) were cut. Knowing of a Japanese-occupied territory in China, the USA began air raid bombings in Shanghai in 1944.
The worst attack was on July 17th 1945 whereby 38 refugees and hundreds of Chinese died – a historian at the museum described Jewish and Chinese residents helping, supporting and comforting one another, as if race was irrelevant.
On a plaque in the courtyard of the museum, former resident of the Shanghai Ghetto, Betty Grebenschikoff says “I want to point out during all the years that I lived in China, as well as during my three trips to Shanghai in later years, I never saw any signs of anti-Semitism on the part of the Chinese people. They were always friendly and welcoming to us. Shanghai became my home and in spite of the economic and medical difficulties we faced, I will always be grateful to China for giving me and my family refuge when so many other countries refused to.”
After the Shanghai Ghetto was officially liberated on September 3rd, 1945, and along with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, today it is assumed there are no more Jews residing in the Shanghai Ghetto. However, Shanghai continues to welcome Jewish visitors year after year after year. The Chinese infatuation with the Jewish people remains, but it rarely seems to be malicious – only simultaneously curious and confused, based on a handful of stereotypes and limited interaction with Jewish people.
As I leave the museum to wander around Houshan Park (previously Rabin Park) before catching my overnight train to Guilin, I stand reading the only Jewish monument in Shanghai – in Chinese, English and Hebrew it says: “From 1937 to 1941, thousands of Jews came to Shanghai fleeing from Nazi persecution. Japanese occupation authorities regarded them as “stateless refugees” and set up this designated area to restrict their residence and business. The designated area was bordered on the west by Gongping road, on the east by Tongbei road, on the south by Huimin road, and on the north by Zhoujiazui road.” I was hoping it would say more, but this is it. On my way to the tube station I pass a tiny old Chinese lady; she’s wearing an equally tiny badge that I can’t make out easily. It’s a six-pointed figure consisting of two interlaced equilateral triangles – the Star of David.