Legend of the Sassoons

Shanghai Star. 2001-05-10

OF all the Jewish families that had prospered in Shanghai, the Sassoons were probably the most famous. They once owned the Cathay Hotel, today's Peace Hotel, which stands prominent on the Bund as a monument to Shanghai's past.
Jacob Sassoon, the Jewish millionaire Victor Sassoon, nicknamed Lame Sassoon


The legend of the Jewish clan can be traced back to David Sassoon (1792-1864). Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Baghdad, Iraq, David Sassoon set up the Sassoon company in Bombay, India, in 1833.

In 1844, he set up a branch in Hong Kong, and a year later, he set up his Shanghai branch on the Bund to cash in on the opium trade.

At that time, about one-fifth of all opium brought into China was shipped on the Sassoon fleet. They brought China opium and British textile and took away silk, tea and silver.

Very soon the Sassoons became the wealthiest family in India. Many more Sephardic Jewish people came to Shanghai seeking the same kind of business success.

Upon his death, his eldest son Abdullah Sassoon (1818-1896), known as the Old Sassoon in history, inherited the family business in China and his second son Elias Sassoon (1820-1880) set up the New Sassoon company in Bombay.

At the beginning of the 20th century the Old Sassoon's business in Shanghai declined and its position was taken by the New Sassoon company.

The Ohel Rachel Synagogue on 500 Shaanxi Beilu, formerly 200 Seymour Road, was founded by Sir Jacob Sassoon, a member of the next generation of the family, in his wife's memory and consecrated in 1920. It is well preserved and used by the Shanghai Education Commission.

Jacob's nephew Victor (1881-1961), the fourth generation of the Sassoon family, inherited the New Sassoon company in 1918. He came to Shanghai in 1923, and in the years to come, Victor Sassoon expanded his family business mainly in Shanghai and turned it into an empire.

Victor Sassoon, who once served in the British air force, became permanently lame as the result of a plane accident, earning him the sobriquet of Lame Sassoon.

Victor was a formidable man - he opened more than 30 companies and became the king of real estate in Shanghai. His properties included the Hamilton Building and Metropole Hotel at the intersection of today's Fuzhou Lu and Jiangxi Zhonglu, Cathay Cinema on Huaihai Zhonglu, Orient Hotel on Xizang Zhonglu near People's Square, the Embarkment Building on Beisuzhou Lu, the Cathay Mansions (now Jin Jiang Hotel North Building) and the enduring landmark on the Bund.

After World War II, Victor Sassoon sold most of his properties in Shanghai, channeled his money to Britain and moved his New Sassoon headquarters to Nassau in the Bahama Islands. The New Sassoon company ended its business in China in 1950 and Victor Sassoon died in Nassau in 1961.

(By Joshua Shi)

Copyright by Shanghai Star.