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Hong Kong Virtual Jewish History Tour

By Elihai Braun

Hong Kong is a former British crown colony (1842–1997) in South China.

Commercial ties in South China brought Jewish merchants to the port of Hong Kong for centuries, but a real Jewish presence did not arrive until 1842, when Hong Kong became a British Crown Colony. The Sassoon family, a wealthy Sephardic dynasty whose mercantile empire extended across Asia, and the Kadoorie family, another prominent Sephardic dynasty, moved their business to Hong Kong in 1842. They procured mostly Jewish employees, mainly of Baghdadi origin, to encourage Jewish population growth. Fifteen years later, in 1857, the Hong Kong Jewish community was formally established.

The Ohel Leah Synagogue, built by Sir Jacob Sassoon, opened in 1900, and the Jewish Club, built by the Kadoorie family, also opened during the early 1900s. The Jewish population, which had totaled 60 Sephardim in 1882, grew to 100 in 1921 (mostly Sephardim), and 250 in 1954 (half Sephardim and half Ashkenazim). Growth then slowed, and the population numbered only 230 in 1959, and 200 in 1968 (70 Sephardim and 130 Ashkenazim).

Expansion of the Hong Kong Jewish community was temporarily halted during the WWII Japanese occupation, which began in December 1941 and lasted to the end of the war. Those who did not leave before the Japanese arrived were interned at the Stanley Barracks. The Japanese looted the Jewish Club, which was torn down after the war and rebuilt in 1949. But the Ohel Leah Synagogue survived the war as a warehouse.

In the late 1800s, Matthew Nathan, a Jewish major in the British Royal Engineers, began developing a dirt road through the Kowloon district which would later become the sparkling Nathan Road, a major commercial center and a “neon capital” of the world. Nathan was later knighted by the Queen of England and became the first and only Jewish governor of Hong Kong in 1904. In addition to Nathan Road, Jewish engineers and businessmen have also developed the Starry Ferry, the Harbor Tunnel, and the Peak Tramway – essential segments of the Hong Kong transportation network.

The New Territories, Hong Kong’s rural backcountry, also sports a Jewish presence. The Kadoorie Experimental and Extension Farm conducts research on high-elevation farming techniques and animal husbandry and has earned recognition as a premier research center. After eliminating the traditional swayback of the Hong Kong pig, Lord Kadoorie reportedly said, “We Kadoories know everything about pigs but the taste.”

In 1974, the Ohel Leah Synagogue and the Jewish Recreation Club in Hong Kong had a combined membership of some 450 but, two years later, the number had fallen to 200.

In 1995, a Jewish Community Center, replacing the Jewish Club, was built adjacent to the Ohel Leah Synagogue. Ohel Leah was restored to its original grandeur in 1998. Its many Torah scrolls include five found in Cat Street, Hong Kong’s famous thieves’ market. The Jewish Community Center houses a library, a kosher restaurant, and recreational facilities, and organizes most of the Jewish activities in the area. There are two Jewish schools: the Carmel school for children up to eight years old and the Ezekiel Abraham school for older children. Today, three of Hong Kong’s four synagogues are served by rabbis.

The Israeli Economy Ministry and the Innovation and Technology Commission in Hong Kong launched a mutually beneficial research and development program in December 2015. The program was established to seek out similar companies from both countries and facilitate their cooperation in joint endeavors and research projects.

Israel and China established formal relations in 1992 but, since the 1960s, Israel has appointed an unofficial Honorary Consul to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s development as a prosperous business center has attracted thousands of foreigners, including many Jewish families from the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. The Kadoorie family, for example, made a fortune in Shanghai but lost everything when the communists took over in 1949 and fled to Hong Kong. They subsequently built a new fortune, “amassing an $18 billion portfolio that includes China Light and Power, which provides electricity to 80% of Hong Kong’s residents, and the luxury Peninsula hotel chain,” according to Jonathan Kaufman. He adds that the family also invested in helping displaced Chinese farmers and refugees set up small farms in Hong Kong and funding research that produced meatier pigs. The Chinese farmers, says Kaufman, joke the Kadoories “know everything about the pig except the way it tastes.”

The Kadoories have been careful not to say or do anything to offend the communist regime, which has allowed them to continue to prosper both in Hong Kong and the mainland. Kaufman said that when anti-China demonstrations became violent in 2019, he wrote a full-page advertisement that ran in local English and Chinese newspapers. “It is disheartening to see what has overtaken the city recently,” he wrote. “I do not support violence, nor do I believe this should be the way to resolve conflicts.” China, he said, must “find solutions in mutual respect, understanding and open dialogue.”

The Hong Kong Jewish community experienced rapid growth as Hong Kong prospered, and the population now numbers between three and four thousand; two-thirds of whom are Americans, British, and Israelis. The Hong Kong community experiences no anti-Semitism, and the 1997 transfer of power from Great Britain to China posed no problems.

Sources: Alan M. Tigay, ed., The Jewish Traveler: Hadassah Magazine's Guide to the World’s Jewish Communities and Sights, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1994.
Avi Beker, ed,  Jewish Communities of the World, 1998-1999 edition; 
Institute of the World Jewish Congress, 1998.
Beth-Hatefutsoth: The Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora;
Ohel Leah Synagogue;
Rudolf Leowenthal, ong Kong, Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
David Shamah, “Israel and Hong Kong step up tech, R&D cooperation,” Times of Israel(December 18, 2015);
Jonathan Kaufman, “A Jewish Dynasty in a Changing China,” Wall Street Journal, (May 28, 2020).