• The Last Kings of Shanghai

  • The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China
  • By: Jonathan Kaufman
  • Narrated by: Joel Richards
  • Length: 9 hrs and 57 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History, Asia
  • 4.8 out of 5 stars (215 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

"In vivid detail...examines the little-known history of two extraordinary dynasties." (The Boston Globe)

"Not just a brilliant, well-researched, and highly readable book about China's past, it also reveals the contingencies and ironic twists of fate in China's modern history." (LA Review of Books)

An epic multigenerational story of two rival dynasties who flourished in Shanghai and Hong Kong as 20th-century China surged into the modern era, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist

Shanghai, 1936. The Cathay Hotel, located on the city's famous waterfront, is one of the most glamorous in the world. Built by Victor Sassoon - billionaire playboy and scion of the Sassoon dynasty - the hotel hosts a who's who of global celebrities: Noel Coward has written a draft of Private Lives in his suite and Charlie Chaplin has entertained his wife-to-be. And a few miles away, Mao and the nascent Communist Party have been plotting revolution.

By the 1930s, the Sassoons had been doing business in China for a century, rivaled in wealth and influence by only one other dynasty - the Kadoories. These two Jewish families, both originally from Baghdad, stood astride Chinese business and politics for more than 175 years, profiting from the Opium Wars; surviving Japanese occupation; courting Chiang Kai-shek; and losing nearly everything as the Communists swept into power. In The Last Kings of Shanghai, Jonathan Kaufman tells the remarkable history of how these families participated in an economic boom that opened China to the world, but remained blind to the country's deep inequality and to the political turmoil at their doorsteps. In a story stretching from Baghdad to Hong Kong to Shanghai to London, Kaufman enters the lives and minds of these ambitious men and women to forge a tale of opium smuggling, family rivalry, political intrigue, and survival.

The book lays bare the moral compromises of the Kadoories and the Sassoons - and their exceptional foresight, success, and generosity. At the height of World War II, they joined together to rescue and protect 18,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism. Though their stay in China started out as a business opportunity, the country became a home they were reluctant to leave, even on the eve of revolution. The lavish buildings they built and the booming businesses they nurtured continue to define Shanghai and Hong Kong to this day. As the United States confronts China's rise, and China grapples with the pressures of breakneck modernization and global power, the long-hidden odysseys of the Sassoons and the Kadoories hold a key to understanding the present moment.

©2020 Jonathan Kaufman (P)2020 Penguin Audio

What listeners say about The Last Kings of Shanghai

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Great story with careless flaws

Wonderful collection of historical anecdotes and colorful cast of characters. Unfortunately, text is riddled with inaccuracies about dates, mispronunciations by the reader, and poor jumbled up editing. Having lived through some of the same history personally, and knowing both Shanghai and Hong Kong intimately, I enjoyed the stroll down memory lane and learned some new facts, but overall disappointed in the lack of polish to a book that could have been a masterpiece had it not been hurried through proofreading and editing.

5 people found this helpful

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Absolutely brilliant

A marvelous, rich portrait of Shanghai and China since the 1800s. Well worth the read!

3 people found this helpful

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Very Interesting Slice of History

I knew nothing about the subjects of this book, until I saw a documentary on PBS about how a Chinese diplomat in Austria issued thousands of visas to escaping Jews. This book was referenced in the documentary, and it led to my personal discovery of this fascinating and impressive history of two prominent Jewish families from Shanghai by way of Baghdad.

2 people found this helpful

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The 1% in China then and now

Jonathan Kaufman seems to me to be captivated so completely by the “kings” that he fails to tell us much about their failings until a hurried final chapter in which he alternates between descriptions of everything that was negative about the “kings” and attempts to soften the negative descriptions. Kaufman is writing about an important time in history and about important historic figures. I appreciate that. The work is not very good as history but it will lead readers to want to know more about the time, place and the people — both the 1% and the Chinese 99%.

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  • JW
  • 09-15-20

Amazing story!

The future is a factor of the past and the present. It is very interesting to understand the rise of China through the lenses of the Sassoons and Kadoories. They bring the unique Jewish contributions to the world anywhere a Jewish community takes hold.

1 person found this helpful

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Fascinating read

This book is a pleasant read and of historical value. It is a colorful portrait of the life and times of early Shanghai.

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a story everyone should know

great research with primary sources credited liberally. very interesting review I appreciated interpretation of womens(wives and lovers)role and sometimes lack thereof .
my only slight problem was the voice of the narrator. very minor, still 4/5 on that score. Difficult with a long story that needs attention to follow while listening

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Amazing!

Phenomenal story, terrific narration and a poignant history lesson seldom told. Well done Jonathan Kaufman!

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Fascinating read for anyone who has lived in Shanghai

Having lived for 3 years in Shanghai, seeing the iconic buildings mentioned in this book, I was fascinated to learn of the history of the foreign dynasties that lay behind them. I wish I had known more about these imperialistic families, their influence, both positive and negative, on the development of China, India and Hong Kong, and their role in sheltering some 18,000 Jewish refugees during World War II. A great listen!

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Outstanding

A wonderfully insightful and informative history of the 2 Jewish families originally from Baghdad who had enormous impacts on the development and growth of Shanghai and Hong Kong, and who guided and financed the rescue of 18,000 Jews fleeing from the Nazis.

Excellent narration.