• 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
  • 4.7 out of 5 stars (459 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
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

What listeners say about The Last Kings of Shanghai

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  • Overall
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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.

13 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%.

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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Fascinating must-read for HKers and Shanghainese

Thoroughly researched and well-written. They certainly don't teach these parts of modern Chinese history in textbooks. This is a nuanced and complex tale of how China and Hong Kong both suffered and benefitted from the British opium trade and colonialism in the last 150 years.

The only flaw was that I wish the producers actually used a native Chinese speaker when Mandarin Chinese phrases were being read, because I couldn't understand what was being said! Also for place names, the Jewish neighborhood of Hongkew in Shanghai is now called Hongkao. Where the British called Canton is now known as Guangdong. Calling places by their post-colonial names matter, as one would now call Bombay Mumbai, or Burma Myanmar.

2 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.

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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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Really enjoyed this part of history I was unaware about

Very entertaining well researched book that sheds light on a history I was not aware about. I think it doesn’t give a romanticised view rather a well presented overview of this history that has a host of very interesting personalities

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Excellent book

I couldn’t put this book down. What a fascinating story, and it explained the last 200 years of China’s history in a very straightforward way. Incredible families!

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With one misstep, an otherwise fascinating book.

This book started on the wrong foot by conflating Babylon with Baghdad, two cities on separate rivers 50 miles, several sackings, and centuries apart. The use of the term “Kings” in the title is also poetic license. I was thus worried about the rest. The remainder was, however, fascinating and fairly balanced. It opens a window on the Far East, China, Shanghai, and Hong Kong that I’m sure is novel, yet important to most readers.

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Interesting slice of history and unique perspectiv

This is a unique perspective and part of history. Story of a couple of families caught up in the whirlwind of history. While these are people in the upper echelon of the economy they were still outsiders in many ways. While they landed on their feet mostly, they had some real hardships. (Of course, lesser so that the "typical" people of the same time). Their perspective is still a valuable take on events and motivations of the time.