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Touring Jewish Shanghai with Documentarist Dvir Bar-Gal

Join documentary filmmaker and photo-journalist Dvir Bar-Gal for some hardcore Jewish history.
2017-05-19 10:57:44

Today, there are about 3,000 Jewish expatriates living and working in Shanghai, and the Jewish community in this city has deep roots. Join SmSh on a walking tour led by documentary filmmaker and photo-journalist Dvir Bar-Gal for a crash course on the Jewish existence in Shanghai from the mid 19th to 20th century.

The Bund

The tour starts at 9.30am with a small group meeting outside the entrance of the Fairmount Peace Hotel on Nanjing Dong Lu. The group is what you might expect: a little older, mostly Jewish, and ready for facts. People trickle in, the majority American, some Australian. Our guide, Dvir Bar-Gal is all business as he coordinates with the tardy. “If they’re not here in five, we leave.”

Dvir has been giving tours of historic Jewish sites in Shanghai for 15 years. He claims he agreed to guide because he was asked on “a nice sunny day," but soon after the tour begins, it’s clear he’s the right man for the job. Dvir is extremely knowledgeable about this often skimmed over history, while remaining jokey and entertaining, keeping the tour interactive. At times, Dvir conjures up that nervous energy once reserved for your old Regan-loving history teacher with inserts like: “Is that an answer to my question, or just another question?”

He's an engaging personality.

Sassoon House, which is now the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Sassoon House was the first high-rise building built by Victor Sassoon -- one of the first skyscrapers in China.

No one left behind, we begin our journey, exchanging niceties on the short walk from the hotel to our starting point on The Bund. The backdrop is not without significance; this open port is initially what brought Jews to Shanghai almost two centuries ago. In 1842, the Treaty of Nanjing ended the Opium War, opened trade in China, and lured in the Sassoons, an influential Jewish Baghdadi family. The first Jewish community settled in Shanghai as an extension of the Sassoon’s business, and the Baghdadi Jewish population grew to 2,000 by the early 1900s. You can still enjoy the legacy of Baghdadi Jews today, especially on The Bund with it’s art deco aesthetic heavily developed by the Sasoons. Some of their buildings are still around today, like the Fairmont Peace Hotel.

Little Vienna

A van is waiting for us as we descend the stairs of The Bund walkway. We pile in and rattle over a bridge into Hongkou District, which is where the remainder of the tour takes place. We empty out onto an ordinary looking street with bing shops, storefronts, and hanging laundry, but we’re actually in what was once the heart of the Jewish community built up from the time Russian Jews arrived in Shanghai around 1917. About 6,000 Russian Jews found a home in Shanghai after fleeing their country to escape the Tsar’s rule and anti-semitism, pretty much the underlining factors in the influxes of Shanghai's Jewish population over the 20th century. In the '20s, those factors tripled the Jewish population there, finding work in delis, pharmacies, and cinemas, all in the area in which we are now standing.

Dvir points to a bar with a brown and turquoise facade.

“This was the cinema,” he moves his finger up as if painting an imaginary line, “on top was a cafe.”

That cafe he would later explain served various purposes from a meeting place for progressive Jews to hosting beauty pageants during the time of occupation. Dvir pulls up a black and white photograph of the street on his phone, taken 75 years ago, and holds it up for comparison.

“Not much has changed since 1941,” he concludes—a rare thing in Shanghai.

We go to a park just a few paces from where we stood on the street, to find a plaque remembering the “stateless refugees” who fled to Shanghai to escape persecution by the Nazis. A recording of an instrumental "Holy Night" echoes through the park, the soundtrack to a dance class coinciding with our tour. Due to the noise we knit a tight circle around Dvir who starts again with a challenge:

“No other city in the world got so many Jewish refugees, why here?"

As soon as the group realizes the question is not rhetorical some answers are offered up.

“You are .8 percent right,” he teases.

The answer is Shanghai was a port city, it was open, and initially one didn’t need papers to enter. So in 1937 when arrests in Europe began, Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai; 20,000 between 1937 and 1941. Before 1941 the Jewish neighborhood developed by the Russians became so dense with refugees, it was named "Little Vienna". After 1941, the area became known as the "Shanghai Ghetto".

The Shanghai Ghetto

We walk back to the street, then to "Chusan Liegh", a marked alleyway which has retained its name from 1941. As a group, we squeeze into the narrow space, a swarm of flies overhead. At the time of Japanese occupation, Jews who came to Shanghai after 1937 were mandated to live in a confined area, the neighborhood that was once Little Vienna. Though not a ghetto in the traditional sense (there were no walls, and other Jews like the Baghdadis could come and go) conditions were rough. Many refugees here didn’t survive the war because of malnutrition and disease.

In what was once the Shanghai Ghetto, most street names have changed, while numbers have stayed the same. If tour guests bring an address of where relatives once lived, Dvir can find it.

Dvir points out a symbol resembling the Star of David on a door in Chusan Leigh.

The Jewish Refugee Museum is a part of the old Shanghai Ghetto on 62 Changyang Lu. It’s relatively new, with its permanent exhibition hall completed in 2007. We walk through the cool dark space and listen as Dvir tells us stories of the refugees who survived here. The exhibit chronicles the lives and struggles of refugees (including artist Peter Max) as well as unsung heroes of the time (including Dr. Ho Feng Shan). We aren’t given much time to explore the exhibit, but it’s pretty small. We follow Dvir outside and then into Ohel Moishe Synagogue, which is one of two synagogues still standing in Shanghai.

The museum preserved the first floor of Ohel Moishe. At the time of its use, this synagogue was Orthodox, so where we sit would have been where the men sat, and upstairs where there is now an exhibit would have been for women. At its center there is an ark with a Torah inside—but it’s not Kosher. It’s a “display” Torah. This space is the only synagogue in Shanghai open to the public, and is interesting as a re-creation of the place of worship for those living through the trying times of the Shanghai Ghetto.

Post-museum we have one more stop at a house in the Shanghai Ghetto, then the van takes us back to The Bund. Dvir hops out while offering lunch suggestions to the Australians, teasing them about not wanting to eat Chinese. I wish he would stay and explain more to me, but the tour is over. Dvir slides on his ray-bans and walks off, done guiding—until tomorrow.

How To Book a Tour:

This tour is not for the faint-hearted, running about 4-5 hours long. Those hours are dense with information, but pretty fascinating—even for you goys. Tours start at 9.30am and run daily. To book a tour, check here.