Imagine meeting a relative or friend 15 years ago. She seemed sophisticated, yet down to earth. Confident, yet modest. Fast forward a decade and a half. You haven’t met in all those years and now she’s not only famous, but world-known. The top of her game.
That’s how I see Shanghai. Although I haven’t been there in 18 years, I’m utterly amazed by her transformation and have this “I knew her back when…” outlook.
So in researching my new writing project, which takes place in Shanghai, I’ve located a couple guidebooks from back then. I couldn’t find any from 1988 or 1991, although a Hong Kong-published Odyssey Guide that came out in 1995 is a third edition, which coincidentally was first published in 1988.
The other book I found is a US-published Fodor’s pocket guide to Shanghai, published in 1998. At that point, it had been three years since I’d visited the city, but 1998 marked the year I left my expat life in Hong Kong. So I thought it was still somewhat relevant.
I didn’t use guidebooks in Shanghai back then, so was curious to see if the city’s Jewish history was there all along and I’d just missed it, or were people back then just re-discovering it, as I would years later.
I checked out the Peace Hotel in each book because when I stayed there in ’95, I was only partly aware of its amazing history. I knew it was old school Shanghai, but wasn’t aware of its Jewish background.
The Odyssey guide from 1995 devotes a page to Shanghai’s Jewish history. Written by historian Tess Johnston, it seems quite accurate, although doesn’t mention the Peace (formerly Cathay) Hotel in that section. When I find the Peace’s listing, it’s under the four-star hotel heading (Shanghai only had about five five-star hotels then) and doesn’t credit Victor Sassoon–it’s developer and visionary–in it’s little description.
The Fodor guide, published three years after the Odyssey one, only includes two paragraphs about Jews in Shanghai, and it’s littered with misinformation. For one, it doesn’t mention the influential Sephardic community or the Russian Jews that came in the 1920s. The European Jewish refugees–according to the book–were professionals and established their own community in Shanghai during the war. Although that doesn’t accurately tell the story, the sentence that ends this part is downright wrong: “…most Jews survived the war, at which point the majority returned to Europe.”
They left Shanghai for Israel, Australia, Canada, and the US. Very few returned to Europe.
But Fodor’s description of the Peace Hotel from 1995 captures what I remember: “The rooms are not glamorous anymore, but they are homey and still retain a charming old-Shanghai ambience.”