On January 26, 1841, Commodore Gordon Bremer claimed the territory of Hong Kong as a British colony. Along with British control came settlement of the island and the development of trade. Among the earliest developers were the Sassoons, an Iraqi Jewish family whose financial base was Bombay and who were sometimes referred to as the “Rothschilds of the East.” (David Sassoon, the patriarch, had eight sons who were dispersed to different cities to establish additional branches of the family business.)
Beyond their multifaceted business dealings, the Sassoons were the backbone of the small but growing Hong Kong Jewish community. In 1855, the Sassoons purchased a tract of land for a Jewish cemetery. The first actual burial, a man named Leon Bin Baruel, took place in 1857. The Sassoon residences and business also hosted religious services until there were enough Jews to warrant a synagogue. The first synagogue, Ohel Leah, was built by Sir Jacob Sassoon in 1902.
The Kadoorie family first came to Hong Kong while working for the Sasoons. The Kadoories built a large business empire of their own, split between Hong Kong and Shanghai. This connection proved incredibly important when refugees arrived in Hong Kong on their way to Shanghai during World War II. While Horace Kadoorie took care of the bureaucratic necessities in Shanghai, Lawrence Kadoorie took care of the refugees’ immediate needs, even housing them in his Peninsula Hotel.
Until the 1960s, the Jewish community in Hong Kong remained rather small. However, as Hong Kong became a thriving financial hub, the community began attracting business-people from around the globe. Today there are several thousand Jews, two Jewish schools and seven synagogues, including Ohel Leah, which is still in use.
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