Synagogue in Shanghai a Monument to S. A. Hardoon, China’s Richest Jew
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Synagogue in Shanghai a Monument to S. A. Hardoon, China’s Richest Jew

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The “Twentieth Century Caliph of Bagdad” is dead.

As litigation over his will gradually subsides, the memory of Silas Aaron Hardoon gradually passes into obscurity. The only monuments to this Jew, whose history is more fantastic than those of famous characters of fiction, are the great Beth Ahron Synagogue of Shanghai and a hundred legends perpetuated among three million Chinese in Shanghai.

The vast Hardoon estates, the value of which is estimated at approximately two hundred million Shanghai dollars (about $50,000,000 at the present rate of exchange) have been turned over to Hardoon’s Chinese wife; and they are expected to pass into the hands of his six adopted Chinese sons, his six adopted Chinese daughters, and other Chinese interests.

The many Chinese academies founded by Silas Aaron Hardoon and his numerous philanthropies have also been turned over to Chinese sponsors, and with few exceptions the name Hardoon is no longer associated with them.

Silas Aaron Hardoon’s life story ended when he succumbed to heart failure in June, 1931. Snatches of his history that have fallen into the hands of a few compose an unwritten biography that may be paralleled in glamor by only a few well-known personages.


Eighty-six years ago, in the poorest section of Bagdad, Silas Aaron Hardoon was born. His father was a poor, God-fearing peddler; his mother the daughter of a farmer of scant resources. The early life of {SPAN}###{/SPAN} was one of want and poverty. {SPAN}###hile{/SPAN} still a young man, Hardoon {SPAN}###{/SPAN} his home for Bombay, where he {SPAN}#erienced{/SPAN} days of hunger and {SPAN}##rs{/SPAN} of unremunerative occupation {SPAN}###{/SPAN} a peddler. He went to {SPAN}Hong##ng{/SPAN} where he enjoyed greater {SPAN}op#rtunities{/SPAN} and a more comfortable {SPAN}##ing{/SPAN} as clerk in the house of {SPAN}Sas#on.{/SPAN}In the latter part of the nineteenth {SPAN}#entury{/SPAN} he transferred to the {SPAN}Shang###{/SPAN} branch of the Sassoon interests; {SPAN}###{/SPAN} in the last forty years, Silas {SPAN}###on{/SPAN} Hardoon became known in {SPAN}#anghai{/SPAN} variously as “The Caliph {SPAN}###{/SPAN} Bagdad, “the Owner of Nanking {SPAN}#ad,”{/SPAN} “the wealthiest man in the {SPAN}###ar{/SPAN} East,” “the millionaire peddler,” {SPAN}##nd,{/SPAN} by Chinese, “the great heart.” {SPAN}###{/SPAN} His interests at the time of his death {SPAN}##ere{/SPAN} believed to be far greater than {SPAN}##ose{/SPAN} of his former employers, the {SPAN}#ssoons{/SPAN}.


The largest department stores, the {SPAN}#est{/SPAN} banks, and the best known commercial houses on Nanking Road, principal artery through the International Settlement of Shanghai, are on Hardoon property.

Hardoon entered Chinese politics during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, when he advanced loans to the Chinese Government, which was at that time hard pressed to quell the insurrection in Peking. His loans were repaid with substantial interest, and he continued financing the military adventures and the social programs of various lords of war throughout China’s provinces. A shrewd businessman and an infallible judge of character, Hardoon’s investments were invariably well-placed.

During the years of strife incidental to the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty and the establishment of various republics in China, Hardoon befriended the winners. Refugees from the government frequently disappeared in Shanghai for long periods to return to the field, conquer the opposition, and set themselves up as victorious war lords in various parts of the celestial republic. When it was all over, it became known that they had been hiding on the Hardoon estates and that they had staged their comeback with Hardoon-loaned money.


During the last forty-five years the Hardoon fortune multiplied with amazing rapidity. To this day no one, including his sole heiress, Mrs. Hardoon, can accurately estimate the value of the Hardoon estate.

Hardoon’s philanthropies, most of them executed anonymously, run into untold millions of dollars. Besides the erection of the extravagant Beth Ahron Synagogue of Bubbling Well Road, an edifice which Hardoon dedicated to the memory of his obscure father, and frequent large subsidies to synagogues from Harbin to Canton, Silas Aaron Hardoon has contributed much toward the betterment of China’s chaotic social system. Among universities bult by him for poor but deserving Chinese students is St. Ching’s College, Shanghai, where the ancient Chinese classics are propagated and where the study of modern sciences are afforded Chinese academicians. Text books used in this institution have been compiled by Hardoon’s Chinese aides.

One thousand copies of the Buddhist Canon were printed by Hardoon and distributed throughout world centers of learning. An entire island in beautiful Hangchow Bay is owned by the Hardoon estate, and during his life it was a rendezvous for the cosmopolitan group of friends of the late taipan. No part of China was quite so gay as the Hardoon estates on the seventh day of the seventh moon, the anniversary of his wife’s birth.


It was at one time the custom of Hardoon to invite every beggar in Shanghai to his door on the Chinese New Year, where he would present each with one dollar. As his charity became better known, tens of thousands of Chinese would come from all parts of the city on the New Year, and streets adjoining the Hardoon estate were packed {SPAN}#wth{/SPAN} diseased, vermin-ridden cripples of all sorts. The Municipal Council at length ruled that this New Year gesture presented a menace to the health of the International Settlement; and the “Great Heart” was persuaded to desist from scattering his dollars in this fashion.

Virtually every club in Shanghai claimed Hardoon as a member. He attained the unprecedented distinction of being a member of municipal councils of both the International Settlement and French Concession. Likewise, he enjoyed offices in the Chinese Government that few foreigners have ever held. He was adviser to the Tuchun of Kiangsu and the Governor of Anhwei province.


Funeral services for Hardoon reflected his background. He returned to eternity simply. At his request he was buried among the flowers in his front garden—among the roses, hyacinths and orchids he had tended faithfully for many years. Only a white linen sheet enfolded the body as it was lowered into the ground by a half dozen Jewish friends. Jewish rites were presided over by rabbis from the Seymour Road Synagogue; but Chinese monks draped in the white mourning costume of the Buddhist faith came from the Chingliang and Sanmi temples to chant their leavetaking as the body of their benefactor returned to the earth.

Thousands of poor Chinese who had benefitted by Hardoon’s charity, made pilgrimages from all parts of the city to the unostentatious grave of the philanthropist. High national, provincial, and city officials attended the ceremony, and practically every consulate was represented. Chinese and foreign bands and choirs were on the grounds and furnished the melodies of the East and the West.

But with no worldly possessions whatsoever, Silas Aaron Hardoon returned to his Creator. He left his life’s gains for squabbling relatives and Chinese to fight for.

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