Multiplicity along the Silk Road
July 25, 2006 4:28 PM   Subscribe

Chinese Jews and the Silk Road. Maps. [more inside]
posted by nickyskye (26 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Map of the cities in China where Jews lived.

The Jews of Kaifeng.

The Menorah of Fang Bang Lu.

Jewish Asia.

Tales of Old China.

Archival photos of the Trans Siberian Railway line that played a vital role in the development of Harbin, where a number of Chinese Jews settled.

Exploring Jewish history in China.

Jewish settlers are documented in China as early as the 7th or 8th century CE, but may have arrived long before this date.

Ancient Legacy of Chinese Jews.

Located on the Silk Road, Jewish merchants and their families heading east from Persia arrived and settled finding acceptance of their customs and freedom from persecution.

Kosher Chinese food.
posted by nickyskye at 4:29 PM on July 25, 2006

What's the Hebrew for [this is awesome]?
posted by shoepal at 4:35 PM on July 25, 2006

This is seriously awesome.
(also, unexpected sound on that last link)
posted by boo_radley at 4:36 PM on July 25, 2006

Funny, they don't look Jewish
posted by Postroad at 4:48 PM on July 25, 2006

There's a jewish character (Mr. Feinstein) in the film The White Countess living and working in Shanghai who has clearly fled Europe (or is it Mother Russia?). The film doesn't make it apparent, but there were apparently 30,000 jews in Shanghai at the time. Many were forced to flee yet another enemy as Japan arrived. Fascinating links, nickyskye!
posted by shoepal at 4:49 PM on July 25, 2006

[embedded music in the "Located on the Silk Road" link too]
posted by nickyskye at 4:50 PM on July 25, 2006

Superb post. Bravo.
posted by languagehat at 5:06 PM on July 25, 2006

I'll be picking little bits of my skull off of the wall for days, for you have just blown my god damn mind.
posted by absalom at 5:27 PM on July 25, 2006

Great post nicky. Also, the site Kulanu might be of interest to readers of this thread. They have a variety of articles on obscure Jewish communities that are mega-interesting to say the least.
posted by huskerdont at 5:32 PM on July 25, 2006

shoepal, זה נורא! (Hebrew for "This is awesome!") Now I have to see The White Countess, sounds like an interesting story.

huskerdont, Neat link, thanks.

absalom, Oh dear, handing you some bandages, why is your mind blown?
posted by nickyskye at 5:40 PM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't know how you do it. :) This is fascinating stuff, Nicky. Thanks for the links. I'm going to study all this tomorrow.
posted by bim at 6:06 PM on July 25, 2006

A little known fact about Jews in China is that during WWII, Shanghai was one of the only places that Jews could escape to without needing to first get a visa. Thus, a large population of German and Austrian Jews, as well as Polish Jews made their way to a seemingly unlikely place in the early years of the war, many getting there through buying passage on Japanese cruise liners. Once there, they received help from the Russian and Baghdadi Jews that had already settled there. They built a thriving community: "As some of the exiled Jews were teachers, editors, reporters, writers, painters, musicians and sportsmen, they became active as they settled down. They opened schools, organised playing teams, built up the moving library and they even started the band and football teams. It is worthwhile to mention that even under such hard conditions, the Jews unexpectedly published tens of newspapers and magazines." (From an article translated from Chinese)

"By 1940, an area around Chusan Road was known as “Little Vienna,” owing to its European-style cafés, delicatessens, nightclubs, shops, and bakeries."

However, after 1941, when the U.S. entered the war, things became more difficult for the Jews in Shanghai, and due to pressure from their allies, in 1943 Japan eventually moved about half of the Shanghai Jews into a restricted area, the Hongkew District. However, they were not alone, as the district was already populated by around 100,000 Chinese.

Shanghai Ghetto, a documentary about this period of time. More information about the film.

Journey of Hope
is a traveling exhibit about the time.

The reason most people haven't heard of this small chapter in history is probably because it was so short-lived. "Ironically, this remarkable religious community vanished even more rapidly than it took root. When civil war enveloped China, the refugees fled again. By the end of the 1950s, Shanghai's synagogues were shuttered and its Jews gone."
posted by wander at 6:30 PM on July 25, 2006 [2 favorites]

However, not all traces will disappear, even in a rapidly developing place such as China. Shanghai is doing its part to preserve the memories of the time.

The article's photo goes along well with Shoepal's link as well, which is a good read.

Here are some primary source documents from refugee Suzanne Muller.

More links, from the same source as NickySkye's first link.

Oh, and forgot to say thanks for the links Nickyskye and Shoepal!
posted by wander at 6:52 PM on July 25, 2006

A while back on CCTV they had a documentary about Jewish people in China during WWII.. Very interesting.
posted by ArunK at 7:32 PM on July 25, 2006

One of my (Jewish) co-workers was telling me about his mother who fled Germany as a child during WWII and ended up in China for a dozen years before coming to the U.S. It kind of blew my mind, too.
posted by Frank Grimes at 7:35 PM on July 25, 2006

While I still slowly digest the rest of the links (and trust me, from the looks of it, we're possibly looking at another workday gone) let me just comment on this remarkable menu. In particular, I'm struck by the following option:
Singapore Chicken Gently spiced in Coconut
Out here in Singapore, just about every ethnic grouping lays claim to this dish. While we Indians say it is ours because it is spicy, and is clearly curry-fied, the Malays say it is theirs because of its use of coconut gravy, while the Chinese (Hokkien, in particular) say its theirs for the way the chicken is prepared. Consequently, this is one dish where you can never go wrong; whatever food-court or a hawker centre you step into, you can always be sure that there'll always be curry chicken.

Personally, I've always suspected the dish to be Nonya in origin; only Nonya cooks have the audacity to crumble ethnic boundaries into a single melting pot; we Indians are high on tehzeeb (ettiquette), when it comes to food, and the Chinese have those authoritarian matron-like lead waitresses serving them in their restaurants.

None of the groups call it "Singapore Chicken", though.
posted by the cydonian at 7:44 PM on July 25, 2006

Round Eyes in the Middle Kingdom is another documentary about the Jewish community in Shanghai--but it focuses more on one person who decided to stay after the communists took over.
posted by brujita at 9:19 PM on July 25, 2006

i'm reading peony by pearl s. buck :P

i wonder what it said!?
posted by kliuless at 10:06 PM on July 25, 2006

Just to reiterate: there were Jews in China long, long before WWII. Before the 19th century, even.

I want to go to Kaifeng sometime, and especially to Luoyang (great old city walls, the Longmen caves, White Horse Temple, lots of cool stuff to see around there. Maybe next summer.)
posted by jiawen at 10:34 PM on July 25, 2006

nickyskye: The White Countess is unfortunately not about Jews in Shanghai. Instead it is the tale of "the relationship between a disillusioned former US diplomat and a refugee White Russian countess reduced to a sordid life in the city's bars." It was rather Ishiguro and not very good in my opinion.

Wander: I've put Shanghai Ghetto at the top of my queue. I am excited to see it. Thanks so much!

I'm really fascinated by the China of yesteryear, which is apparently disappearing at an alarming rate that if I don't get my arse over there soon enough there won't be anything left to see.
posted by shoepal at 10:46 PM on July 25, 2006

Why? Cos this post is great. I've always found historical oddities like this interesting, and this is a really linktastic review of one I'm not all that conversant on.
posted by absalom at 11:07 PM on July 25, 2006

Great post, looking forward to examining it in detail over the next little while!
posted by livii at 11:48 PM on July 25, 2006

shoepal: No problem! That film was how I first found out about Jews in China, which I found one day looking through my local library. It's really quite well done, and interesting as well.

I too am fascinated by the China of yesteryear. The MIA has a fantastic collection of Chinese and Japanese art, and in one small room tucked away past robes and jades is a video installation where short movies are shown about Chinese art and history and the MIA's attempts to try to preserve them. There was one about Beijing's courtyard houses, and how they're rapidly being torn down to make way for new developments. It was interesting, but also hard to watch at the same time, because those were the kinds of things in China that I want to see. I've been to China, but it was a long time ago, and I'm sure much of it is unrecognizeable after such changes. My sister, who studied and then taught in Shanghai, said that things were changing so fast that sometimes even after only a month she wouldn't recognize certain places. I realize every country has to deal with problems of growth and development while preserving history, especially the older ones, but sometimes I worry that there isn't enough historical preservation being done in order to usher in the new.

I guess it reminds me too of the time I spent in Dublin. The hotel we stayed at was right next to Christchurch, and there was an office building next door. I remember walking the streets and seeing decorated plaques with images of viking-esque things set into the walkways around that building. Curiosity led me to seek out more information, and was later told that when they were digging the foundation for the building, they found an old viking site, which wasn't surprising since Dublin was founded by the vikings. Apparently history stood in the way of progress, and they finished the edifice before the site could be finished being excavated. I couldn't help but see the plaques after that, their bronze reliefs of boats and huts marking where each item was found, as more of memorials for the site, instead of commemorations.

It surprised me too, since Ireland seems like a place that really values its history. I'm sure it's more complicated than that, though, as things usually are. Excavations take time, and require money, and so does building.

I digress, however. It's always a delicate balance between moving forward and not forgetting the past. Part of the reason the Siheyuan and the hutong of Beijing are dying out is due to their vast need for more housing. The 2008 olympics made me both apprehensive and hopeful for Beijing, however. Apprehensive because it meant aggresive development, which could possibly lead to a more lax view on demolishing houses, but hopeful because they know they will be playing host to the world, and wish to show them their best, which has led to emphasis on pollution control, and just maybe some emphasis on preservation as well. Besides, there's two sides to everything. There is news of people getting forcibly removed from their homes to make way for new developments. But also, apparently siheyuan are becoming hip places to live for both wealthy and powerful Chinese and foreigners alike. There is the China that the government wants to present to the world, but then there is also the China that they don't want you to see, equally, if not more fascinating in its own right.

Siheyuan (四合院), along with the famous hutong have a long history and are just a part of the myriad types of homes in traditional Chinese architecture. Here's a bit more information about Siheyuan, and some photos: from an excellent architecture site, and from flickr. Here's an interesting post from a foreign correspondent living in one. People in China are not ignorant of the situation, with a few doing what they can to preserve, at least, the memory, while others try to make sure it doesn't become one.

So, shoepal, for a more traditional look at China, perhaps it would be better to go to the more rural areas, where development isn't nearly as rapid (although preservation may not be as good as well). The rural areas are emptying out, with many going to the cities to work and send money home. The growing disparity of the population seems to be one of the big issues China is facing today.

You could also go to somewhere like Pingyao. This paragraph from an article on Pingyao does a great job of summarizing the challenges and variables of preservation versus development, and the real-life issues that come with it:

"The sight of modern machines amid ancient, dilapidated structures provides a delightful visual contrast. In Pingyao more than almost anywhere else in China, people live alongside relics their great-grandfathers were familiar with.

Such juxtaposition may be charming to tourists, but for residents it represents a struggle — the struggle between history and modernity that China is currently grappling with. China's record in terms of architectural preservation is abysmal; the Communist Party and private builders alike continue in Beijing — and cities and towns across China — to destroy ancient edifices. The courtyard houses that once characterized Beijing are fast disappearing. Living with the past isn't easy — nor is it particularly desirable to the millions of Chinese who are in a rush to be modern. Most would jump at the chance to live in new apartment complexes — and enjoy clean tap water, electricity, heating and privacy. And yet as China proceeds full-steam on its modernization drive, there are increasing calls to save the country's heritage from the wrecking ball. The question is: Are Chinese willing to forgo these conveniences in the name of preservation?"

There are places to see examples of Chinese architecture in the US, the aforementioned MIA has two rooms, and apparently an entire house has been moved to Massachusetts. However, while the rooms in the MIA are interesting, there's something missing from them, the way they're not connected to anything, and far removed from their context, perhaps the difference between seeing fish in a fishtank or in the ocean. Perhaps that feeling would be slightly lessened with the house, but I'm guessing there would be something missing there, too.

Okay, this is getting a bit too far away from the original content of the post, but it's still tangentally related to the comment, and interesting enough that I had to share: For a more modern perspective on life in China from both a foreign and Chinese perspective, there is Danwei TV, an internet TV station based in Hong Kong with a variety of shows.

I just recently discovered the site (while doing research for this comment, actually). At times, the hosts of the shows and the way they portray the Chinese can be somewhat dubious, but other times they elicit really interesting insights into what the regular person in China thinks. However, it seems like they just started doing this not too long ago, and a mix of both dubious and excellent is much preferable to bland. Besides, the show is well-edited, features real people talking with subtitles (for those learning Mandarin), and best of all is mostly impromptu interviews with actual people, where the little interesting things come through, like the way a business card is politely given. There are different themed shows with varying tones and focus. I've watched a couple and here are the ones I found worth watching:

Hard Hat TV: Together with Migrants showcases an art project meant to raise awareness of Migrant workers in China, as well as interviews of the migrant workers themselves. Don't be put off by the host's... odd delivery in the beginning, as once it gets going it's really quite interesting.

Sexy Beijing: Looking for Double Happiness
. This is the one that is tangentally related. The premise of this episode belies what it actually becomes. The host of the show decides to ask people in Beijing how to find a boyfriend, which doesn't sound like much of a premise. I thought the most interesting, and unexpected part of the episode was where she goes into the hutongs to ask some of the elders that live there about relationships and finding romance when they were younger.

And lastly, what led me to find Danwei TV was searching for footage of hutongs on Youtube, which led to some slice of life videos, like this clip of a hutong market, an argument, or just a stroll through a hutong (taken with a crappy camera, so aggravatingly choppy, but I found it interesting enough to watch most of) to this video of an impressive sugar animal being made for an unimpressed tourist (although the caption says they they didn't want to stop, and the price asked for it is pretty exorbitant).

Okay. Anyway, I apologize for getting so far off topic, but thanks again to both Nickyskye and shoepal, as I wouldn't have gone off looking for this stuff if it wasn't for you two.

Well, that was a lot longer than I expected. Although through doing the research for this comment, I think I've found enough material for a couple of FPP's!
posted by wander at 12:52 PM on July 26, 2006 [3 favorites]

Oh, and consarn it, I just noticed that one of the links got left out! If only we could go back and edit. Anyway, here's the article on Pingyao.
posted by wander at 2:59 PM on July 26, 2006

Wander, wow! Just, wow!
posted by shoepal at 8:41 PM on July 26, 2006

wander, I second shoepal's wow. Thank you so much for packing this thread with amazing links, visuals and stories. You made it rich. Lots to study and enjoy.

That MIA site is so beautiful! It deserves a front page post.

Like shoepal, now I really want to see Shanghai Ghetto.

Like you I love courtyard houses, of any nationality, so nice to see examples in China. I remember enjoying the end of Before Sunset (one of my fav movies of all time), when Jess (Ethan Hawke) *sigh*, goes to (Celine's) Julie Delpie's French courtyard house in Paris. It added something beautiful to an already great movie.

Interesting the Ghosts of Shanghai link story you posted in connection with Shanghai's synagogues and Ron Gluckman's writing associated with that page.

the cydonian, Your wonderful post makes my mouth water. So you live in Singapore, amazing city, also one of cultural complexity.

kliuless, Never knew about Peony and I love Pearl S. Buck! thank you, look forward to reading it.. Quick anecdote: My great uncle started a small school in the 1920's with one of Pearl S. Buck's Shanghai tutors, Miss Adelaide Vincent Smith, who remained Pearl Buck's friend through her life.

jiawen, Excited to hear about your proposed trip to those places. Hope you take some pics and write about it. So cool you "speak Mandarin, lived in Taiwan for eight years, studied in Beijing".

shoepal, like you, absalom and wander, I'm also interested in China of yesteryear, interesting history, architecture and places with historic soul. Am anxious a lot of what was beautiful in China is being torn down and replaced with tiny apartments of concrete. Always wanted to travel more in Indonesia (Yogyakarta and Java) and go to Malaysia, where I think the old architecture hasn't been so replaced yet.

carter, Whose FPPs I highly recommend, posted photographs by Howard French. Many depict China in transition.

There is also this humdinger of an FPP, afu's Chinese classics and translations.

Thanks everybody for making this an excellent thread.
posted by nickyskye at 1:40 PM on July 27, 2006

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