Shanghai's Jewish 'ghetto' looks to reinvent itself

Tilanqiao's history could be its salvation amid the frenetic makeover sweeping China's most cosmopolitan city.

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The frenetic pace of China's urban makeover isn't for the faint-hearted or the historically minded. Almost overnight, old city quarters are razed to make room for factories, high rises, and highway-fed malls.

Perhaps no city has remade itself with such fervor as Shanghai, the coastal showcase for the new capitalist China that is rising from the ashes of its communist past. Large chunks of downtown have been turned over to developers, with old residents dispersed to distant suburbs.

But one neighborhood that has survived is Tilanqiao. Once known as Little Vienna, its remarkable story may prove to be its salvation as Shanghai weighs the value of historical preservation against the profits of wholesale redevelopment.

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In the late 1930s, more than 20,000 Jews fleeing Nazi rule arrived in Shanghai. Drawn by its open-door policy, they joined earlier waves of Jewish migrants to the city. Later, during Japanese occupation, Jewish refugees were confined to Tilanqiao's brick tenements, but spared further repression. But after the war, and the communist takeover in 1949, the city's Jewish population dwindled to nearly zero.

Today, as China becomes increasingly open and interest revives in this oft-forgotten history, a new generation of Jews has begun to call Shanghai home. An Israeli-born rabbi – Shanghai's first rabbi to lead prayers here in four decades – runs a Jewish center with hundreds of members from China's most cosmopolitan city.

Some in this community are trying to stop the former "Jewish ghetto" from falling to the sledgehammers. One $2 billion proposal on the table, backed by foreign investors, is to create a retail and entertainment district with "Jewish characteristics." Boosters say that if it's done right, it could match the success of "Xintiandi," a much-praised remodeling of another old Shanghai neighborhood by Ben Wood, the architect who revived Boston's Faneuil Hall and New York's South Street Seaport.

On their side is the growing number of foreign visitors to Shanghai who join a daily tour of Jewish heritage sites (www.shanghai-jews.com) that includes the tenements, which are now occupied by thousands of poor Chinese. Most acquired their homes from Jews who left China after the war to start new lives in Israel and the US – among them Michael Blumenthal, the former US treasury secretary.

Today, it's often those Jewish emigrés' children, or grandchildren, who come to Shanghai to retrace their family history, a task made easier by the original street numbers still displayed on the grimy communal units. Others make the journey for broader reasons of faith and shared history. Bruce Harrison, an attorney from Baltimore whose grandfather escaped Russia to make a new life in America, recently came to Shanghai after visiting Jewish quarters in Spain, Morocco, and Austria.

"It's all part of the diaspora. It's a connection to people who are no longer here," he explains.

The tour's evolution reflects this diaspora. It was started in the late 1990s by a Brazilian Jewish woman, then taken over by the wife of an Israeli businessman. Today the tours are run by Dvir Bar-Gal, a gruff, green-eyed Israeli journalist who's lived here since 2001.

In recent years, Mr. Bar-Gal has retrieved dozens of inscribed headstones from former Jewish cemeteries. Many turned up in house foundations, or being used as laundry washboards. He hopes to find a museum to display his collection.

Bar-Gal has also been drawn into the debate over how to revive the dilapidated Jewish quarter without erasing its past. He worries that a glitzy makeover could sap the area's authenticity, already depleted by decades of communist indifference.

Before it reopened in the 1990s, the Ohel Moshe synagogue, one of only two that remain, was used as a mental hospital.

China doesn't officially recognize Judaism, making it difficult to worship in Shanghai's synagogues. But the flow of tourists to Ohel Moshe, which charges $6 admission, has drawn the attention of city planners. "What do Chinese people know about Jewish people, history and culture?" asks Bar-Gal, an eyebrow cocked. "Jews are smart. Jews are rich."

While the refugees in Tilanqiao arrived penniless, earlier Jewish migrants had climbed the economic ladder in Shanghai. Ben-Gal begins his tour at the Peace Hotel, an Art-Deco creation that was reputedly the most luxurious in Asia when it opened in 1930. Owner Victor Sassoon was the scion of a Baghdadi Jewish family that had arrived in the 19th century. By the 1930s, as Shanghai became the Wall Street of Asia, their riverfront land was worth more than its equivalent on New York's Fifth Avenue.

Such buildings are the finest legacy of Shanghai's Jewish past, says Sylvain Bursztejn, a French film producer. By contrast, the grimy tenements were only a temporary way station for refugees. Mr. Bursztejn, who is making a movie set in Shanghai's Jewish past, is sure that these riverfront properties will endure. "They belong to Shanghai, and they will not be destroyed," he says.

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