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|A historian in search of the Jews of China|
If you ask Chan Sui Jeung (aka “SJ”) to tell you the story of how the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong came to be, he’ll ask you if you have time for the whole story: “it takes about 45 minutes.” It will take longer if you ask questions, but the time is well worth it.
How does a nice Hong Kong Chinese boy get involved enough with the Jewish people to be invited to speak at the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv? For SJ, the connection was entirely accidental.
In an old bookshop on New York’s Lower East Side SJ stumbled upon a book containing a collection of articles that amazed him; articles on a lost Jewish community in China. As a Chinese historian, SJ could not believe there could be, or ever could have been, Jews in China.
“Of course, then, China was closed! That was the mid-1970’s. Nobody could get in.” It wasn’t until the early 1980’s that it became possible to travel in China, and then, only on invitation and as part of a group.
By then, SJ was rising through the ranks of the Hong Kong Civil Service (he retired from Directorate level). As a member of the British Colonial Government, SJ could not find a sponsor. Finally, a company he worked with officially offered to sponsor him and put together a group, and he obtained permission through the then-Chief Secretary Jack Cater.
“They asked me where I wanted to go: Shanghai, Xian… and I told them, I want to go to Kaifeng! And they thought I was crazy – Kaifeng is remote – it was in a part of China that was actually closed at the time. We had to take the train to Guangzhou – it took six hours – and there was only one hotel there at the time. (And it was a terrible hotel.) And then we flew on an old Russian plane, to Changsha, where we took the train to Zhengzhou. We took a bus, and when the bus came into Kaifeng, it was immediately surrounded by people – they never got buses of tourists in Kaifeng.”
It may not come as a total surprise that today Zhengzhou has both a Sofitel and an international airport. But Kaifeng still suffers from annual flooding that has made long frustrated research on its ancient Jewish community. In fact, the Kaifeng synagogue no longer exists, although the street that led to it still does.
“A little while after I was there, a group of US congressmen came to the same place. It’s a famous place now.”
A chance meeting put SJ in touch with Lord Lawrence Kadoorie. This led in turn to a meeting with Abe Ladar, then Consul General of Venezuela in Hong Kong.
Ladar had written a letter appealing to Jewish communities all over the world for pictures and other artifacts relating to Jews in China for an exhibition called “Jews by the Yellow River” to be held in Tel Aviv in April 1984.
He met SJ, read his manuscript, and invited him to speak on the subject at the Jewish Recreation Club in December 1983. While that lecture was packed, only two people in the audience had ever heard of a Jewish presence in Kaifeng.
In fact, a Jewish presence in Kaifeng had been documented as far back as the early 17th century. A Kaifeng Jew in Beijing, having heard there were foreigners there who worshipped one God, was directed to Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who recognised typically Chinese manners and dress but distinctly non-Chinese features.
It is believed that Jews from Central Asia settled in China as early as 718 AD. Christian missionaries documented much of their history.
One of the best-known books on the community is The Chinese Jews, by Catholic bishop W.C. White. This book was published in 1942, at a time when the community in Kaifeng was only in tenuous connection with the outside world. An erroneous claim by another historian that the Chinese Jews were being persecuted came to SJ’s attention.
“In fact the truth is exactly opposite as the Han Chinese welcomed the Jews and allowed them to sit for the Civil Service Examination, from which many them achieved high positions in Government.”
SJ’s rebuttal was published in New York, and catapulted his scholarship to the forefront on the topic of the Kaifeng community.
“After I had delivered my lecture, I had some extra time in Israel. I was asked if there was anything I wanted to see in Israel, and I asked to visit a kibbutz. I visited Kibbutz Baram, an Italian-speaking kibbutz near the Syrian border, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.” Italian is one of the several languages Chan knows fluently.
The research grew into a monograph called The Jews in China: Reflections on Sino-Judaic History, which was first published in 1986 and re-printed in a new edition in 2004.
But that’s not the end of the story.
“I met other people at the Jewish Recreation Club, including an American called Dennis Leventhal, and the Club Chairman, Mark Ejlenberg. They asked Dennis and I to meet and discuss how to improve the Club. We hit upon the idea of creating a library; starting with the hundred books that the club had at that time.”
Today, the Hong Kong Jewish Community Centre Library has more than 4100 items (including CDs, video and audio tapes, periodicals, newspaper clippings and children’s books), including the most complete collection of material on the Kaifeng Jewish community in the world.
Chan and Leventhal next established the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong. The Society meets regularly to hear lectures and sponsors walking tours of Hong Kong from a Jewish perspective. Its current ongoing project involves cataloguing the graves in the community’s cemetery.
The cemetery dates back to the early part of the 19th century, and the catalog is slated for publication upon completion.
Not one to sit around idle, SJ is enjoying his retirement and the new projects it gives him scope for. He is currently working on a book about Hong Kong Chinese guerilla fighters active during World War II in Hong Kong and southern China, and has written recently about his visit to Auschwitz.
“The other thing I really want to do is a very good translation of the stone steles of Kaifeng.” The steles – pillars that used to frame the synagogue’s entry – are the only remaining written record of the Kaifeng community. “They need to be translated by someone who really has a thorough knowledge of classical Chinese.”
More good news for scholars interested in the Kaifeng Jews.