Trading Diaspora and Merchant Community - the Sassoon and Kadoorie family enterprises in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia and Coastal China, 1830 - 1990

Project: Research project

Project Details


The proposed study will examine the historical and economic transformation of an influential Jewish community between 1830 and 1997 by focusing on two prominent merchant houses, the Sassoon (沙遜) and the Kadoorie (嘉道理). As their business enterprises took shape in Bombay, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, a commercial corridor linking the Middle East and the Far East, the growth of their cross-cultural business endeavours epitomized significant changes in global capitalism.

Both the Sassoon and Kadoorie families traced their roots to Baghdad and had deep emotional ties to the Middle East. In the 1810s, they began to relocate to Bombay to escape religious persecution. Their family story reveal significant changes in world history - throughout the nineteenth century merchant diasporas of Parsi (Zoroastrian), Jews, and later Chinese, together with mercantile indigenes, expanded their trading activities in port cities, linking India with the Persian Gulf to the west, and with the Malay Peninsula and coastal China in the east. These merchants maintained ties with their homelands even as they made new connections in their host societies in port cities, where they took advantage of the pluralistic environment and invested in banking, moneylending, and stock markets. These traders used their own traditional institutions when possible, but were willing and able to compromise when challenged by colonial law. Their itinerancy, accumulated wealth, and extensive networks gave them a competitive advantage over other migrant groups in the region, while the diversity of frontier society gave them the opportunity to act as business intermediaries across ethnic and social boundaries. In the early 19th century, under British protection, both the Jews and the Parsi merchants were key intermediaries in the Indo-China trade, and their businesses extended to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai. Yet after the 1860s the Jews overtook Parsi traders and became the most powerful middlemen in the Indo-China. This shift highlights an important gap in the literature with the question: Why did the Jews predominate over other minority groups as business intermediaries in Indo-China trade? With the demise of the opium trade in the 1910s, the Sassoon and Kadoorie families began to diversify their investments to banking, finance, real estate and in the stock market. Around the same time, in the 1920s, Sassoon moved its base from India to China, while Kadoorie moved from Hong Kong to Shanghai. But after WWII the new Chinese communist government confiscated most of the Sassoons’ immovable wealth in Shanghai. The Kadoories, on the other hand, had had the foresight to convert their property into capital (such as bonds and company shares), which they tactfully transferred to British Hong Kong; they rebuilt their business empire there. Why and how did the two families come up with these different investment strategies?

Using newly released or previously unexplored archival sources, this study will investigate the similarities and differences as well as the interconnections between Sassoon and Kadoorie social and economic activities in the port cities where they operated in Asia. This project will be a solid longitudinal study of two prominent merchant families based on substantial original archival research. The conceptual discussions will be documented and backed by solid archival sources. It will focus on their migrations, transnational investments, and cross-border financial operations, and on how they weathered the fall of the British Empire and the rise of state-building in India, Singapore, and China. It will show how these migrant traders adapted to their host society and to political and economic changes, especially the redrawing of political and economic boundaries in 20th century Asia. In particular, the sources will be analyzed in detail to understand: 1) their bookkeeping methods; 2) family alliances; 3) relations with the British and French colonial governments; 4) distribution of such commodities as opium and rubber, 5) organization of trade and credit; and 6) market information networks; 7) investment in landed property and company shares. This study will position the Jewish traders’ experience in the broader context of cross-cultural interactions among Britain, India, and China. It also will trace how business institutions evolved in different cultures, and offer insights that will facilitate economic exchange/co- operation among contemporary migrant groups.
Effective start/end date1/01/1630/06/19

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


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