A Walking Tour of Hongkou, Shanghai's Former Jewish Quarter

Shanghai Skyline and Huangpu River, with newest skyscraper, Shanghai Tower (2015)
Shanghai Skyline and Huangpu River, with newest skyscraper, Shanghai Tower (2015).

Xu Jian/Photodisc Collection/Getty Images

A walking tour during a visit to Shanghai is the best way to see the city—you miss too much if you’re riding around on a bus and unless you have a guide, you’ll probably walk by a historic building and not even know it. Walking tours are offered by guides such as Mr. Dvir Bar-Gal, whose Jewish Heritage walking tours go through the former Ghetto. These guides' intimate knowledge of Shanghai’s Jewish history makes these tours a must-see attraction when in the city. 

One of the most interesting chapters of Shanghai’s fascinating history is the story of the city's Jews. In the 1840s, Iraqi Jews who’d made fortunes in India increased them in Shanghai and laid a foundation that catapulted the sleepy Huangpu River town to the forefront of trade.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Russian Jews fled anti-Semitism, founding new working-class communities in Harbin and further south in Shanghai. Finally, between 1937 and 1941, Shanghai’s open-port allowed over 20,000 European Jews seeking refuge from Nazi Germany. During this period, more Jews found sanctuary in China than in any other country in the world.

It was in Shanghai’s Hongkou district that many of the Russian Jews already lived and it was here that the Japanese, under pressure from their Nazi alliance, interned the newly arrived “stateless refugees” from Europe. While not imprisoned, over 20,000 men, women, and children were thrust into an already over-crowded neighborhood and blocked from leaving without proper papers. What had once been called “Little Vienna” for its thriving community became known as the Jewish Ghetto.

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Huoshan Park

A city park with a path and bench
thetaipanofhongkong / Flickr

This little green space sits just across from several housing blocks dating from the 1920s. Just inside the gate sits the only memorial to Shanghai’s European Jewish refugees. In Chinese, English, and Hebrew it is a small monument to the suffering these people experienced after they’d found refuge in Shanghai.

On your walking tour, you will get an in-depth history lesson about the exodus from Europe as well as stories of “Righteous Gentiles” including a Japanese consular director in Lithuania who helped hundreds of Jews escape to Japan and then Shanghai as well as Doctor Ho, a Chinese consular director who personally approved documents for thousands of Jews leaving Europe via Vienna.

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Chushan Road

City building with Chushan Road sign
Sara Naumann

Just across Huoshan Road from the park is Zhoushan Road, formerly known as Chushan Road. Once the commercial artery of Little Vienna, the lane became famous for the sheer number of Jewish families crammed into each of the flats. Sometimes housing 30 to a room with bunk beds and curtain dividers, families lived in these circumstances for years until the US liberated Shanghai in 1945.

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Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum / Ohel Moishe Synagogue

Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum
hbarrison / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The next stop on the walking tour takes you to the restored Ohel Moishe Synagogue. Restored and re-opened in 2008, the synagogue was originally a place of worship for the Russian Jews who inhabited the neighborhood in the 1920s and 1930s. It is one of only two standing synagogues left in Shanghai but does not hold religious services.

The site encompasses the former synagogue as well as a small art gallery and introduction video that explains a little about the history of the Jews in Shanghai.

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Inside a Lane

A narrow lane, typical of the Hongkou District, a former Jewish Ghetto
Sara Naumann

The last stop on the tour is down one of the lanes and into a small house now occupied by Chinese families but once inhabited by Jews. While circumstances don’t appear to have improved much for people who still live in these flats that are subdivided down to each room, with no showers, running water only in the communal kitchen and honeypots to empty in the morning, one can certainly imagine how life was for the Jews who were packed into the Ghetto during 1941-45.

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