Silas Hardoon: Opium dealer, rent collector and once the richest man in Asia

Silas Hardoon: Opium dealer, rent collector and once the richest man in Asia

A look at one of the most colorful members of Shanghai's Jewish community
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The life of Silas Hardoon has amazed Shanghai for a hundred years. Opium dealer, rent collector, speculator, alchemist, miser and philanthropist, Hardoon was once the richest man in Asia.

He was the only foreigner to have appeared as a character in Chinese opera.

But Hardoon was born poor. He was a Sephardic Jew from Iraq who moved to Shanghai, married a Chinese prostitute, created the now famous Nanjing Xi Lu and endowed Buddhist temples.

To his Chinese neighbors he seemed like a magician. To Westerners today, he is something like a precursor to Warren Buffet combined with Caligula.

The real legacy of Silas Hardoon is threefold though, and fast disappearing.

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Historic Shanghai - Silas HardoonAili Garden Stone Pagoda once adorned what has become Nanjing Xi Lu.


Hardoon created the staple of Shanghai architecture: lane houses.

In 1880s, he bought lots in the Chinese walled city, built hybrid Chinese-Western tract homes, today known as shikumens, and rented them out to middle-class Chinese.

The business model defined Shanghai’s urban development for the next 50 years.

Hardoon was a passionate slumlord. He personally collected rent.

If a tenant’s payment were a day late, Silas would come to their house. If delinquent tenants were not home, Silas would wait in their kitchen.

This is how he met Liza.

Historic Shanghai - Silas HardoonSilas Hardoon was everything from an opium dealer and rent collector to speculator and philanthropist.

Garden and muse

Liza (Luo Jialing) was Silas’s muse, explains author Christina Ching Tsao in "Shanghai bride: Her tumultuous life's journey to the West."

Abandoned by her father, a French sailor, she lost her Chinese mother when she was very young and struggled to survive, living in a poor lane house near Old West Gate. She sold flowers and sexual favors. 

Silas and Liza married a few weeks after they met. From then on, she influenced everything he did.

Hardoon became a student of Buddhism.

As his wealth grew he cultivated relationships with Chinese merchants and Qing officials. With Liza as his cultural coach, Hardoon became friends of the imperial family. 

In 1909, Silas built a residence at the end of Bubbling Well Road -- now Nanjing Xi Lu -- a garden compound, the largest, most luxurious in Shanghai. Aili Garden was the stuff of dreams. 

When the Qing rule fell, Hardoon sheltered officials from the court. Silas and Liza adopted an imperial lifestyle, entertaining royal concubines and employing eunuchs. 

They subsidized a school for Buddhist monks on their property.

In 1931 Silas was buried in his Chinese garden. The Shanghai Jewish community was scandalized.

Soon afterward the estate and garden burned to the ground. 

In 1949 the Communists took Shanghai, and in 1955 the grand Stalinist “Sino-Chinese Friendship Hall” (now the Shanghai Exhibition Center) replaced the Hardoons’ pleasure palace.

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Historic shanghai - Beth Aharon Rabbinical students studying at Beth Aharon in Shanghai in 1941. It's the only yeshiva school to survive the Holocaust intact.

Beth Aharon

Hardoon built the Beth Aharon synagogue in 1927.

An extraordinary modernist building by Palmer & Turner, it seemed too big for its purpose. The real purpose came 10 years later. When Jews from all over Europe streamed to Shanghai, the vaults of Beth Aharon became a dormitory to hundreds of refugees.

The seating capacity of the lavish sanctuary coincided with the number of rabbinical students from Belarus, Mir Yeshiva, who emigrated to Shanghai and resumed their studies at Beth Aharon. 

Hardoon’s synagogue sheltered the only rabbinical school to survive the Holocaust intact.

After the Liberation the building was occupied by Wenhuibao newspaper.

In 1985, it was thoughtlessly torn down in anticipation of a high-rise that never rose. The block at Huqiu Lu has not been filled to this day.

Only a stone block with carved menorahs from Beth Aharon survives, locked in a vault at the Shanghai Museum.


Katya Knyazeva is a journalist and fine artist born in Siberia.
Read more about Katya Knyazeva