Luo Jialing, a.k.a. Liza Hardoon, and the height of global Shanghai

Society & Culture

Shanghai is unlike any other Chinese city, with strands of Japan, Britain, America, and a dozen other places woven into its fabric. This Week in China’s History looks back to a moment when Shanghai was quintessentially global: the funeral of Luo Jialing.

Liza Hardoon, Shanghai

This Week in China’s History: November 12, 1941

Twenty-thousand people showed up to pay their respects, four times the number of “official” mourners who had been invited. Cars lined Bubbling Well Road for blocks waiting to enter the Hardoon Gardens, carrying a cross-section of Shanghai society. Armed security guards and police kept order. Once inside, loudspeakers directed people to their assigned places, a necessity in a 30-acre estate fitted, somehow, into the sprawl of the city. Eventually, led by dozens of Buddhist monks and accompanied by three bands, the remains of Luō Jiālíng 罗迦陵, a.k.a., Liza Hardoon, were entombed alongside the Hebrew-inscribed marker of her husband.

Shanghai has been called lots of names. In just the years since Britain claimed it as a treaty port in 1842, it’s been described as “Paris of the East” and various “___ of the Orient” (pearl, queen, whore). Japanese novelist Shofū Muramatsu wrote about it as the “Demon City,” though in Chinese it’s translated as “Magic City” (some suggest this one should stick). But one of the most appropriate I have found is the title of Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s 2009 book: Global Shanghai.

Doesn’t have the same ring as Pearl of the Orient, I suppose, but an appellation that could not be more appropriate. One of the frustrations, and joys, of writing about Shanghai is trying to identify it. It’s Chinese, but unlike any other Chinese city, with strands of Japan, Britain, America, and a dozen other places woven into its fabric.

For This Week in China’s History, we look back to a moment that was quintessentially Shanghai — and singularly global. The funeral of Luo Jialing: half-Chinese, half-French, raised a Buddhist, married in a Jewish wedding — and the wealthiest woman in Asia.

Her funeral on November 12, 1941 — one of the reasons I focused on that day in Champions Day — was a rare intersection of worlds in Shanghai, one worth describing and understanding. I’ve drawn on my own research for that book, which included important sources like Maisie Meyer’s edited collection Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews: A Collection of Biographical Reflections and From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo, among other published sources in English.

Luo Jialing exemplified “global Shanghai” as few others. She was born in Shanghai in 1864, in the midst of the Taiping War that not only tore China apart and threatened to topple its ruling Qing dynasty, but in many ways made Shanghai what it would become. Unable to rely on protection from the Qing government, foreigners in Shanghai took upon themselves many of the functions of government and created a colony in all but name. As Shanghai became a refuge, and then grew prosperous, it attracted people from across China and around the world. Both Luo’s Chinese mother and French father were part of the wave of immigrants who flowed into Shanghai after the Opium War.

Luo’s mother, Shěn Yí 沈仪, arrived from Fujian, and worked as a tailor and seamstress in Shanghai’s French Concession. Among her customers was a Frenchman named Isaac Roos.

We don’t know exactly when the couple met, but their daughter, named Luo Jialing in Chinese and Liza Roos in French, was born in 1864. Her father was rarely part of her life, and her mother died when she was only six, leaving her with her mother’s family in the district of Pudong. She spoke Shanghainese as her native language, learning English only after her marriage, and Mandarin not until she was in her 50s.

Through her teens, Luo Jialing’s biography matched hundreds — maybe many more — of children born in Shanghai at that time. There was nothing in her early years that suggested her eventual funeral would attract tens of thousands of people and be reported in newspapers across the world. Her move toward celebrity began when she met Silas Aaron Hardoon in one of the homes where she worked during the 1870s and 1880s.

The Hardoons are one of the prominent families (the even more famous Sassoons are another) that highlight the Jewish thread in Shanghai’s fabric that was neither Chinese nor fully accepted among many Shanghai foreigners. The Hardoon — then spelled Hadun — family arrived from Baghdad via Bombay during the boom of the 1850s. Silas Aaron Hardoon was six years old.

When he met Luo, Hardoon was working as a manager for David Sassoon’s company and buying real estate both for Sassoon and, it seems, for himself. Relationships between Chinese women and non-Chinese men were not uncommon. They married in 1886, in both Jewish and Chinese ceremonies. Hardoon took an interest in Luo’s Buddhism, and those connections brought him into contact with Chinese business networks that were inaccessible to most foreigners. By the 1890s Hardoon was one of the wealthiest men in Shanghai, with an office on the Bund and the beginnings of an elaborate estate. Part of the Hardoons’ fortune — immense even by Shanghai standards (as much as $800 million in today’s dollars when he died) — derived from the (then-legal) opium trade.

The Hardoons defied many of their peers’ prejudices. Some of their supported projects were Jewish (including financing the construction of the Beth Aharon synagogue, which was Shanghai’s largest until it was demolished in the 1980s); others were Buddhist (a complete edition of the Buddhist scriptures as well as renovations to the Jing’an Temple on Bubbling Well Road); still others were secular, like paving Nanking Road (supposedly in exchange for a seat on the Shanghai Municipal Council, to which Hardoon was elected in 1900, the “payment” being necessary to justify a Jewish member on the Settlement’s governing body). The Hardoon household was a rare melding of cultures, even by Shanghai’s cosmopolitan standards. Silas Hardoon observed Jewish holidays and attended synagogue regularly, while the “European” Hardoon children celebrated Christian as well as Chinese holidays.

The Hardoon Gardens, where their funerals would be held decades later, were named Aili in honor of Liza (Ài 爱 meaning “love” and 俪 the first character of Liza’s given name). They were a fantastic landscape, designed by a Buddhist monk, with complementary Jewish and Buddhist elements inside the home: Pagodas and a temple, an artificial stream, Chinese theater, pavilions, and scenic spots for meditation filled the garden’s nearly 30 acres.

The rare mingling of cultures challenged attempts to categorize the Hardoons. Did Liza Hardoon become Jewish? Did Silas Hardoon embrace Buddhism? These questions mattered not only because the couple were cultural curiosities in Shanghai’s multicultural yet segregated society, but because great fortunes depended on the answers. When Silas Hardoon died in 1931, he left his entire fortune to Liza, and the will was immediately challenged on religious and national grounds. But when the court found in favor of Liza Hardoon, she instantly became one of the wealthiest women in the world, and one of the richest people in Shanghai regardless of gender.

Liza lived for a decade after Silas passed, in failing health and increasing reclusiveness. But she remained an institution in Shanghai, so when it came time for her funeral — delayed more than a month by legal and religious wrangling — it was an event. As I described it in Champions Day:

Even for Shanghai, this was a spectacle. Three bands played funeral music as part of the procession, 32 pallbearers carried the ornate casket, draped with red silk, that was so heavy that despite the large number of bearers, they had to stop frequently for rest. Spectators lined the entire length of the procession. Sixty photographers, including newsreels, recorded the event. Leading the procession beneath a course of ceremonial gates, decorated with lanterns, across the gardens were the Hardoons’ numerous adopted children, each accompanied by a servant guarded by armed police. When the procession finally reached the grave, mourners lowered the casket by ropes, while an orange-robed priest concluded the service by making sure the body was oriented on a north-south axis. Carved granite slabs, quarried in Suzhou, were placed atop the grave alongside offerings of gold and silver as the ceremony concluded.

One of the key tensions in Champions Day is that the world of Shanghai was about to tumble over a cliff — the Japanese occupied the city center just three weeks later. The impact was felt even at the Hardoon estate. A fire raced through the Gardens in 1943, and eventually the graves of Liza and Silas were relocated to the western outskirts of the city. The former Hardoon estate was turned into the Sino-Soviet Friendship Palace, which still stands as the Shanghai Exhibition Center.

Shanghai today — pandemic notwithstanding — is still an international city, but never was there a better encapsulation of “global Shanghai” than the funeral of Liza Hardoon.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.