Sir Victor Sassoon, Builder of 1930s Shanghai


A millionaire with a vision, Sir Victor Sasoon built modern Shanghai. His buildings modernized the city. When he left in 1948, the great metropolis bore his stamp.

Sir Victor was born in 1881, scion of an Anglo-Jewish family whose roots were in the Middle East. The Sassoons made a fortune in the Chinese opium trade, and later established cotton mills in India. Victor Sassoon was British to the core, and served in the Royal Naval Air Service in World War I. But in 1915 he barely survived an air crash that left him disabled for life. Sassoon would walk with the aid of two canes, and he was rarely free from pain.

Sir Victor Rebuilds Shanghai

In 1924 Sassoon became a baronet, succeeding to the title after the death of his father. Now Sir Victor, in 1927 Sassoon decided to make Shanghai the center of his business empire. While he still maintained properties in India, he grew tired of the heavy taxes that were common there. Shanghai offered a fresh start, a place to pursue his builder’s dreams.

Sir Victor set to work at once, seconded by his able lieutenant, Commander F.R. Davey. During the next few years he built Hamilton House, Cathay Mansions, and Grosvenor House, luxurious apartment high rises. Embankment House, billed as the biggest building on the China coast, boasted a frontage of a quarter of a mile. But the Cathay Hotel was Sir Victor’s pride, an Art Deco masterpiece fronting Shanghai’s Bund waterfront

Anti-Semitism, Chinese Art, and Thoroughbred Horse racing

The British dominated Shanghai society, which reflected their values. Many Britons were anti-Semitic, people who could accept Sassoon’s wealth but not that he was a Jew. Ignoring their scorn, Sir Victor invited Shanghai’s elite to costume parties in the ballroom atop his Cathay Hotel. A 1933 “shipwreck” party had guests dressed in odd bits of clothes—one couple was clad only in a shower curtain. Mary Hayley Bell, future wife of actor Sir John Mills and future mother of actress Hayley Mills, stole the show wearing a flannel nightgown and her hair in curlers

Sir Victor had four major passions: beautiful women, thoroughbred horse racing, Chinese art, and photography.The tycoon had one of the finest collections of Chinese ivories in the world. He who had been the victim of prejudice harbored none himself. Sir Victor not only had white lovers, but also Chinese ones, at a time when this was uncommon. He often photographed his conquests in the nude, thus combining his interests. According to Harriet Sergeant’s Shanghai, “(physical) sex was a bit complicated because of his accident.”

Sassoon also loved horse racing. He once said “The only race greater than the Jewish race is the Derby.” In later years his horses won a number of prestigious British events, including the Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks, and One Thousand Guineas.
World War II, Chinese Communist Takeover, and Relocation in the Bahamas

The Sino-Japanese War started in 1937, marking the beginning of the end for Sassoon’s Far East real estate empire. On December 8, 1941, the Japanese took over the heart of Shanghai and occupied the Cathay Hotel. Luckily Sir Victor was in India at the time, visiting his other concerns. The Japanese hated Sassoon for his strong pro-British and pro-Allied stance. If he had been caught, Sir Victor would have been imprisoned or killed.

After 1945 China plunged into a civil war. When Mao Zedong and Communists took over the city, they confiscated the Cathay hotel and all other Sassoon properties in China.

Stanley Jackson’s book The Sassoons show that Sir Victor took the change of fortunes philosophically. “Well, there it is,” he said quietly. “I gave up India, and China gave me up.”

Still quite wealthy, though plagued with a heart condition, Sassoon spent much of his time travelling around the world. He married his nurse, who shared his love of horse racing. His new base was the Bahamas, where he died in 1961.