The 124-meter-long Abraham Co Building on Beijing Road is one of the city’s longest red-brick historical buildings. It provides insight into the long and eventful history of Jews in China.
On an 1850 registration list of local expatriates, Shanghai historian Wang Jian discovered the names M.S. Moses, J. Ruben and E. Abraham — three assistants working for David Sassoon and Sons & Co. The latter was the father of D.E.J. Abraham, who this building was named after.
Wang says the earliest Jews to Shanghai, the Sephardi Jews, arrived during the mid-19th century from the Middle East and most of them worked for the Sassoon Family.
“In the 1880s, some Sassoon employees started to open their own firms. D.E.J. Abraham was one of them. He founded a company in 1890 and built this building in 1911,” says the historian from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
Covering an area of 2,635 square meters, this brick-and-wood structure is a gigantic rectangular building facing north. It was designed by British firm Stewardson & Spence.
Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao says the building has a lot of character.
“This Renaissance-style building with Baroque elements spreads along Beijing Road, graced by red-brick walls and divided by nice gables,” he says. “The windows on different floors are embellished with a variety of semi-arches, diminished arches or segmental arches.”
Qian says it was likely erected by Shanghai Land Investment Company, a leading British developer at the time. The company built many red-brick buildings around Dianchi and Sichuan roads, including its own office (Shanghai Daily, B4-5, June 27).
Abraham’s company was probably a famous tenant and thus the building was named after it.
Two years ago, the building was renovated and reopened as Yifeng Galleria, a high-end shopping mall featuring luxury retailers and stylish restaurants. The title was taken from the Chinese name for Abraham’s company.
According to chief designer Xue Saijun of the American architecture firm Callison, the original renovation plan was to link the building with No. 27 on the Bund (today’s House of Roosevelt) to house New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue.
Her team designed a colonnade and a courtyard to connect the two heritage buildings, but Saks later withdrew from the project. Thus, the House of Roosevelt and Yifeng Galleria became independent projects.
“In the first plan, waterfront No. 27 was the ‘face’ while Yifeng Galleria acted as the ‘body’,” Xue says. “But after they ‘broke up,’ Yifeng Galleria had to be its own ‘face and heart.’ This means the architectural details on the façade needed to be fully showcased.
“Instead of considering the building’s relationship with the Bund, we pondered more of a connection with the Peninsula Hotel in the new plan.”
The building was so narrow and long that Xue’s team had to build an almost identical new section to suit its new function. Some of the old red-brick interior walls were retained for the shopping mall.
The architect says she was also impressed with the numerous architraves in the building.
“The building has a very flat façade. But the architraves add rhythm and texture,” Xue says.
An ardent heart
Although a successful businessman, Abraham’s real interest was in community affairs, historian Wang says.
“He was elected chairman of the Shanghai Jewish Community in 1910 and served in this position for more than 30 years. He had a passion for community affairs, which seemed to be in the blood of the Abraham family,” says Wang, adding Abraham’s wife was a member of the Shanghai Ladies Benevolent Society and had been chairperson of the Jewish Women’s Society.
Their children and grandchildren later became involved in community services.
The Shanghai Jewish Community was responsible for maintenance of the Jewish mausoleum, the assignment of charity goods as well as the registration of births, marriages and deaths. Since there was no rabbi in the city until 1921, the chairman often needed to host weddings according to Jewish traditions.
Glancing through old Jewish newspapers or Shanghai Jewish history books, the name “D.E.J. Abraham” turns up fairly frequently.
In 1902, he co-founded Shanghai Jewish School inside the Shearith Israel Synagogue. In a 1904 edition of the newspaper “Israel’s Messenger,” Wang says he discovered interesting news that the Abrahams invited a mohel to perform a circumcision for the newborn son of a Jewish couple from Nagasaki, Japan.
It was also D.E.J. Abraham who persuaded Silas Aaron Hardoon, another Jewish tycoon, to build the Beth Aharon Synagogue in 1927. A decade earlier, his wife buried the foundation stone for another synagogue, Ohel Rachel Synagogue on Shaanxi Road N., which was donated by the Sassoon family.
In 1938, D.E.J. Abraham became a member of the board for the Committee for Assistance of European Refugees in Shanghai, which was founded by the Kadoorie family. He had also served as a judge on a special court to solve Jewish legal cases in Shanghai.
Among his multiple social jobs, the work to “rescue Chinese Jews” was most interesting. This story was told in greater detail in the 1992 book “Shanghai Jews” by Tang Peiji.
The earliest Jews to China dated to a group of Jewish merchants who had settled in Kaifeng City of Henan Province during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Though already merging with Chinese cultures during, the heritage of ancient Jews in China attracted attention. The UK-based Church Missionary Society began sending messengers to Kaifeng soon after Shanghai became an open port in 1843.
In 1900, local Sephardie Jews founded the Society for the Rescue of Chinese Jews. Its goal was to invite Jewish descendants to Shanghai to learn Hebrew and the Jewish religion.
In 1901, three Chinese Jews, including Li Jingsheng and his son Li Shumei, arrived in Shanghai from Kaifeng.
D.E.J. Abraham offered the father a job in his company. Li Jingsheng died of illness in 1903, but his then 15-year-old son Li Shumei started working for the company. Abraham even asked him to look after the financial accounts after discovering the boy was honest and hardworking.
Li Shumei later married a Chinese girl and fathered four children, three of whom died young. Family tragedy and homesickness drove him to return to Kaifeng in 1945 with his only surviving child, just like his father took him to Shanghai more than 40 years earlier.
Whether the building was built by Abraham or a place he simply rented doesn’t matter much today. As one of the leader of Shanghai’s Jewish community, Abraham’s footprints remain.
Yesterday: Abraham Co Building
Today: Yifeng Galleria
Address: 99 Beijing Rd E.
Built: In 1911
Architectural Style: Renaissance
Architect: Stewardson & Spence
Tips: It’s now a shopping mall open to the public. Please note the nuances between old and new bricks. It’s fun to find the original brick walls hidden around this lavishly embellished plaza.