Sir Victor Sassoon, a Most Fortunate Expat

Sassoon with unidentified admirer

His great-grandfather made the family English nobility through Chinese opium profits. But Victor Sassoon wasn’t interested in a gentleman’s life of leisure. He wished to make his own fortune, while giving as little away in taxes as possible. That’s how he ended up in 1920s Shanghai, owning the hottest property on the Bund. This 1935 Fortune article shows us that no matter how times change, making it big in China always takes more than a little daring.

A BAGDAD Jew by race, though technically an Englishman by birth, Sir Ellice Victor Sassoon is rooted deep in the economic past. His ancestors grew to power in the opium trade in the nineteenth century, invading every nook and corner of the Far East and becoming much involved in the opium wars that Great Britain waged on China, and out of which grew those very treaties that have made Shanghai a consecrated spot.

In the nineteenth century Sir Victor’s great-grandfather, David Sassoon, transferred his headquarters from Bagdad to Bombay, and his eldest son, Albert Abdallah, was honored by Queen Victoria with a baronetcy for his contributions to India’s prosperity. David’s descendants include Sir Victor, the hero of this piece; Sir Philip, England’s Undersecretary of State for Air; Siegfried, the able poet; and the Marchioness of Cholmondeley, friend of the British royal family.

Sir Victor was not interested in society, or in great mansions like that of his cousin Philip outside of London with its peacocks and scented swimming pool. Sir Victor saw himself as the inheritor of a great tradition of international trade and finance, and he set forth to build the Sassoon edifice up to new heights. He ran head on, however, into the post-War British tax collector. There was bitterness and recrimination. Sir Victor sat himself down to contemplate international law. Was there no spot where one could put one’s money to work without paying more than half of one’s earnings to a government? He discovered Hongkong. And he discovered Shanghai.

As a result, during the late twenties, while many of Sir Victor’s companies were incorporated in the British Crown colony of Hongkong, his cash and his credit were thrown, million by million, into Shanghai. Altogether, he transferred from Bombay to Shanghai about sixty lakhs of taels, which is roughly $85.000,000 Mex. He invested the major portion of this and other money in that same magic land along the Bund.

Now it took a certain amount of courage and foresight to plunge into Shanghai real estate in 1927, after the city’s prolonged boom. It was not unlike stepping in on top of the late great Manhattan bull market. Nevertheless, Sir Victor, who is something of a visionary, and his hardheaded lieutenant, Commander F. R. Davey (see page 116), laid out an ambitious campaign based on the belief that Shanghai was underbuilt. First they organized the Cathay Land Co. and the Cathay Hotel Co. Then, while Shanghai gaped, they put up the Cathay Hotel. This is one of the most luxurious hostelries in the world, rivaling the best in Manhattan and charging Manhattan prices.

Hitherto, the absolute limit in height on that muddy land had been figured at ten stories. But Sir Victor sank hundreds of Douglas firs into the slime, laid a concrete raft on top of them, and on top of that built a twenty-story pyramidal tower, which now dominates the Bund. Its air-conditioned ballrooms have emptied all the older ballrooms in town. And the comfort of its tower bedrooms has brought wrinkles to the foreheads of the managers of the old Astor House and the Palace Hotel.

Having taught Shanghai how to build skyscrapers, Sir Victor and the Commander put down the foundations for the Metropole (sixteen stories, 200 rooms, 200 baths). They next proceeded to apartment houses designed to relieve the taipans of the onus of maintaining big mansions heavily staffed. On Kiangse Road they built Hamilton House, a big apartment hotel. They completed Cathay Mansions (eighteen stories), which had been begun by Arnhold & Co. They laid the foundations for Grosvenor House (still abuilding) and threw up rows of Chinese residences, shops, theatres, office buildings.

Across Soochow Creek, they erected Embankment House, the biggest building on the China coast (it has a frontage of a quarter of a mile). Spreading out horizontally into the building industry, they bought a hollow-brick factory, financed a firm of interior decorators, acquired Arnhold & Co., an important building-management firm. They bit off big slices of Shanghai’s two investment trusts. Through his private banking business (Sassoon Banking Co. a (E. D. Sassoon & Co.) Sir Victor carried on his usual extensive operations in foreign exchange. And this led him by a devious route to take over the financing and control of the immense Hardoon estate, which has ended in ambitious plans for the reconstructing of Shanghai’s principal shopping street, Nanking Road.

Now Shanghai’s No. 1 realtor, which is a high rank, he lives in the tower of his Cathay Hotel, gives wild, luxurious, and astonishing parties, possesses the only social secretary in the city, strays away to India or England for no more than the few months the British income-tax laws permit him. He is popular in the international set and his immense wealth gives him a special standing.

But the crusty diehards of the British colony still look askance at his exuberance and sniff at his ancestry. In England he may hobnob with princes, but in Shanghai, where the Old Guard is almost provincial, there are circles that he cannot enter, partly because he is a Jew, partly because the British deplore his flight from taxation as not quite sporting. A plane crash during the War has left him lame, and sensitive to his lameness. He has never married, and if his tastes in women and horses cause comment he can afford to ignore it. He has left his imprint on Shanghai in the towering bulk of his buildings, he has found a sanctuary for his wealth, and he is great.

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39 Responses to Sir Victor Sassoon, a Most Fortunate Expat

  1. Anonymous says:

    Victor Sasson, Great Grandfather of Vidal Sasson, Shampoo Magnet

  2. Ishmael says:

    Really interesting, thanks for putting this up. Neat site btw

  3. Ernie says:

    Truly glad you like it, sir.

  4. Ernie says:

    Because he was so rich he ate gold and crapped lodestones.

  5. Anonymous says:

    If he no issue, how can he be the greatgrandfather of Vidal Sassoon shampoo magnet?

  6. Thanks for sharing this post. I enjoyed reading it. Sir victor Sassoon was a very hard working man and never wanted to live a luxurious life. This is how every person should be.

  7. LOL shampoo magnet? I had no idea he was the great-grandfather of Vidal Sassoon. Another thing I learned today.

  8. Anonymous says:

    vidal sassoon and sir victor are NO realation– sir victor did die childless

  9. Ernie says:

    So much for shampoo magnetism.

  10. thanks for this topic

  11. Mr.Victor was himself a very diligent person and he always liked to live a normal life as I have read in books and got from other sources.With those two qualities,I think any person can become successful in his life like Mr.Victor

  12. Ernie says:

    You got it.

  13. Sir Victor Sassoon walked with the aid of two sticks as the result of injuries in World War I in which he served in the Royal Flying Corps.

    He succeeded to the Baronetcy on the death of his father Edward Elias Sassoon in 1924. He had no issue, and the Baronetcy became extinct on his death.

    He lived in Shanghai as a wealthy bon vivant who worked tirelessly to protect Western interests in the Orient and helped European Jews survive in the Shanghai Ghetto. He founded the Cathay Hotel (now the Peace Hotel) but left under increasing Japanese pressure in 1941

  14. Interesting article; thanks for sharing.

  15. Although being wealthy and plagued with a heart condition,Sir Victor spent most of his time traveling around the world.

  16. As far I know him,he is a great man of pleasure and have always helped his community people through various means and that why everyone loves and likes him.

  17. Sir Victor had four major passions: beautiful women, thoroughbred horse racing, Chinese art, and photography.

  18. 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.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for sharing this post. I enjoyed reading it. Sir victor Sassoon was a very hard working man and never wanted to live a luxurious life. This is how every person should be.

  20. 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.

  21. Zenerx says:

    This was a really interesting article. Thanks. I learned a lot!

  22. 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.

  23. Stuck in the middle of the bloody battle for mastery of the city was the International Settlement, an enclave of Western businessmen and diplomats that operated as a world apart. Within the settlement — and at the center of the business world of Shanghai — was Victor Sassoon, a wealthy bon vivant who worked tirelessly to protect Western interests in the Orient and rescue European Jews while looking out for his own considerable financial holdings in the city.

  24. Google SEO says:

    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.

  25. Ponders says:

    How can you be of nobility and dell opium for profit. I guess back then the laws were different. I do agree with the article that it took bravery and great for sight to invest that much money into Chinese land at that time but as we see from the article everything more then worked out for him. Pop Up Displays

  26. Ernie says:

    You might want to ponder that much of Colonial Britain's wealth was built on opium, slaves, and serfs, while today's Global Corporate fatcats are different in that they leave the opium profits to the CIA, which does their dirty work. Look it up, but not in a school book or in the Fox News archives.

  27. A Man with Legendary Life, ha.

  28. jeux says:

    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.

  29. Billiard says:

    Thanks for sharing this post. I enjoyed reading it. Sir victor Sassoon was a very hard working man and never wanted to live a luxurious life. This is how every person should be.

  30. Always interesting to find out how people made their money.

  31. scaffold says:

    Thanks for sharing this post. I enjoyed reading it. Sir victor Sassoon was a very hard working man and never wanted to live a luxurious life. This is how every person should be.

  32. Anonymous says:

    One of few men who diligently got lucky. This is a very good read. Thank you.

  33. daniel Hepzi says:

    after reading this article i wish even i had a luxiourios life like him and enjoy all the days of my life. 

  34. Ernie says:

    Have your grandfather bequeath you an opium-smuggling fortune. It's a great start.

  35. Joan says:

    If the British old guard deplore his escape from taxation what exactly are THEY doing in Shanghai? There was a rumour that Victor and a woman from an ‘aristocratic’ family wanted to marry, but she was pushed into marriage with ‘one of her own kind’ and became a battered wife. Perhaps Victor was too heartbroken to marry anyone else.

  36. Steve says:

    Thanks for a nice article. Please continue the biography, i.e. what happened to Sassoon during and after WWII,and when, where and how did he die?

  37. Ernie says:

    Not a bad idea, Steve. I’ll look into it.

  38. blueneck says:

    I heard he eventually did get married with his caregiver, a young American nurse from Texas USA. After Victor passed away childless, his wife’s nephew carried on Sassoon company name and contributed lots of Sassoon’s belongings to University of Texas.

    One of his young lovers in Shanghai was Emily Hahn, a St. Louis native from the States. She used to stand for him for hours being taken hundreds of her naked photos. I guess some of those ended up at Texas university:-)

    Shanghai had spend almost three years recently to renovate Cathay Hotel to its previous glories and it did an excellent job. Out of the nostalgic reason I stayed there for two weeks three months ago (now called Fairmont Peace Hotel). The suite was beautiful and the services were first class. But the Chinese foods on the 8th floor were just so so.

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