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.