Entering Shanghai and Roadside Harmony and Beauty
My recent journey to Shanghai, China confirmed that when President Xi of the People’s Republic of China said “The East and West have much to learn from one another” he was speaking to individuals such as myself whose infinite curiosity is often rewarded in magical and mysterious ways through exposure to ancient cultures that continually re – invent the world.
Upon arrival in Shanghai, a city of 20 million people, I immediately recognized how there is an almost perfect blending of the gargantuan skyscrapers and the quaint public parks and floral decor along each of the super highways that lead into the bustling city centre. The chinese people produced two of the world’s greatest poets and philosophers, Confucius and Lao Tzu and they seem to have taken their words to heart in designing a city that is both dramatically exciting and also allows you to easily find a respite that is remarkably calm and that often exudes peace.
One of the many Shanghai public parks.
This one was transformed from an abandoned railway line.
I believe this may be one of the greatest gifts of the Chinese people in that they are both ambitious, hard working and also they are able to find opportunities to surrender their lives for a few moments to a public park where they may dance, sing, exercise or meditate. This balance is in many ways central to their success in business and indeed life itself.
However, there is still, as in any major city, significant deprivation and those who are unskilled or unwell struggle to find even a small modicum of well being. Therefore, it is even more important to note that the public parks, museums and other state funded attractions are egalitarian in nature and attract a cross section of the Chinese society as they are free and seen as public benefits to improve their nation.
We visited one of these major attractions, the Shanghai Museum, and noted that the entrance queue was filled with tourists (mostly American and European), local families, school groups and many senior citizens. In fact, there are so many senior citizens that the museum provides an express queue for seniors with a ramp to insure they do not have to stand for a long time and also have an easy access to the museum.
The Shanghai Museum Entrance
Note Senior Citizens Entering Upon Ramp
Once inside the museum I was impressed with the quality of museum design and the individual sign posting for each exhibition. It was as if an ancient caligrapher had conjured the perfect lettering to match the theme of each exhibition collection. As if I was attending a major concert, I could not find one wrong note in the overall design of this exquisite museum.
Appropriate and Exquisite Signs
The Chinese recognize the importance of food in creating a convivial environment for peaceful conversation and as a harbinger of deep and enduring friendships. Each course was presented as if it was a fine work of visual art and each dish was multisensory with steam rising from the plate to the palate to tease and tittilate the appetite before the first bite.
The Art of Chinese Fine Dining
Following a brief period of dining with our Chinese hosts, it was finally time to “sing for my supper” and I had the privilege and honour of addressing nearly 100 academics, government leaders, media and others at the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum conference and the inagural meeting of the Honourary Board of Advisors for this organisation. In addition to delivering the keynote speech I was also appointed as an honorary Vice Chair of the Advisory Board of the Museum. I used this opportunity to promote a future partnership between the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum and the new Edinburgh Jewish Cultural Centre.
During my speech I described the revered Chinese consul general in Vienna, Austria as a righteous individual because he went against official orders and processed and approved over 10,000 visas to enable Jews to escape from Nazi persecution and find refuge in Shanghai in 1938. Ho Feng – Shan is recorded, along with 20,000 others in the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, as a righteous person. He is one of only two chinese persons to be recognized in this memorial.
In 1938 in Evian, France the League of Nations convened a meeting with 32 countries attending. Regrettably, none of the countries agreed to open their borders to receive Jewish refugees. Only the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica along with Shanghai, China agreed to welcome the Jews.
Because the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica was too far to travel for refuge, most of the Jewish people sought refuge in Shanghai which was more accessible by rail or boat. They were immediately accepted, welcomed and treated with respect by the Chinese people.
When I asked the director of the museum, over lunch, why the Jews were so admired he said that the Chinese had read about the Jewish people and saw them as hard working, good business leaders, skilled professionals in medicine, law, accounting and other fields and most of all they were people who were honorable, honest and ethical. Therefore, the Chinese people were very pleased indeed to welcome them to Shanghai.
Myself and Heming who is the artist of this dramatically moving sculpture of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees
When the Japanese invaded China, a Jewish ghetto was created and still the Jewish people continued to work and assimilate with the Chinese people until the end of the war. Eventually, most of the Jewish refugees relocated to America or Israel and only a few remained behind to tell their story to others in Shanghai and the rest, as has happended to Jews many times, took their stories with them.
In 2007, the Shanghai government approved funding for transforming the former site of the Ohel Moshe synagogue into a Jewish Refugee Museum to tell the story of these brave and courageous people and their generous hosts, the Shanghainese people. The small but impeccably curated museum tells their story eloquently from the efforts of Ho Feng – Shan to their individual life stories in Shanghai and beyond.
In 2020, the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum will expand to five times its current size. The purpose of this expansion is to tell the story of the Jews and their Chinese hosts in an even deeper and more meaningful manner through more oral histories and state of the art technology.
Whilst touring the museum, I noted that there were dozens of school children reading the names of the 13,000 refugees on the memorial wall and also a group of adult men who were followers of Islam and wished to learn more about the Jewish people. The blending of these two groups at the historic cross roads of the museum filled me with awe for the potential opportunities for this organisation to promote tolerance, peace and acceptance, one guest at a time. In 2019 over 100,000 people visited the museum from America, Israel, Europe and China.
Overall, the greatest lessons that the East and West may learn from one another is that each of our cultures when placed in the petri dish of human experience, such has happened in Shanghai, may create a strong and positive chemical reaction such as those experienced by the Jews and Chinese in 1938. The closer we are to one another, the more curious we are about each others background and beliefs, and the more engaged we are with one another could not only promote enduring friendships and peace but also a combined hope for a better world to come. I saw this with my own eyes at the Shanghai Jewish Cultural Museum and outwith throughout this remarkable city.
Lao Tzu wrote that “being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
I thoroughly believe this kind of courage is needed now, more than ever before.
After all, another wise philospher named Confucius recognized that “If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nations. When there is order in the nations, there will peace in the world.” He knew that righteousness, such as exhibited by the Chinese people, may indeed re – shape the world.
Finally, Lao Tzu also reminds us that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Similarly, in the Jewish Talmud, the Hebrew people were reminded that whilst they are not expected to always complete the work they undertake, neither are they free to refrain from starting their work.
Therefore, I believe that my journey to the far east has revealed that President Xi is correct in that we have much to learn from one another. In my new role as a Vice Chair of the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, I plan to use this platform to share further insights about our mutuality of spirit that may lead to a path toward creating a more righteous and therefore peaceful world to come.
For more information about the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum visit