ELKAN’S VIEW 18th February 2015
I am writing this after two amazing weeks in Hong Kong and Thailand. I had never been East of Israel and the interaction with other cultures has been quite fascinating.
Hong Kong has some very interesting Jewish features. The community developed in mid Victorian times when Great Britain took over the territory from China, and Jews mainly of Indian or Baghdadi origin settled there. The very beautiful Ohel Leah synagogue was built by the Sassoon family and opened in 1901.
The development of Hong Kong as a whole progressed greatly when Sir Matthew Nathan was appointed Governor in 1904. He was an identified Jew, a member of the New West End Synagogue who had been trained as an engineer in the British Army and employed his training in a number of postings. He held four foreign governorships during his career and was in charge of Ireland at the time of the Easter Rebellion in 1916.
Nathan was keen to develop Kowloon, just across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island. He was interested in town planning and was also responsible for the development of the Kowloon-Canton railway into China itself. When Kowloon was laid out the main thoroughfare naturally bore the name of the Governor. Nathan Road, today often nicknamed “The Golden Mile”, an amazing experience of neon lighting and shops selling anything and everything, is named after Sir Matthew. Nathan died in 1939 and together with his brothers Sir Frederick and Sir Nathaniel is buried in Willesden Cemetery.
I had the unusual experience of going to shul up the public escalator to the Mid-Levels area where the Ohel Leah synagogue is situated. Because the Shul is surrounded by skyscrapers, and for a vast figure sold off some of its spare land for development, it has an almost mythical reputation among Jewish communities. Among its recent rabbis have been both Rabbi Jackson and Rabbi Van den Bergh (both of whom will be known to many of my readers), and Chief Rabbi Sacks visited there every year. After the service the whole community is invited to a sit down Kiddush which is really a sumptuous two course meal.
Bangkok was not so fascinating from a Jewish point of view, although I am interested in the relationship between Judaism and the gentleness of Buddhism. Chabad has a presence in Thailand and helps many of the Israelis for whom a backpacking visit to the Far East is a rite of passage after finishing their army service.
But the most amusing memory that I bring back is of two little boys wearing Kippot playing in the Ohel Leah Synagogue, and talking to each other in Chinese!