The Column | China and the Jews

I didn’t know what to expect from my meeting with the new consul general of China. I had a list of questions with me when I was ushered into the massive Chinese Consulate building on Laguna Street in San Francisco. But Consul General Yuan Nansheng had one topic on his mind: Feng Shan Ho.

Ho was China’s consul general in Vienna from 1938 to 1940, and is noted for saving the lives of more than 1,000 Jews by issuing them entry visas to Shanghai, over the objections of his immediate superior. Ho died in San Francisco in 1997 and was honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem three years later.

J. has written about Ho several times, most recently a year ago when the Israeli and Chinese consulates in San Francisco collaborated on a month-long cultural festival that included a photo exhibit about Ho’s work. His daughter Manli, a San Francisco resident, regularly speaks about her late father to Jewish groups.

So imagine my surprise when Yuan, 59, who holds a Ph.D. in law and is a professor at Peking University, told me he’s written a book about Ho. Why not, he said — they’re both from the same town, the city of Yiyang in China’s Hunan province.

“And we share the same lucky fortune of both being ambassadors,” he added.

Yuan regaled me for half an hour with details of Ho’s life. Yiyang has built a museum in his honor, and his ashes are interred there. Yuan has visited the building in Vienna where Ho worked, and as soon as he got to San Francisco he visited Manli and Ho’s elderly brother-in-law, who has a calligraphy scroll handwritten by Ho.

“I was very moved to see it,” Yuan said.

Yuan’s pronounced interest in Ho isn’t surprising in one way: Ho helped Jews, and Jews are popular in China today, widely admired for their perceived intelligence and (ahem) business acumen. Books that purport to uncover the mystery of Jewish financial success are bestsellers in China, and Jewish visitors to the country are often taken aback by the guileless admiration showered on them by their Chinese hosts. When I was in Shanghai in 2009, the elevator operator in my hotel broke into a big smile when he found out I was Jewish. “Jewish, very clever!” he exclaimed.

Last week, I asked the consul general about this, and he concurred. “We see a very interesting phenomenon: Jews succeed ad-mirably in almost all professions and businesses,” he said. “There must be reasons behind it. And the Chinese people are keen learners. They want to learn why Jews succeed and how, and how to reconcile Jewish wisdom and practice with China’s national realities. That is, I guess, why books on Jewish success stories are popular in China.”

On July 9, the American Jewish Committee will offer a class about Jews in America to the Chinese consular staff. AJC’s San Francisco director, Mervyn Danker, will be co-teaching the class, and he says it will include a bit of history, a bit of religion and an examination of the values shared by both peoples. You know — the importance of education, of family, and, yes, of succeeding in the world.

Yuan says he and his staff are very much looking forward to the class. “We are interested in the history and legacy of Jewish Americans,” he said. “We hope to learn more about their contribution to and influence on American society.” Yup, they want to learn how such a small population has done so well in this country.

One of Yuan’s first priorities in the Bay Area, he says, is to bring the Jewish and Chinese-American communities closer together. He’s already spoken to local Chinese leaders about it and was impressed, he told me, by their assertion that the relationship is very good. That’s what he wants to hear.

“Good relations with the Jewish people is a very important part of China’s external policy,” he told me. That includes Israel, he insisted, Chinese policy in the Mideast notwithstanding.

For his own part, Yuan has not been to Israel — yet, he added. His city of Yiyang is twinned with the Israeli city of Petah Tikva, and one of his personal goals during his tenure in San Francisco is to find a sister city for Yiyang here in the Bay Area.

“I’m looking for a city where the mayor is Jewish, or where there are Jews living there that have been helped by Dr. Ho,” he told me. “I think that will be very meaningful.”


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].