The Landau Family in Asia, 1875 – 1964

by Barbara Harding

As with many Jewish families, ours is a story of moving and resettling. My great-grandparents, Mordechai and Bella Landau (née Perlstein), came from eastern Europe. In Odessa, they joined the new Zionist movement and arrived in Palestine with their three children, Ethel, Abraham and Linda. My great-aunt Betty was born in Jerusalem in 1872, and my grandfather, Aaron Landau, was born in Jerusalem the following year on October 18, 1873.

Many Jewish refugees sailed for New York but Mordechai and Bella, ten years after moving to Jerusalem, boarded a ship with their children and headed east to Singapore. They had few contacts, little money, and spoke only Yiddish and Russian. Although this was not an auspicious start, the Landau family did well pioneering pineapple canning in Singapore at their home at 95 Albert Street.

When the Landaus arrived, the Jewish community in Singapore numbered almost 200 people. On April 4, 1878, the Maghain Aboth synagogue on Waterloo Street was consecrated. Linda Landau, my grandfather’s sister, was married there on February 2, 1898. Most of the other Landau children married in Singapore within the Jewish community and later headed to Shanghai, Japan, South Africa, the UK and even France.

My grandfather wife, Dora Gartner, and their son died. Aaron, his sister Ethel, and their parents then moved to Shanghai. Abraham, my grandfather’s older brother, stayed on in Singapore and was able to send his son, Victor, to a Jewish boarding school in London. Once in Shanghai, Aaron married for the second time, this time to my grandmother  Amelia Bander, at a Shanghai synagogue in 1901. Amelia was born in Constantinople in April 1885. Their first child, Harry, was born in Shanghai in 1903 and soon after the young family set off for India, my grandfather working in both Bombay and Calcutta. Their son Emile was born in Calcutta in 1905. By 1909, they had moved to Bangkok, Siam, where they opened the grandly-named Astor House Hotel named after the fabulous hotel in Shanghai that was owned by the Kadoorie family. In reality, the Landaus’ Astor House Hotel was probably a modest boarding house for traveling Jewish salesmen with my grandmother providing kosher meals. Aaron also traveled regularly down the Thai Malay Peninsula and opened a café in Penang. When money was tight, Aaron signed on as a deckhand on trans-Pacific ships. My aunt Polly was born in Bangkok in 1910, followed by my father, Leo, in 1913.

After World War I,  Aaron was keen to fulfill his father’s dream, so he started pineapple canning, a first for Bangkok. This again bankrupted the family.

In the early 1920s, Aaron and Amelia, together with their four children, returned to Shanghai and there, at last, their luck changed. Aaron teamed up with an American, Jimmy James, to open a bar-restaurant which became the forerunner of much-loved Jimmy’s Kitchen in Hong Kong. The Shanghai Jimmy’s was certainly no gourmet establishment. The menu featured Campbell’s canned tomato soup at 60 cents and a big sign outside read “OPEN ALL NIGHT”.

Jimmy James soon returned to America and Aaron decided to move his family and the restaurant business to Hong Kong. In 1928 Jimmy’s Kitchen opened on Lockhart Road, Wanchai. Six years later it relocated to the old China Building on Theatre Lane in Central.  Photographs of the restaurant taken in the 1930s show a spartan interior presided over by the rather stern figure of Aaron Landau. Outside a sedan chair waits for its next passenger. It was in the late 1930s that my father, Leo Landau, joined Aaron at the Theatre Lane Jimmy’s.

My uncle Emile and his wife Rose opened the Parisian Grill at 10 Queens Road Central in the early 1930’s. It was a very stylish place to be. Emile employed Jewish refugee artists to create murals of Europe in the 1920’s and had some remarkable musicians play. The menu was very sophisticated and very French. It was the place to go.

Storm clouds were gathering for Hong Kong though, with an ever-increasing threat from Japan. Although he was not British, Leo volunteered for army service and was captured by the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941. After a period of detention at North Point, Leo found himself, together with thousands of other POWs, in the Sham Shui Po prison camp. He kept a secret diary there for the more than three years he was interned, carefully hiding it but writing in it three or four times a week. We see that some 30 Jewish volunteers were interned there with him.  The Japanese were not all bad, and my father in his diary notes that “Samuel” asks for a room for Friday night prayers and this was allowed. Though many prisoners died in the camp, Leo survived. He maintained a positive attitude throughout. He also had some knowledge of nutrition and so ate brown, unmilled rice whenever possible. He had a knack of getting along with people, even with some of the Japanese guards. He joked with them and taught them “cowboy” songs.  He was a skilled trader and negotiator and, significantly, he worked in the camp kitchens. For some of his time as a POW, he also worked as a labourer at Kai Tak Airport during its expansion by the Japanese. This was grueling work, but it meant a little extra food. My father had one other advantage: there were family members outside the camp who had not been arrested by the Japanese. 

By this time, Aaron and Amelia had separated. Amelia was in Japanese prison camp in China with Polly and her granddaughter Dolores. Aaron had acquired a new companion, Nancy Yip, who worked as the cashier in the Theatre Lane Jimmy’s. From time to time, Aaron and Nancy were able to smuggle food parcels to Leo through the perimeter wire. This was a risky business, and eventually Nancy was arrested and very badly treated by the Japanese.  On her release she continued with her smuggling efforts. 

Jewish community member Karel Weiss, too, was able to arrange the smuggling of food parcels to the Jewish prisoners. Leo’s diary talks of most of the prisoners’ troubles centred on the lack of food. Their everyday diet consisted of some boiled rice and vegetables, which was augmented on special occasions. Thus the diary records a special Passover dinner of curry. Attendees included Dr. Solomon Bard and Leon Weill.

My uncle Emile and aunt Rosie had a very bad time during the Japanese occupation. In 1944, Emile had been on the run for over two years in Hong Kong. He had somehow escaped from Stanley Camp. Emile had been helping the British intelligence but was finally caught by the Japanese in 1944. He was tortured and spent the rest of the war in a Japanese jail. Rosie, too, had been captured and tortured as well. Their two young sons, Harry and Alexander, were somehow lost on the streets of Hong Kong and Alexander died. It was a chaotic and dangerous time. Their great friend Dr. Sigi Ramler was able to get into the Japanese jail and help them. After the war, Sigi testified at the War Crimes, and was able to get convictions. Leo walked out of Sham Shui Po camp,  a free man, on August 17, 1945.

Hong Kong in the 1950s was a magical time to grow up in. We spent weekends at the Jewish Recreation Club. The clubhouse was long and wide. The main room had extra high ceilings and opened out to the lawn. When the weather was nice, the adults sat on rattan sofas and chairs and we children played on the spacious lawn.  At the far end of the lawn were the tennis courts; beyond that was the synagogue. The garden was full of flowers and shrubs. There  were also flowering trees on the far side and steps leading to the Rabbi’s house and the Odell’s home.

We lived on Macdonnell Road, an easy ride to the JRC. Many other community members lived there too. I remember going from one apartment to another. The Sauls lived at number 60, and Emile and Rose and their daughter, Vonnick, who was my age, lived nearby. They shared their home with Rose’s mother Mrs. Brasilevsky, as well as Uncle  Sigi and his mother Lotte. Even then I remember that the apartment was rather crowded!

My piano teacher Michael Boder played the piano in the evenings at Parisian Grill. He lived opposite us with Eddie Brasil (Brasilevsky), who was Rose’s younger brother. Eddie moved out when Mr. Border got married.

The Cohens were good friends. Their father, Moses, was a brilliant Hebrew teacher and would teach us all on Sundays. Our parents would often play cards upstairs and smoke. Sometimes I would stay at Cohen’s  home in Kowloon. Their garden and swing were a real treat.

When Rabbi Ferdinand Myron Isserman and his wife arrived in April 1963, it was like a breath of fresh air. They were so accessible and welcoming and the girls in the community all had our bat mitzvahs (confirmation) in English. It was a first for the Jewish community;

I left Hong Kong in 1964 for school in Europe, missing the riots and upheavals. In 1970, I married Julian Harding in Cambridge. We make frequent visits to southeast Asia and Hong Kong.

Do you have any recollections of your life in Hong Kong? It doesn’t have to be from 60 years ago. Even something from ten years ago or five years ago that has stuck in your mind over the years is relevant. If so, please get in touch with us!