13 August 2013

Heritage synagogue architecture in Hong Kong

Jewish representatives of Baghdad-based trading houses made their way by sea from India and the ports of the Persian Gulf, along the Asian coast to the port cities of South East Asia. Communities were booming by the second half of the 19th century.

In 1842, Hong Kong became a British Crown Colony following the opium wars between China and the British Empire. While Jewish traders had already used the port in Hong Kong, this acquisition by the Crown further strengthened ties. Over these decades in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region, British colonial authorities made the Jewish traders welcome and opened government positions to educated Jewish applicants. Nathan Road, the main road of commercial Kowloon, was named in honour of Sir Matthew Nathan, governor of Hong Kong and president of the synagogue.

The Hong Kong Jewish Community was formally established in the 1850s in premises leased by the Sassoon family. Since the original commun­ity was mostly Baghdadi, the synagogue was naturally under the lead­ership of the Haham of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation of London. Mercantile interests also brought the Kadoorie family to this well situated island trading port.

Ohel Leah Synagogue,
built in 1902 
front entrance

The version of the Ohel Leah Synagogue that we see today began in 1901. The foundation stone was placed by the ED Sassoon & Company, in a project initiated on land owned and donated by Jacob, Edward and Meyer Sassoon. The initial structure was completed in early 1902 and formally dedicated by Sir Jacob Sassoon to honour his mother Leah.

It is difficult to describe the architectural style in one word. Ohel Leah was built in a distinct Colonial Sephardi taste with elements from the Edwardian free classical-style. Outside the building was two-storeyed and whitewashed, with two octagonal neo-baroque turrets that look somewhat strange in the surrounding steel and glass city­scape. The exterior is said to resemble the design of some of other surviving Edwardian projects including St. Andrews Church (1904) in Kowloon and the former Pathological Institute (1906) on Caine Road.

Inside the architect used a simple rectangular basilica plan with a normal synagogue floor plan. Three internal elements stood out - the pol­ished Aberdeen granite columns; the central elevated prayer desk surrounded by carved wooden balustrades and lights; and the heavy, rich timber benches. All three were sympathetic to the community’s Baghdadi and Sephardic heritage.

Ohel Leah,
elevated wooden prayer desk and lights
women's seating on the first floor

The women's gallery, located on the second storey, ran along three sides of the synagogue.

Ohel Leah has been in continuous use since its completion, except of a short period during WW2 when Hong Kong was occupied by the Japan­ese. During that time all formal Jewish activities were temporarily suspended as the Japanese had seized control. From 1942-1945, the Jews of Hong Kong as well as others classified as Allied sympathisers were interned. Fortunately only one community facility was disappear­ed completely: the Kadoorie family-sponsored Recreation Club was looted and destroyed during the Japanese occupation.

In 1974, Father Hubert Vogt, a German friar living in Hong Kong, accidentally discovered four complete Torah scrolls in the Cat Street market. It is believed that these scrolls had belonged to China’s Kaifeng Jews. The scrolls were purchased by Sir Lawerence Kadoorie and then gifted to the synagogue. They still reside in the synagogue’s Ark and further reflect the rich and long history of the Jews in China.

Almost a century of normal usage, as well as a series of non-integrated additions, meant that a large scale restoration and conservation project was badly needed. The project commenced in 1996 and was completed within two years. A formal rededication ceremony was held in October 1998. This historic Synagogue was listed as a Grade I historic building even before the restoration and it is now part of the Central and Western Heritage Trail for tourists.

So Ohel Leah Synagogue, as well the Jewish Recreation Club and the Jewish Community Centre next door, have formed the centre of Jewish social and religious life in Hong Kong for at least 110 years. Readers who want to know more architectural and historical details can find a comprehensive book on the subject called The Ohel Leah Synagogue, Hong Kong - its history and conservation, published by The Jewish Historical Society.

 Ohel Leah,
 heavy, rich timber benches for men
looking towards the holy ark in the front wall


Jewish Times Asia said...

The reconstructed, restored Ohel Leah Synagogue received the Hong Kong Institute of Architects Conservation Award in 1998 and an Outstanding Project Award in the inaugural UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage 2000 Awards.

Trainman said...

Before taking the train from the station in Kowloon to Guangzhou East station in mainland China, I saw this lovely synagogue. It was busy because there were many business people flying in to Hong Kong for the weekend.

Hels said...

Jewish Times Asia,

very well deserved awards, from everything one can read about the massive project. The decision to retain the barrel vaulted-roof was a great one, even though I understand the implications Hong Kong's weather.

Hels said...


I was in Hong Kong last year and noticed the same thing. People were flying in from all over East and South East Asia. They must use Hong Kong as their home away from home :)