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Jews in China: Yul Brenner, or Brunner, or Brynner



Paul Simon answers the question about Jews in China: "Actually, your tale of Chinese Jews is apocryphal. There were Chinese Jews until about a century ago, or so. They lived in the ancient city of Kaifeng, on the silk route. They were probably descendants of merchant traders of yore. They gradually lost their identity and traditions and the Chinese called them "blue hat muslims", since they wore blue yarmulkes. They just faded away into history around the turn of the last century. Today there is one Jew in Kaifeng--an elderly American gentleman who came over long ago, full of youthful socialist fervor and joined the revolution. Today he is a citizen of China. Last year the South China Morning Post did a 2-page spread on him and the Kaifeng Jews.

In the early 20th century there were vibrant expatriate Jewish communities in Harbin and Shanghai, the great majority of whom were exiled Russian Jews. Harbin once had 2 synagogues and a rabinical school. The buildings still stand, and I can attest that they are beautiful. The most famous scion of Harbin's Jewish community was the grandson of a Swiss-Russian-Jewish timber magnate named Julius Ivanovitch Brunner. His family got Swiss diplomatic status in the 30's and hence, after WWII, they were able to avoid being sent to the USSR. The man later became somewhat famous with his more Americanized name, Yul Brenner!! Shanghai also had two elegant synagogues, and at least one still stands. The government relented in 1997 and lets a new, small expatriate Jewish community in Shanghai use a room for worship. But of these old Jewish communities in China, only buildings and memories remain.

My comment: Paul gives Yul Brenner 8 !! Remember Yul Brenner? To me he was just a foggy memory of a distant past. This is what the Encyclopedia Britannica says: "b. July 11, 1920?, Sakhalin Island, Russia, d. Oct. 10, 1985, New York, N.Y., U.S. Original name TAIDJE KHAN, American stage and motion-picture actor who was known primarily for his performance as the Siamese monarch in The King and I. The son of a Mongolian mining engineer and his Romanian gypsy bride, Brynner became at age 13 a nightclub balladeer and then a circus acrobat in France. An accident cut short his career on the trapeze, however, and by the early 1940s he had drifted into acting with a touring company. He made a successful Broadway stage debut in 1946, playing an Oriental prince in Lute Song. He then worked as a television director from 1948 until 1951, when he was offered the role of the king of Siam in the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical The King and I, for which he won immediate acclaim. He gave 1,246 performances as the king on Broadway from 1951 to 1954 and then starred in the screen version of The King and I in 1956, winning an Academy Award for best actor for the role. He went on to give a total of 4,625 performances of the part, taking his last curtain call as the Siamese king in 1985. Brynner also had starring roles in such major motion pictures as The Ten Commandments and Anastasia (both 1956), The Brothers Karamazov (1958), and The Magnificent Seven (1960)".

Does this jibe with what Paul says? In any case, his pseudo-historical films are a prime example of the "Hollywood versus history" theme. The account of Siam has been condemned as grossly inaccurate. I have just watched a dreadful film critic speak of the present vogue for terrorist movies. His theme was all about crowds and profits, like the glowing reports on the profits NBS has made from the Wnter Olympics. History? The sporting spirit? Firget it.

Ronald Hilton - 2/9/02


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