THE LANDAU STORY : by Barbara Harding (née Landau) ©
Aaron Landau was a significant figure in Bangkok in the early years of the 20th Century. The story of the Landaus has been carefully researched by Aaron’s granddaughter, Barbara Harding (née Landau), and it is in many ways typical of the Jewish experience of Southeast Asia.
Mordechai Landau and his wife emigrated from Odessa in southern Russia in the 1870’s and, after a few years in the Middle East, arrived in Singapore with their five children, few contacts, and very little money. The family pioneered the canning of pineapples in Singapore (at 95 Albert Street) before moving on to Shanghai.
Mordechai’s second son, Aaron, lived for some time in India (where he worked for the Sassoons) but in 1908 he brought his family to Bangkok. This was towards the end of King Rama V’s reign and the enlightened monarch had made a point of encouraging foreign entrepreneurs. Aaron Landau is listed in the 1912 Siam Directory as an importer of spirits and evidently he tried his hand at several trades. Together with his Sephardic wife, Amelia, he opened the grandly named Astor House Hotel, close to the Trocadero Hotel on Suriwong Road. In reality this was probably a modest boarding house for Jewish salesmen visiting Bangkok. When times were hard Aaron signed on as a deckhand on trans-Pacific ships.
Aaron and Amelia successfully raised four children; of these, Polly and Leo (Barbara’s father) were born in Bangkok. Unfortunately, Aaron made a second attempt at pineapple canning. The business failed and in the early 1920’s the family left Bangkok for Shanghai. There, at last, their luck changed and Aaron opened a bar-restaurant which was to become the famous and successful Jimmy’s Kitchen .
In 1928 Hong Kong beckoned and Aaron moved there, opening first in Wanchai and later in Theatre Lane, Central. The war years saw several family members, including Private Leo Landau, imprisoned by the Japanese. Tragically, Aaron’s little grandson, Alexander, died alone on a Hong Kong street in 1944; his grave can be seen in Hong Kong’s Jewish cemetery.
The 1960s and 70s were the heyday of Jimmy’s Kitchen. Branches were opened on both sides of the harbour and visiting celebrities, including Orson Welles and Frank Sinatra, made a point of dining there. Leo Landau liked to recall that Hollywood star William Holden refused to be parted from his onion soup during a fire alarm— and carried his bowl and spoon out into the street.
Jimmy’s Kitchen was sold in the 1980’s and Aaron’s descendants are now scattered —- in Europe, Australia and America. However, the Landau story should not be forgotten. In several ways it typifies the experience of Jewish pioneers in Asia : the exodus from oppression; the search for a new land of opportunity and religious tolerance (Thailand provided both); the struggle to become established; and ultimate success. ©
- The story of this famous eatery is told in Richard Hughes’ book: Jimmy’s—- Secrets from Hong Kong’s Best Loved “Kitchen” (1982).