Albert Cohen: The Rickshaw King
How the Jews of Shanghai helped build Sephardic life in Los Angeles
by Max Modiano Daniel
The foundations of Sephardi life in Los Angeles are built upon the stories of migration and immigration that took individuals and their families across the world before settling in Southern California. Presented here are the stories of Sephardi Jews who came to Los Angeles from Shanghai. These are just a few of the myriad stories that illustrate the interconnectedness of the global Sephardi diaspora and Los Angeles' role as one of its key nodal points.
Albert/Alberto/Abraham Cohen - the "Rickshaw King" (1870-1934)
Albert Cohen, also known as Abraham or Alberto, was born in either 1870 or 1871 in Istanbul to a Sephardic, Ladino-speaking family. He moved to Shanghai, China between 1904 and 1905 and there met and married Linda Haim, a Turkish-born Sephardic Jew, in 1915. The couple had three children in Shanghai and developed a close friendship with the Spanish consul in Shanghai, Julio Palencia.
In 1914, Albert Cohen founded the Star Rickshaw Co. Ltd., which became the largest rickshaw company in Shanghai, at its height employing some 10,000 local Chinese workers. His success earned him the nickname "the Rickshaw King." Cohen's company improved the design of the vehicles, introduced uniformed drivers and regular shift schedules, and thereby improving rickshaw service in the city.
Albert Cohen, courtesy of the Cohen family.
Employees and vehicles of the Star Rickshaw Co. Ltd. Photo from the Visual Cultures in East Asia, Lyons Institute of East Asian Studies.
Cohen then expanded his business to include car garages. Although when he first arrived in Shanghai in 1904-1905, there were only a couple dozen cars in the city, by 1930, there were over 7000. Anticipating this growth, Cohen opened the Star Garage in 1917 which, like his Rickshaw company
was housed in a building designed by Spanish architect Abelardo Lafuente.
Lafuente designed several other buildings in Shanghai including the Ahdukh Jewish Club (currently part of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music), the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, the Spanish Consulate, and the Canidrome, a clubhouse and track for greyhound racing built in 1928.
The Cohen family first visited the United States in 1929, his main contact there a Spanish Filipino-born bookkeeper of the Brea Oil Company in Fullerton, California. On later visits, the Cohens listed local members of the Sephardic community as their local contacts, including Isidore Hattem, S. Franco, and Mr. Fresco. In 1933, the Cohen family - Albert and his wife Linda, as well as their young children Gabriel (George), Maurice, Albert and Liliane (Lily) - moved to Los Angeles so that Albert could obtain treatment for a chronic
medical condition. Unfortunately, the treatment did not abate his illness and he died on April 3, 1934 at the age of 64.
The Shanghai Conservatory of Music, formerly the Ahduth Jewish Club. Wikimedia commons.
Julio Palencia Álvarez-Tubau (1884-1952) was the Spanish consul in Shanghai who, with his wife Zoé Dragumiz, befriended the Cohens. Valencia was consul from 1916 to 1920 and 1922 to 1929. From 1933 to 1938, he served as a diplomat in Turkey, then for two years as ambassador to Greece, and from 1940 worked an minister plenipotentiary of Bulgaria, until his removal in 1944. His dismissal from the post was due to his action in support of Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust, many of whom were Sephardi. He adopted two Jewish children, Klodi and Renee Leon, after their father Aryeh Leon, was executed in 1943.
Linda Hermosa Haim Notrica (Linda Cohen)(1894-1970) was born in Istanbul and arrived in Shanghai in 1915, where she met and married Albert Cohen. As was common among Sephardi diaspora in much of the early 20th century, single women would be sent to far-away locales in order to provide Sephardi men with brides and thereby contribute to family and community life. Linda Cohen played vital roles in all of her husband's projects and also supported the Jewish Home for the Aged in Shanghai. In the 1930s, she travelled frequently between Shanghai and Los Angeles, and continued to do so after her husband Albert died in 1934. On one such trip in 1936, she met Jack Notrica, a prominent member of L.A.'s Rhodesli Jewish community. The couple married in Shanghai in 1938 and then settled in Beverly Hills in the 1940s.
George Cohen (Gabriel Nissim) (1919-2010) was the first of three children of Albert and Linda Cohen. Born in Shanghai, Albert later attended Pomona College before serving in the U.S. Army. He was the first to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah in the newly dedicated Temple Tifereth Israel in 1932.
Maurice (Moise) Cohen (1920-1979) was born in Istanbul and also attended Pomona College, where he changed his last name from Cohen to Deconne. His son, Shelton J. Donnell became a rabbi of the Sephardic Hebrew Center for a number of years.
Liliane (Sarah) Cohen (1929-1975) was the youngest of the Cohen's children. Born in Shanghai, she spent most of her life in Los Angeles, where she married Frank Rabinow in 1950.
Jack Notrica, 1947
One of the most mobile life stories found in the annals of the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel is that of Jack Notrica (1894 - 1972). Born on the isle of Rhodes, Notrica was educated at the local Alliance Israelite Universelle - a branch of a network of Francophone schools ubiquitous across the Sephardic world from Morocco to Iran. The oldest of eleven siblings, Notrica first immigrated to Buenos Aries in 1909, then to the United States at the age of 19 via Uruguay. He opted to move directly to Los Angeles, rather than New York City as so many Sephardic immigrants did or Seattle, Montgomery and Indianapolis where there were also established Sephardic communities.
In 1917, at the age of 23, Notrica became the first vice president of the Paz y progresa society, which catered primarily to young Rhodesli Jews like himself. He was also involved in the establishment of the Comunidad in 1920, serving as chairman of its Secret Fund, as its recording secretary, and later as co-chairman of the building committee. While in his early years in Los Angeles, he found work as a tailor, by 1930, he made a comfortable living as an insurance salesman and owned a home in the fashionable Westlake neighborhood west of downtown.
In 1936, as president of the Paz y progresa society, Notrica met the recently-widowed Linda Cohen visiting from Shanghai. He returned with her to Shanghai, where the couple married in 1938. When they returned to Los Angeles, they moved to Beverly Hills and later to Burbank, where Notrica died in 1972.
A member of both the Sephardic Hebrew Center and the Temple Tifereth Israel for several decades, Notrica occupied a unique role in Sephardic life in Los Angeles. Along with Stella Rugetti, he helped initiate a merger of the sisterhoods of the Sephardic Brotherhood and the Comunidad in 1947, and undoubtedly played a crucial role in the merger of the two congregations in the 1960s, a reflection of his enduring devotion to building and fortifying Sephardic life in Los Angeles.
Salomon Skenazi (Alkale) (1893-1955) Linda and Jose's maternal uncle also made his way to Shanghai where he, along with his brother Yako (Jack) ran a movie theater owned by Albert Cohen. In 1927, Salomon purchased the "Hongkew Cinema," built in 1908 by Spanish artist Antonio Ramos Espejo, the first cinema in the city. Solomon's wife Sarah left Shanghai with their son in 1947 but could not return due to the Communist Revolution. Salomon's assets were confiscated and he was prevented from leaving the country until 1954. Alas, Salomon suffered a heart attack and died before he was able to leave Hong Kong to meet his wife and son in Los Angeles.
Jose (Peppo) Haim Eskenazi (1899-1972) was a Spanish national born in Istanbul in 1899, the younger brother of Linda (Haim) Cohen. Along with his brother-in-law Albert Cohen, Eshkenazi founded a tanning company called "Shanghai Tanning Co." (later Shanghai Leather Factory) in a building designed by the Hungarian architect László Ede Hudec.
He married Edith Haim Nahmias (Arleta Haim), who was born in Egypt in 1913 and gave birth to a daughter, Arlette Haim Nahmias, in Shanghai in 1933. Amidst the unrest of the Communist Revolution, they left China as political refugees, first settling in Mexico in 1947 and then moving to Southern California in 1950.