8 Things You Didn’t Know About Shanghai’s Most Famous Gangster
Du Yuesheng (1887-1951) made quite a mark on the city of Shanghai. Here are some things you might not know about the notorious king of the underworld.
1. He was a damn nice guy.
When Du wasn’t killing people, he was excellent company. The gangster was influenced by the underworld ethics of the Green Gang. The gang had ten rules, including one against the oppression of the weak and another forbidding the violation of women.
He might have been brutal…but in all his years in clover and out, he had never been mean,’ wrote Lynn Pann in her book “Old Shanghai Gangsters in Paradise.”
2. He didn’t get rich.
After Du passed away, it emerged that his bank account wasn’t loaded at all, despite years of being Shanghai’s kingpin.
3. He founded a school.
More in the manner of a humanitarian worker than a criminal, Du started a school for boys in the French Concession. Pupils had to shave their heads and adhere to monastic discipline. Du’s own sons attended the school.
4. He was asthmatic.
Towards the end of his life, Du Yuesheng suffered from asthma. He tried a number of distractions and cures to alleviate his symptoms, including Chinese medicine, western medicine, and opium.
5. A gangster and a banker.
Du used connections to the Nationalist government to pull part of his dealings into the world of respectability. In 1929 he founded the Chung Wai bank.
He sat on the board of the Bank of China, the Shanghai Municipal Council, and the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce. He was also a director on the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
6. He had a few wives.
Du first married in 1915, but soon after married two young (only 15 at the time of marriage) concubines from Suzhou. In 1930, he added a Beijing opera singer to his matrimonial collection. in 1947, he asked another opera singer, Meng Xiaodong, to become his fifth wife.
7. He lost his baby sister.
When Du Yuesheng was three, his mother gave birth to a baby girl. Soon after his little sister was born, his mother passed away. The family was poor, and his father was forced to give his daughter away.
Later Du Yuesheng spent plenty of money trying to find his lost sister, but the only women he found were tricksters impersonating her.
8. He was orphaned by nine.
When he was five Du’s dad passed away during a harsh winter. Before he was nine, his stepmother, who had been looking after him, disappeared (she might have been abducted and sold into slavery or prostitution). When Du was 15, he crossed the river from Pudong to Shanghai.
Amid the bustling cafes and boutiques of Donghu Lu stands a concession-era mansion that evokes the imagery of 1930s Shanghai. The building was the grandest of several nearby properties owned by Du Yuesheng, the city’s most notorious gangster.
Infamous gangster Du Yuesheng
For years, its sprawling facade represented the excess and untouchablity of Shanghai’s ruling class. Yet in the spirit of transition that continually defines this neighborhood, the building has been slated for redevelopment, along with several businesses along this block.
But whatever new form the mansion might take, it will always be associated with Shanghai’s most infamous criminal kingpin. Gambling, prostitution, racketeering, drug dealing, you name it. As long as it was illegal, “Big Eared” Du usually had a hand involved. Born in Pudong, Du Yuesheng lost both of his parents at a young age.
After stints as a fruit seller and a bodyguard, he began his steady descent into a life of crime. His big break was being discovered by “Pockmarked” Huang Jinrong, the head of one of Shanghai’s most powerful criminal organizations at the time.
Pockmarked” Huang Jinrong
Under Huang’s tutelage, Du Yuesheng learned all the tricks of the trade, in time becoming even more powerful than his mentor. Despite this, there were never any problems between them. Together they utilized the mansion on Donghu Lu as a storage facility for the opium that made them both rich.
Amazingly, the distribution of the opium kept here was often done with the aid of local police cars. Since Pockmarked Huang Jinrong was the most senior Chinese police officer in the French police force as well as the head of the Green Gang, he arranged for his fellow officers to transport his and Du’s contraband around town in the safest way possible.
Old Shanghai’s Green Gang
Nobody was going to stop a police car in a hurry, and even if somebody was foolish enough to try and catch these gang leaders in the act, Huang Jinrong’s ranking in the police force enabled him to switch the street lights off when deliveries were being made. This meant that the distribution was virtually invisible.
One of the things that made Du Yuesheng so successful was his talent for building relationships. Perhaps the best example of this was his friendship with President Chiang Kai-Shek. Recognising Du as a staunch nationalist who detested socialism, Chiang commissioned Du to kill as many Communists as he could get his hands on in Shanghai. Du carried this task out with great relish.
Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek
He was rewarded by his presidential ally for masterminding the massacre of the Communists that took place in 1927 with a position on the Shanghai Government Anti-Opium Board. Since Du Yue-sheng and Huang Jinrong were the biggest opium distributors in the city, this new position of power allowed them to get rid of their competitors.
President Chiang was well aware of what he was doing; he had intentionally gifted Du Yuesheng a drug-distributing monopoly. For friends and associates, Du’s properties were often places of debauchery and excess. But for the gangster’s enemies, they could prove to be the last stop on the line.
Once a trade union leader named Wang Shouhua was invited to visit one of Du’s mansions on Donghu Lu, only to be nearly choked to death by Du’s heavies for attempting to set up a Soviet organization. Just as Wang was losing consciousness, Du appeared at the top of the stairs, shouting, “Not here, not in my mansion!” Obeying their master’s orders, Du’s men took Wang Shouhua away and buried him alive in Shanghai’s wastelands.
When visiting this legendary mansion on Donghu Lu, one can’t help but notice the golden roundels decorated with five-claw golden dragons on the floor outside the main entrance. In ancient China, five-claw dragons were considered auspicious and reserved for imperial use only.
Du Yuesheng’s Donghu Lu mansion
Depicting them without permission could result in having your head chopped off. Their appearance on a building built in the 1930s, years after China had become a republic, hints that the building’s owner believed himself to be of imperial descent.
But how could a man born into a poor rural family in Pudong ever believe himself to be related to an Emperor? Well, once he made his money, Du commissioned a historian to map his family tree, and a few months later the man came back to Du proudly claiming imperial genealogy.
Whether or not his claim was true we will probably never know, but it certainly delighted Du Yuesheng, who not only built a family shrine thereafter but also invited celebrities galore to witness him paying respects to his imperial ancestors at an inauguration ceremony in Pudong.
Another notable feature is a pair of guardian lions standing outside the front entrance, with the purpose of keeping out evil spirits and enhancing the building’s feng shui. Even in the context of 20th-century China, Du was known to be a superstitious man.
Upon the recommendation of a soothsayer, he is said to have commissioned his British tailor to sow dead monkey heads into the lining of his jackets, a trick that he believed would help him to avoid assassination.
Du Yuesheng’s nearby residence
When the Communists came to power, Du Yuesheng fled to Hong Kong for fear that they would avenge his 1927 massacre. In his wake, he left behind a veritable treasure trove of property. His properties on Donghu Lu went on to live second lives as various banks, government offices and even foriegn consulates before reopening as a hotel.
This might at first sound like a misappropriation of a gangster’s property, but Du would probably have approved. After all, he had sat on the Board of Directors for the Bank Of China in an attempt to make himself seem more legitimate. Furthermore, as the annual Christmas cards he received from the French government attested, he had been no stranger to politics and diplomacy.