The Green Gang of Shanghai
By Pat Welsh
These days, Shanghai is largely known as a commercial center. Prior to 1949, the popular image of Shanghai was very different. It did have a reputation as a commercial center, but its image suffered greatly because of its well-known history of underworld activities. As a result, the slang term “to be shanghaied,” meaning ...
the use of booze, trickery or force over a victim who was sent off to some kind of detention, often in a ship, started appearing in the mid-1800s.
One Triad (Chinese organized crime group), the Green Gang in particular, came to be very well known and feared. For several decades, it had been splitting off from the Red Gang and the Big Eight Gang. By the early 1920s, the Green Gang spread its tentacles into the upper levels of Shanghai society and into national and local governments. In 1911, this gang and the Red Gang had infiltrated and supported Sun Yat-sen’s Tongmenghui revolutionaries. The Green Gang’s further support of Chiang Kai-shek in the 1920s led to this gang’s supremacy in Shanghai.
Between 1919 and 1949, three individuals - the “three tycoons” - headed the Green Gang. The first of its leaders was Huang Jin-rong (1867-1953). He was nicknamed “Pockmarked Huang.” Like his father who once had been a constable in Suzhou, Huang signed up to be a detective in Shanghai, first with the local Shanghai police in 1890 and two years later, with the French Concession Police force where he fared better. He remained there until 1924, when several major scandals rocked the police department. His work there had involved his befriending criminals and other low-life types whom he made informants and connections.
In 1900, Huang married Lin Gui-sheng. As his leading legal advisor and strategist, she enabled Huang to amass a large fortune. She involved him with various Triads while he was still working for the police. With her help, he established a number of business operations that included theaters and bathhouses. Nonetheless, it was the opium trade that provided him with the lion’s share of his profits. Lin also organized a special gang that stole opium at the docks and brought it into Huang’s home. Using this stolen opium, Huang and a young friend, Du Yue-sheng, formed the Sanxin Company as a front for his criminal activities, specializing in opium trading. In 1924, Huang went into a semi-retirement phase after barely surviving a humiliating scandal. At that time, Huang had a mistress, Lu Lan-chun, a Chinese opera singer. Her previous lover Lu Xiao-jia publicly booed her during an opera performance. Huang had his men severely beat Lu Xiao-jia. Unfortunately for Huang, Lu was the son of Lu Yong-xiang, an Anhui clique warlord and the military governor of Zhejiang Province and Shanghai. Shortly afterwards, Huang himself was picked up, beaten and held prisoner until his friend Du Yue-sheng provided the money and diplomacy to free him. When the Japanese entered Shanghai in 1937, Huang managed to keep the Japanese at a distance from the gang’s activities. His gang provided opium and operated many of the vice establishments that Japanese and Pro-Japanese Chinese officials used during their occupation of Shanghai. After suffering criticism of the communists, Huang died peacefully in Shanghai in 1953.
Huang’s protégé, Du Yue-sheng (1888-1951), is the second of the three tycoons. His position in the gang arose from his government contacts with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. He became a key supporter of Chiang in his battle with the communists during the 1920s. As a bodyguard in a Shanghai brothel, he became acquainted with many members of the Green Gang, especially with a personal friend who eventually became his roommate, Don Asan, who later introduced him to Huang Jin-rong and Huang’s wife. At first, Du was Huang’s gambling and opium enforcer. After the humiliating mistress incident, Huang gave Du control of the Green Gang’s opium, prostitution, gambling dens and protection rackets. In 1927, cooperating with Chiang Kai-shek’s efforts to wipe out the communists, Du organized the anti-communist purge of 1927 in Shanghai that saw the deaths of thousands of real and suspected communists. For this service Chiang Kai-shek rewarded Du with an appointment of president of the National Board of Opium Suppression Bureau. Chiang also made him a major general of the Military Commission of the Republic of China. Du now officially controlled all of China’s opium trade, thereby earning him even greater profits. The fox was now in charge of the henhouse! In 1936, Du opened his own family temple and within months, two of its wings were dedicated to manufacturing heroin. Shortly afterwards, it became China’s largest drug manufacturer.
Keeping his Kuomintang connections firmly established, Du helped fund and equip its military forces. When Shanghai was invaded in 1937, Du scuttled his fleet of ships at the mouth of the Yangtze River to impede the entry of the Japanese. At about that time Du himself fled to Chongqing, but his gang in Shanghai continued to smuggle weapons and goods to the Kuomintang armies.
Unfortunately, Kuomintang anti-corruption campaigns in the late 1940s left Du exposed. Being viewed as a deserter from Shanghai by those who remained behind, he found himself unwelcome when he returned after the war. Many of Du’s relatives were arrested and were released only after Du threatened to expose the embezzlement activities of Chiang Kai-shek’s relatives. In 1949, Du fled to Hong Kong where he died in 1951.
The third ruling member of the Green Gang Triad was Zhang Xiao-lin (1877-1940). Born in Cixi in Zhejiang Province, he had a disordered youth. Bad-tempered and lacking self-control, his impulsiveness led him into frequent fights. In 1903, he attended the Zhejiang Military Academy where he befriended Zhang Zai-yang, who became the governor of Zhejiang Province in 1922. From this and other political connections, Zhang Xiao-lin came into the Green Gang rising high within its ranks. Yet in some sense, because of his impulsiveness, he never seemed to rank as high as the other two leaders. It was rumoured that he took revenge on one of his mistresses who had disgraced him in public by feeding her to his pet tigers.
It is believed that Chiang Kai-shek’s support of Du in 1924 over Zhang within the gang motivated Zhang’s decision in 1937 to support the Japanese and suppress anti-Japanese activities in that region. Twice Chiang’s assassins tried to kill Zhang. In 1940, shortly after publicly bragging that the Japanese were going to name him as the new governor of Zhejiang, he was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards.
After 1949, the leading remnants of the Green Gang fled China for Chinese communities overseas. Shanghai’s disorders during World War II had created refugees out of much of the population. After the war, new residents arrived from nearby areas, especially Ningbo. The Shanghai dialect itself underwent significant changes reflecting the new make-up of its population – but that is a story for the next issue.
Sources: Stella Dong’s “Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City,” Perennial Press, New York, 2000; Andrew Moody’s “Crime in Shanghai 1927-1937,” University of New South Wales, 2002; Brian Martin’s “The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime, 1919-1937,” University of California Press,1989; and Gail Hershatter’s “Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth Century Shanghai,” University of California Press, 1995.
About Pat Welsh
Welsh has worked in banking and trade development with Asia Pacific nations for more than a decade. By invitation of the Georgia State Department, he taught Chinese in Georgia high schools from 1991-2007. His deep interest in the Chinese culture and his fluency in Chinese and Japanese have helped him establish strong personal relationships with top Chinese officials. His insight into Chinese cultural and economic affairs is enriched by these personal relationships.