22 August 1888|
Gaoqiao, Shanghai, China
|Died||16 August 1951
Du Yuesheng (22 August 1888 - 16 August 1951), nicknamed "Big-Eared Du", was a Chinese triad boss who spent much of his life in Shanghai. He was a key supporter of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang in their battle against the Communists during the 1920s, and was a figure of some importance during the Second Sino-Japanese War. After the Chinese Civil War and the Kuomintang's retreat to Taiwan, Du went into exile in Hong Kong and remained there until his death in 1951.
Du was born in Gaoqiao, a small town east of Shanghai, during the reign of the Guangxu Emperor in the late Qing Dynasty. His family moved to Shanghai in 1889, a year after his birth. By the time he reached nine years old, Du had lost his immediate family - his mother died in childbirth, his sister was sold into slavery, his father died, and his stepmother vanished - so he went back to Gaoqiao and lived with his grandmother. He returned to Shanghai in 1902 and worked at a fruit stall in the French Concession but was later fired for theft. He wandered around for a period of time before becoming a bodyguard in a brothel, where he became acquainted with the Green Gang, an influential triad in Shanghai. He joined the gang at the age of 16.
Rise to power
Du was soon introduced by a friend to Huang Jinrong (黃金榮), the highest-ranked Chinese detective in the French Concession Police (FCP) and one of Shanghai's most notorious gangsters. Huang's wife was a notable criminal in her own right, and she favoured the young Du. Even though Huang was not a member of the Green Gang, Du became Huang's gambling and opium enforcer. A stickler for fine clothing and women, Du was now cemented; he wore only Chinese silks (a superstitious streak meant he also had three small monkey heads, especially imported from Hong Kong, sewn to his clothes at the small of his back), surrounded himself with White Russian bodyguards, and frequented the city's best nightclubs and sing-song houses.
Du's prestige led him to purchase a four-storey, Western-style mansion in the French Concession and entertain dozens of concubines, four legal wives and six sons, but his meteoric rise as Shanghai's best known mobster only came after Huang Jinrong was arrested in 1924 by the Shanghai Garrison police. Huang had publicly beaten the son of Shanghai's current warlord, and his arrest required Du's diplomacy and finances to get him released. He stood down almost immediately after his release, turning his criminal empire over to Du, who became known as the "zongshi" (宗師) or "grandmaster" of the criminal underworld. Du now controlled gambling dens, prostitution and protection rackets, as well as setting up a number of legitimate companies - including Shanghai's largest shipping corporation and two banks. With the tacit support of the police and colonial government, he also now ran the French Concession's opium trade, and became heavily addicted to his own drug.
Alliance with the Kuomintang
In contrast to his views on legality, Du was politically a staunch Confucian conservative. He had close ties with Chiang Kai-shek, who in turn had ties to both the Green Gang and other organised secret societies from his early years in Shanghai. Chiang forged political alliances throughout the 1920s, with some of the secret societies going as far as to offer their support in the 1927 Shanghai Purge. The resulting massacre ended the First United Front, and as a reward for Du's service, Chiang appointed him as president of the National Board of Opium Suppression Bureau. The end result was that Du came to officially control the entirety of China's opium trade.
The Green Gang's support for the Nationalist Government included funding and equipment, even going as far as to purchase a German Junkers 87 emblazoned with the Board of Opium Suppression Bureau logo. In return, Du was given leeway to run labour unions and keep business flowing freely. In 1931, Du had the financial and political clout to open his own temple - one dedicated to his ancestors and family members - and hold a three day long party to honour its grand opening. It was one of Shanghai's largest celebrations, with hundreds of celebrities and political figures attending. Within months of its opening, however, the temple's private wings had been turned over to the manufacture of heroin, making it Shanghai's largest drug factory.
When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, Du offered to fight the Japanese by scuttling his fleet of ships at the mouth of the Yangtze River, but he eventually fled to Hong Kong and later to Chongqing. Green Gang operatives cooperating with Major-General Dai Li, Chiang's intelligence chief, continued to smuggle weapons and goods to the Kuomintang throughout the war, and Du himself was a board member of the Chinese Red Cross. Following Japan's surrender in 1945, Du returned to Shanghai, expecting a warm welcome but was shocked when he was not received like a hero. Many Shanghai residents felt that Du had abandoned the city, leaving its civilians to suffer under the atrocities of the Japanese occupation.
The relationship between Du and Chiang Kai-shek soured further after World War II, when corruption and crime committed by top-ranking politicians and gangsters caused great problems within the Kuomintang. Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-kuo, launched an anti-corruption campaign in Shanghai in the late 1940s, with Du's relatives among the first to be arrested and thrown into jail. Although Du successfully managed their release by threatening to expose the embezzlement activities done by Chiang's relatives, the arrest and imprisonment of Du's sons effectively ended the partnership between Chiang and Du.
Exile in Hong Kong and death
Du escaped to Hong Kong after the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan in 1949 following their defeat in the Chinese Civil War. Tales on Du's finances and power during this period vary largely - some argued that he lived in practical squalor while others said he had built up a sizable nest egg. As he gradually became blind and possibly senile, Du decided it was safe to move back to China in 1951. However, he died of illness in Hong Kong before he could return to China, apparently caused by his addiction to opium. Allegedly, his body was taken by one of his wives to Taiwan, and buried in Xizhi District, New Taipei, though some are sceptical if his tomb actually contains his body.
Du's original name was Du Yuesheng (Chinese: 杜月生; pinyin: Dù Yuèshēng). Later, on the advice of Zhang Binglin, Du changed his name to Du Yong (traditional Chinese: 杜鏞; simplified Chinese: 杜镛; pinyin: Dù Yōng), pseudonym Yuesheng (Chinese: 月笙; pinyin: Yuèshēng; similar pronunciation as his original name but written differently in Chinese).
In popular culture
For many years, media on Du and his exploits have been officially banned in the People's Republic of China on the grounds that they encourage criminality. Many Chinese-language biographies of Du were banned, and writers and sellers of these books were arrested. Only until recently did critical studies on Du become more open, but the official ban has never been entirely lifted by the Chinese government.
Some depictions of Du in popular culture include:
- The novel White Shanghai by Elvira Baryakina (Ripol Classic, 2010, ISBN 978-5-386-02069-9) mentions the story of Du's coming to power.
- Lord of the East China Sea (歲月風雲之上海皇帝), a 1993 Hong Kong film loosely based on Du's life. The lead character Lu Yunsheng (陸雲生), played by Ray Lui, is loosely based on Du. It has a sequel, Lord of the East China Sea II (上海皇帝之雄霸天下).
- The Founding of a Republic (建国大业), a 2009 Chinese historical film commissioned by the Chinese government. Du was portrayed by Feng Xiaogang as a minor character in the film.
- The Last Tycoon (大上海), a 2012 Hong Kong film loosely based on Du's life. The main character Cheng Daqi (成大器), portrayed by Chow Yun-fat and Huang Xiaoming at two different stages in his life, is loosely based on Du.
- Zou Huilin (7 June 2001). "Du, the godfather of Shanghai". Shanghai Star. Retrieved 6 March 2007.