"Big Ears" Du was one of the key characters in Shanghai's life from the early 1920s through to the Communist take-over in 1949. More than anyone, he represented the outrageous, brash, lawless, thrusting world that was Old Shanghai.
He was a triad king who had his base in the French Concession where he bought houses and police chiefs with equal ease. He lived for many years in the mansion which is now the Donghu Hotel on Donghu Lu, and amongst his many businesses ran a bank which owned the Central Plaza building on Yanan Lu near the Bund. He had a number of wives, many concubines and links into the highest levels of Chinese politics, particularly the Nationalists led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
He was born in a poor village in Pudong, across the river from the city of Shanghai, in 1887. As a young and hungry tough, he joined the Green Gang, one of the main underworld societies of old Shanghai and rose to become its leader and the ultimate Chinese Godfather. One of his favorite phrases was "You have my word". The Green Gang handled the usual Mafia-like enterprises such as gambling dens, prostitution, and protection rackets. Opium dens were still a major attraction and the French Concession, with its more lax supervision, became the heart of the opium trade by the 1920s.
Du established a close - and highly profitable - relationship with the senior Chinese officer in the French police, Huang Jinrong, and between them they ran the whole concession. In 1927, he ordered his Green Gang fighters to side with the Nationalists and turn on the Communists who had participated in an uprising in the city.
An excerpt from Sin City, by Ralph Shaw, a British journalist in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s:
"Tu Yueh-sen, the King of the Underworld, the opium magnate, the gangster chief whose terrible power was wielded over an empire of crime that out-ranged in evil even that of Al Capone in Chicago. Opium, the brothels, the trade unions, the hired killers, the slave-girl trade, the protection rackets, gold smuggling, gun-running and all kinds of crime were under the monopolistic control of Tu, the chief of the Cb'in Pang - the Green Circle Society - the Mafia of China.
It was in 1927 that Tu, twenty-two years before Chiang Kai-shek fled in defeat from Mao's armies, assured himself of a privileged existence under the protection of the Nationalists. As Chiang advanced northward in his campaign to defeat the warlords, the trade unions and the Communists in the Chinese areas of the city staged an uprising and took control of Greater Shanghai. When Chiang arrived they declared their intention of handing over the city, excluding the foreign areas, to him. Fearful of the Communists with whom he had broken completely following the revolution against the Manchus, he declared war on them and the unions. His principal ally was Tu. His thugs and Chiang's troops murdered 5,000 workers.
Tu's reward was an appointment to the Board of the Opium Suppression Bureau which enabled him freely to run the narcotics business with ever greater profits. He was also decorated with the Order of the Brilliant Jade. Thus the greatest criminal China ever produced was able in my time to demand - and to get - a constant French police guard on his mansion as the Communists and the workers, whom he had betrayed, forever looked for the opportunity to end his life. Tu was too important a figure in the foreign areas to be affronted. The fact that he was the king of thugs, the chief supplier of opium, had to be overlooked in the cause of securing his cooperation to make life easier for the foreigners. Woe betide the man who crossed Tu's path. Such a man was Superintendent Loh Lien-kwe of the S.M.P. Tu gave him information about a certain shipment of contraband coming to Shanghai that. was not to be interfered with. Loh, seeking laurels, swooped on a river vessel with the cooperation of the River Police and the Customs and Tu lost many thousands of dollars. Loh, poor chap, was shot dead as he emerged from his car at his home. It was no secret that he had fallen foul of Tu, but who could - or wanted to - prove where the guilt lay?
In any case, Tu led a charmed life, thanks, he believed, to the dried heads of monkeys that were always fixed to the back of his long gowns. Like most Chinese, Tu was superstitious. He consulted the soothsayers regularly. Early in his life he had been told by one eminent fortune-teller that he would live to a ripe old age and would die peacefully in his bed only if constantly the head of a monkey reposed in the middle of his back. If Tu failed to follow the fortune-teller's advice then he could expect to die a violent death.
My friend, Charles Norman Gray, head of the tailoring firm of C. N. Gray and Co. in Nanking Road, was grateful to that soothsayer. Tu's belief in the omens meant regular trips for the tailor to Singapore in search of monkeys' heads - all expenses paid and much on the side. Tu would never trust a Chinese tailor. A knife in the back was more than a possibility during a measuring-up exercise. Thus Mr Gray, acknowledged to be the city's best outfitter, became the gangster's personal tailor. Always Tu was exceedingly polite to Gray, the Londoner who had really served his time in Saville Row, and who had gone out to China in 1912, there to start a business of his own some years later - a venture which flourished and gave C.N. several cars, a large houseboat, a cottage in Devon for holidays, a house filled with servants and such customers as the Duke of Kent, serving as a Royal Navy officer on the China Station, Charles Chaplin, paying a sightseeing trip to the city, ambassadors of several countries, consuls and such like.
The soothsayer's forecast was accurate. Tu died peacefully in his bed in Hong Kong."