Forging a City: Godfathers of Shanghai


2018-02-01 11:02 GMT+8

The shadow world of organized crime is hidden by nature.

Though our lives collide with it every day – be it directly or otherwise –it can be difficult to understand just how pervasive and powerful a group of individuals can truly become. The concept of the city-ruling crime lord can seem fantastical to us, even a little mythical, but rewind a few decades and it was reality. The lawless era of the 1920’s was their golden age, when crime ruled the city, drugs were rife, and debauchery was around every corner. Old Shanghai, as it was called, was ruled by a triumvirate of godfathers. The landscape of the time made circumstances ripe for their oligarchic regime.

The first inkling of what was to come was heralded by the birth of the ancestor of the Green Gang, which would become the embodiment of organized crime a century later. Though the secret society and criminal syndicate became a household name to be feared in the 20th century, their origin was far more innocent.

Their roots start in, of all places, a Buddhist sect called Luojiao in the mid-Ming dynasty. In the following Qing dynasty in the 18th century, the sect was introduced to the workers involved in the import of grain along the Grand Canal via three brothers – Weng Yan (翁岩), QianJian (钱坚), and Pan Qing (潘清).

This Luoist society mingled with the grain transport boatmen along the Canal, providing services such as burials, hostels, and social organization. However, their growing influence was seen as a threat and the Qianlong Emperor condemned the sect and ordered their destruction.

This drove the Luoists underground until the 19th century, when upheavals to social order began to drive the boatmen to them. A new organization was founded, this time called Anqing Daoyou (安清道友), which translates to "Friends of the Way of Tranquility and Purity", that would be the direct parent of the Green Gang.

Shanghai would become their favored city of operation due to several factors – not only was it the de facto point of grain transport with the Grand Canal in disuse, it also became a foreign treaty port in 1842, opening international trade ripe for the pickings. Furthermore, the disjointed, poorly managed legal administration between Shanghai and the foreign powers within it provided cracks for organized crime to flourish. Finally, the increasing immigration of people from other parts of China into Shanghai gave the Green Gang a wide pool of discontented young people to recruit from. One such example is the infamous Due Yuesheng, who met Huang Jinrong through his mentor, who hailed from the same city as Huang (Suzhou).

Through bribing officials and plying illegal activities such as prostitution, unregulated drug sales, and racketeering, the Green Gang rapidly amassed power. Thanks to their erosion of the law in Shanghai, the city became the vice capital of the world. They ensured their longevity by courting politicians – in exchange for hurting the campaigns of rivals they would be given the leeway necessary to operate. For a period, they were so powerful that they could put pressure on big businesses to do what they wanted, whether it was to pay them protection money or change their policies to accommodate the Green Gang.

However, the Green Gang quickly withered on the vine when the Nationalist Party of China lost their conflict with the communists in the mid-1950s. About to be exterminated by Mao Zedong like the other secret societies of the mainland, they fled to Hong Kong. There, they struggled to build a base while fighting the local organizations and their momentum finally failed them.

Within scant months after the defeat of the nationalists, the century-old Green Gang was through. Of course, this did not mean their influence died out – instead, members scattered to join other gangs, and much-diminished descendants live on in Taiwan. Yet, the legacy and memory of the Green Gang on the mainland continues, though current Chinese authorities maintain their harsh ban on material regarding the organization and its leaders.

Enerel E.

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