Reprinted from the China
Judaic Connection, July, 1998.
"Two-Gun Cohen: A Biography,"
Daniel S. Levy St. Martinís Press, New York, 1997 ($29.95)
By Abbey Newman
What place could a stout, hedonistic,
delinquent, charlatan, cardsharp, Cockney Jew possibly have in the historic
turmoil of revolutionary China? This question is one of many posed by Daniel
S. Levy in his book "Two-Gun Cohen: A Biography." An extremely well-researched
and documented effort, Levyís book places Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen in his
appropriate place as one of the most unusual and colorful adventurers of
the twentieth century.
Written in attempt to dispel many
of the inconsistencies, rumors and well-spun tales promulgated by the press
throughout history and chronicled in works by Charles Drage, such as The
Life and Times of General Two-Gun Cohen, Levyís work is successful
in uncovering the man behind the myth. Previous works had painted the picture
of Cohen as an infallible mover and a shaker in Chinese history. Such stories
from the press and commissioned biographies left readers without an accurate
understanding of Cohenís place in history or the larger forces and struggles
that brought about modern China. Levy has rectified this situation by providing
a complete and thorough retelling of the curious life and times of Cohen.
Born into devout piety and total
poverty in 1887, Cohen was the eldest son of persecuted Polish Jews who
immigrated to the East End of London. At a young age, Cohen was drawn to
the wayward and delinquent life-style of the cardsharps and con men. Proving
to be an incorrigible juvenile, Cohen was arrested in 1900 for picking
pockets and was sent to reform school and then later shipped off to western
Canada. After years of wandering from Manitoba to British Columbia, Cohen
had gained the reputation of a rabble-rousing, hustler with a penchant
for women and gambling. He became a regular at a Chinese gambling den in
Saskatoon and one evening stumbled into the middle of an armed robbery.
Cohen came to the defense of the Chinese owner, an act that was unheard
of at that time when Anti-Chinese sentiment was rampant in Canada. This
selfless act gained Cohen the respect of the Chinese community and drew
him into the world of revolutionary China.
This early contact with the overseas
Chinese in Canada helped shape Cohenís understanding of Chinese history
and politics. In 1922, Cohen traveled to China to become a body guard for
Sun Yat-sen. Completely fascinated by Sunís political doctrine and plans
to unify and develop China, Cohen slowly not only became an influential
figure in Nationalist China, but also a self-proclaimed confidant to various
Chinese revolutionaries and a "General" in the Chinese Army. Cohen accomplished
this all despite the fact that he never learned Chinese. Levy meticulously
follows Cohenís exploits from his time as real estate tycoon, bodyguard,
and arms dealer through the tragic years of internment in Hong Kongís prison
camps under the Japanese and his diplomatic undertakings and business dealings
during the twilight of his life.
Although Levy provides accurate historical
backdrops and details of Cohenís relationships with the early leaders of
Chinaís Revolution, one cannot help but notice how odd it is that Cohen
the hustler wanted to ally himself with such a visionary figure as Sun
Yat-sen. Later in his life, Cohen walked on a blurred line of noncommittal
support for both the Nationalists and the Communists. It is apparent that
his loyalties often swayed whichever way opportunity was knocking. One
could argue that China represented the ultimate adventure for Cohen and
that he simply followed his instincts as an opportunist.
Despite his many flaws, Cohen was
seen by many as a generous man who protected and spoke up in defense of
the Chinese. Cohen took much pride in his advocacy and public relations
efforts. He often acted as a cultural liaison between Chinese and Westerners
in a time regularly darkened by Anti-Asian sentiment. Levy provides the
reader with well-balanced viewpoints of Cohenís glorious achievements and
his other, less-than-flattering accomplishments. In the end, it is the
reader who is left to ponder and pass judgment on the curious life and
adventures of one remarkable character named Two-Gun Cohen.
Abbey Newman is a graduate of the
University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.A. in International Relations
and East Asian Studies.
After graduate study at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University
Center of Chinese and American Studies and two years of working as a paralegal
for international law firms in Hong Kong, Ms. Newman has recently returned
to the United States to accept a position with the National Committee on
U.S. China Relations in New York City.