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Book Reviews

Reprinted from the China Judaic Connection, July, 1998.

"Two-Gun Cohen: A Biography," 

By 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.