Big-Eared Tu (Tu Yueh-Sheng): Great Non-Fictional Character

(What follows is a mild re-arrangement of content from Sterling Seagrave’s too little known The Soong Dynasty)

He was a man with the relaxed, satisfied eyes of a well-fed rat in a starving city. His shaved egg-shaped head was flanked, of course, by large jug ears. He was born very poor, his parents died when he was very young, and he was given frequent beatings by his adoptive uncle, leaving him a face that was a pile of lumps surrounding large, yellow teeth. Born in Kaochiao, it was on the Shanghai waterfront that he made his career, first as a pear seller, then as an opium dealer and killer for hire.

There were three gangs, the red, the blue, and the green which dominated the port city. Tu started out in the red, before the three joined forces, and Tu was made head of the green gang, which would soon take over all opium traffic in the city’s international settlement, that part controlled by colonial powers such as France, Germany, and Japan, where their respective citizens worked and pleasured. Tu would end up controlling all the city’s opium, and all the city’s guilds, from longshoremen to bank tellers. Shanghai’s postal workers let him pry into any man’s mail. Any company he wanted, he bent their board of directors to his will, and their employees made part of a guild that marched to his orders. Occasionally, a man might disagree with big-eared Tu. That man would be sent a gorgeous coffin, and that man would then come round to a different way of thinking. Tu soon had millions from others’ easy living, and he gave it away freely. He gave freely to widows, he gave freely to orphans, all of Shanghai’s many misfortunates. He liked nothing better than bullying Shanghai’s pawnbrokers, the vermin who preyed on the indebted. He relaxed by smoking opium with the Blue Chamber District’s prostitutes, women who had feet bound to three inches or less.

Big-eared Tu knew the Kungs, the family that ran the Shanghai banks. Big-eared Tu went to whorehouses with Chiang Kai-Shek. During the beginning of the Chinese civil war between the communists and the nationalists, it was the green gang led by big-eared Tu, with help from the colonial powers, which liberated Shanghai for Chiang, the city’s merchants paying a hefty tax for their liberation. With Chiang in power, Tu became a respectable figure, not only sitting on the Currency Reserve Board, but lauded as an influential resident and well-known public welfare worker in Shanghai’s Who Who. He continued to control opium, not just in Shanghai, but throughout China, with Yunnan province bright with the red, white, and mauve colors of the crop. He exported heroin overseas, sometimes in diplomats’ luggage, and when he couldn’t meet local opium demand with local supply, he imported from Persia. Tu remained a close friend of the state, and it was this closeness that allowed the traffic to take place. A good chunk of drug sales went into the treasury, allowing finances to stay upright, whatever financial mis-steps the state might make. When the government had a bond sale, green gang soldiers strong-armed Shanghai merchants into buying them. When american warplanes needed to be bought to fight communists, Tu gave up the cash. Once, the finance minister’s wife tried to be helpful, and told Tu of some upcoming foreign exchange transactions, so he could make a little change. Tu misheard the advice, and lost a good chunk of money. When he asked the finance minister to be compensated for his loss, he got a rare refusal. That night, the finance minister was gifted with a beautiful coffin. He convened the central bank’s board, and reimbursed a patriotic citizen.

When outrage became overwhelming at the plague of opium addiction in the country, Chiang organized a National Opium Suppression Committee, which simply formalized the tithes drug producers handed over to the state. Tu was made a Chief Communist Suppression Agent fo Shanghai, giving him and the gang license to do violence to whoever they wished. The new deal was sealed with six million dollars handed over to Chiang as advance down payment. Even Tu could sometimes change his mind, and right afterwards, he asked for the money back. The prime minister gave back the six million, but in government bonds. That week, when the prime minister was leaving Shanghai’s train station, a group of men fired a mass of bullets at him and his bodyguards. The prime minister’s secretary, walking alongside him, was riddled with bullets and died. The prime minister, unscathed, got a message as lucid as an ornate coffin: we can hit you as easily as we can hit him. The french administration soon tried to take a hard line on opium as well. Tu paid off the consul-general and police captain of Shanghai’s french area, but the hard line persisted and the two men were recalled. Tu invited both men to his house for a farewell banquet, after which both became violently ill, the consul dying in agony. A dinner guest later noticed that Tu always drank his tea from a small golden teapot, kept only for his use, its cover sealed by a golden chain, its spout so thin and snaking nothing might be placed in it.

After WW II, Tu’s power faded. He was a dealer who’d for decades gotten high on his own supply. He had a the wealth of a pasha, and rotten teeth. His eyes were dark and blurry as swamp water. When his son got involved in stock fraud, the son was arrested, tried, and convicted. If anyone got a coffin, it made no difference now. When the communists fought again for Shanghai, Tu would not be fighting back. He fled to Hong Kong days before Mao’s takeover, there to spend the last years of his life, so poisoned with dope he could no longer walk. When he was still at his zenith, he took out the usual death insurance, and was baptised in the christian faith. That no lightning struck the church might be taken as a symptom of an undemonstrative divinity, a very forgiving divinity, or no divinity at all. Chiang’s wife thought she saw a sign that the creed had been sincerely embraced: kidnappings in Shanghai, after all, had gone down.

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