If Shanghai in the early 1900s was a time of lawless decadence, then Du Yuesheng was its godfather. Born in Pudong in 1888, Du became the leader of the infamous Green Gang. Along with the Chinese officer of the French police, Huang Jinrong, Du wrapped the city’s underbelly around his little finger, controlling opium dens, brothels, trade unions, hitmen, and every other kind of crime imaginable.
Nicknamed “Big Eared Du” for his sizable aural organs, Du Yuesheng was drawn to crime from a young age. After losing his immediate family to disease, slavery, and disappearance, Du starting working at a fruit stand in the French Concession in 1902. He was fired for theft not long after and drifted for a while before being hired as a bodyguard at a brothel. It was there that he became acquainted with Shanghai’s notorious Green Gang, whom he was invited to join at the tender age of 16.
The Green Gang thrived in colonial Shanghai. Due to its status as an international port city, Shanghai was the point of entry for much of the country’s opium, and thanks to the disjointed legal environment that arose from so many foreign jurisdictions and administrations, crime went largely unchecked.
The young Du was introduced to the highest-ranked Chinese detective in the French Concession Police, Huang Jinrong. Huang was not directly associated with the Green Gang, but he, along with his wife, was one of the city’s most notorious gangsters. With Du as Huang’s gambling and opium enforcer, the two began to create a mafia-like criminal empire in Shanghai.
Du’s prestige in the city rose quickly and he was able to purchase a large villa in the French Concession, housing his dozens of concubines, four legal wives, and six sons. But it wasn’t until the arrest of Huang Jinrong that Du solidified his power. In 1924, Huang was arrested for publicly beating the son of the ruling warlord of Shanghai and thrown into prison. Du bailed him out, and Huang quickly turned his empire over to the big eared delinquent. With Huang aside, Du now controlled every type of crime ring in the city, including the trade of opium, a drug to which Du himself became addicted.
With his criminal enterprises under control, Du turned his sights to politics. Identifying as a Confucian conservative, Du was co-opted by the Kuomintang nationalists to help the party rise to power just as Du had so seamlessly done. The Green Gang funded and outfitted Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, and the two groups banded together against the encroaching communists. In 1927, Du’s thugs and Chiang’s troops killed more than 5000 Shanghai-based communists.
As the Chinese Civil War dragged on, Du’s relationship with Chiang became fraught, but by the time of the nationalists’ defeat, it was too late for Du to remove himself from his former connections. The Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan and Du fled to Hong Kong, where he died of an opium-related illness not long after.