Did you know that the archives of The Argus, once Melbourne’s premier newspaper, are digitised and available to the public? If you’re a giant nerd like me, this is a great opportunity to roll around in history for a while.
Now, I’ve been curious of late about the lives of Chinese-Australians during the White Australia period, so I selected the records from 1920-1929 and searched for the keyword “Chinese”. The results are fascinating, revealing and also (unsurprisingly) quite racist. But there are also some incredible highlights.
Transcript for people who don’t enjoy peering at tiny vintage newsprint, with bonus paragraph breaks:
Saturday 20 August 1927
Writing in the “Wide World Magazine” Mr W H Turner, of Hong Kong, tells some amazing stories concerning the activities of pirates and bandits in China at the present time.
“There are more of them than ever before,” he says, “and they pillage and murder practically unchecked. Not long ago a certain band of Chinese buccaneers operating below Canton decided to pull off a really picturesque ‘stunt’, and they did it with such daring as to almost take one’s breath away.
A certain big foreign-controlled school lying just across from the Bund was the object of their attentions, and the plan they had decided upon was to seize control of the whole of the students and hold them for ransom! At the appointed time the pirates arrived in their steam-launch and anchored at a convenient place. While part of the gang stood by the boat the remainder went up to the school to collect the students.
The first thing they did was to set off the fire alarm: this quickly brought the startled scholars out of bed and down to the grounds, where the pirates gathered them up like chickens and bundled them on the steam-launch waiting in the river. Once they were all on board the launch steamed away down the river, passing hundreds of boats and boathouses and the patrols of the water police!
The ‘catch’ consisted of nearly a hundred students, mostly from rich families, and yielded a rich harvest of ransom money to the rascals concerned.
Perhaps the leading pirate chief operating in China today is Yuen Kung, otherwise known as ‘King of Apes’. It is said that his is the biggest organised gang in South China. He himself is a burly fellow who has a weakness for luxuries and foreign clothes; he is, nevertheless, a clever organiser.
He has under his orders from six to seven thousand pirates – a veritable army – and his operations are conducted on a very big scale. His piratical activities are co-ordinated just like a legitimate business enterprise, going under the name of ‘Kwongtung T’ong’.
People who have been captured by his satellites declare that the pirate chief lives in a magnificent palace where he reigns like a king. His ‘office’ is the last word in modern equipment, even down to the smallest fixtures, and the work of the pirate organisation is divided into departments like a big business house.
He has, for instance, a repair department, which looks after his launches, junks, guns, motors and so on; a water police department, a judicial department, a ransom department, and a department of health!”
Now, I don’t want to cast aspersions, but this was an era of rampant police corruption pretty much all around the world. I don’t know exactly why, but I’d hazard a guess about technological developments (cars, telephones) becoming widespread just as promising criminal enterprises came along with the introduction of Prohibition in the US, 6 o’clock closing in Australia, the general collapse of government in China, etc. Different factors around the world leading to a general culture of police corruption.
(Note: I am not a criminal historian, nor do I play one on TV. I wonder if that’s a thing that exists, though? How cool would that look on your business card? “Yes, hello, I am a criminal historian. I study the history of crime. And also steal historical artefacts in elaborate museum heists.”)
Anyway, I can never remember if it was Hong Kong or Shanghai whose police chief took early retirement to pursue his hobby full-time, his hobby being running the city’s biggest criminal gang. Literally the only police department that I know of that didn’t have a corruption problem in the ’20s was Scotland Yard. (Further note: the world is full of police departments I know nothing about. I’m just generalising wildly.)
What I’m saying is, I can’t help but wonder if Yuen Kung’s “judicial department” was in fact the actual Shanghai department of justice. Likewise his “water police”. I just have some questions, that’s all. Starting with, has anyone written a book about the “King of Apes”?