shang­hai noir

By the late 1930s Shang­hai was sur­rounded by an in­vad­ing army, with des­per­ate peo­ple and lit­tle law. but two men de­cided this was the per­fect time to open Asia’s largest night­club

Real Crime - - Contents - Words Paul French

In an oa­sis of vice in 1930s wartorn China, two Western crim­i­nal en­trepreneurs rose to rule Shang­hai’s seedy un­der­world

In Septem­ber 1939, as Eu­rope went to war, Joe Far­ren and Jack Ri­ley opened the doors to Asia’s largest night­club and casino in Shang­hai, China. It was called Far­ren’s and was sit­u­ated in the city’s western dis­trict, an area known in the late 1930s as ‘ the Bad­lands’, the no­to­ri­ously sin­ful city’s red- light dis­trict. Far­ren’s of­fered a vast ground floor with bars, restau­rants, bands, danc­ing and an aeri­al­ist who flew back­wards and for­wards from a trapeze se­cured to the ceil­ing all night. Above were three floors of gam­bling – roulette, chemin- de- fer, dice and rows of slot ma­chines. The place was a gold­mine and it made mil­lions. But Shang­hai was it­self a city sur­rounded by war and so keep­ing the doors open was a pre­car­i­ous propo­si­tion for the two own­ers. But they per­sisted. Quite sim­ply they were both men who, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, had put their pasts be­hind them in Shang­hai, and now they had nowhere else to go: they would only en­counter trou­ble if they ever ven­tured out of the city.

The Paris of the East

Be­tween the world wars Shang­hai was a city of so­bri­quets – its stun­ning ar­chi­tec­ture and leafy lanes led it to be dubbed ‘ The Paris of the East’ by some. Oth­ers, per­haps ad­mir­ing the city’s beauty but also eye­ing its fi­nan­cial suc­cess, termed it ‘ The Pearl of the Ori­ent’. A third one fo­cused on the city’s rep­u­ta­tion for crime, vice and dis­so­lu­tion, pre­fer­ring to call Shang­hai ‘ The Whore of the Ori­ent’. The Euro­pean and Amer­i­can mis­sion­ar­ies that came to China rarely stopped in Shang­hai to try and con­vert souls, in­stead head­ing in­land, where the pickings were bet­ter. Shang­hai was, in their words, “a thin slice of heaven upon a thick slice of hell”.

And Shang­hai was unique – a truly open and in­ter­na­tional city. Ar­rive at the city’s ma­jes­tic Bund wa­ter­front aboard an ocean liner and, as you dis­em­barked, no­body asked for your pass­port, de­manded an en­try visa or in­spected your lug­gage. It was the only city in the world that asked no ques­tions. But Shang­hai was never a colony, like Hong Kong or Sin­ga­pore. It was gov­erned by a mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil, had its own po­lice force, court sys­tem – it was essen­tially a self- gov­ern­ing is­land com­posed of the In­ter­na­tional Set­tle­ment and the slightly sep­a­rate French Con­ces­sion. Ar­rive in the Shang­hai In­ter­na­tional Set­tle­ment and you could give any name, age and back­ground, check into a ho­tel and be­gin a new life. Joe Far­ren and Jack Ri­ley had both done ex­actly that.

Joe Far­ren was born Josef Po­lack in Vi­enna. After World War I and the col­lapse of the Aus­tro- Hun­gar­ian Em­pire he found him­self an Aus­trian cit­i­zen and un­em­ployed. He dis­cov­ered he could dance and so spent his nights in Vi­enna’s ball­rooms as a male taxi- dancer. Women who wanted an able dance part­ner would rent him for a dance, and maybe more. He was a gigolo. Soon he was re­cruited to a dance troupe head­ing to the Far East. On tour he met a Rus­sian émi­gré called Nel­lie. They danced to­gether and fell in love. They changed their name to Far­ren and prob­a­bly mar­ried, but the pa­per­work got lost long ago. They came to Shang­hai in 1929, Asia’s largest and most mod­ern city with cen­tral heating, tele­phones, im­ported Amer­i­can cars and build­ings with el­e­va­tors. They loved it, and so stayed and started run­ning cho­rus lines at the new gi­ant ball­rooms and night­clubs that were open­ing up. The city was heaven to them.

Jack Ri­ley had a slightly murkier past. An or­phan from Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, born Al­bert Becker, he joined the US Navy and was sent to China. Navy life was good to him – he learnt

Ar­rive in Shang­hai and you could give any name, age and back­ground, check into a ho­tel and be­gin a new life

dis­ci­pline and was a well- ranked boxer. After dis­charge he went back to Tulsa. Life wasn’t so good out of the navy. He fell in with the wrong sort and ended up driv­ing the get­away car for a gang that robbed an il­le­gal card game and speakeasy. Some­how, along the way, some­one got shot dead. It was the time of the ‘ Pub­lic En­e­mies’ – Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma­chine Gun Kelly. The pub­lic and J. Edgar Hoover at the new FBI were de­mand­ing stiff sen­tences, so when Al­bert Becker was ar­rested he was sen­tenced to a tough 35 years in Ok­la­homa State Pen­i­ten­tiary.

Becker en­dured two years in prison by keep­ing his head down and play­ing a lot of base­ball. One day the prison base­ball team went into a nearby town to play some lo­cal guys. On the way back the team and their guards turned left, back through the prison gates, and Becker just kept walk­ing straight on. Mirac­u­lously no­body no­ticed, and he jumped onto a freight train to San Francisco. There he mugged a tramp for his papers – a man called Jack Ri­ley – and then, in an act he thought would set him free from the law for life, burnt his fin­ger­tips off with acid. He was fin­ished with the USA, fin­ished with be­ing Al­bert Becker. Jack Ri­ley signed on to a steamer head­ing across the Pa­cific to Shang­hai.

Opium in its Veins

In the 1930s both Joe Far­ren and Jack Ri­ley were do­ing fine in Shang­hai. It was a hard town, it didn’t care about much more than money, and there was no safety net. You ei­ther found your­self a groove and made some money or you fell by the way­side and peo­ple stepped over your body – lit­er­ally, as the city picked over 1,000 dead bod­ies a year off the streets. Sui­cides of the broke and hope­less were rife. But it was a city that at­tracted those with nowhere else to go – those, like Joe Far­ren, for whom Eu­rope was a bro­ken con­ti­nent after the Great War; like Nel­lie, whose fam­ily could not live with the Bol­she­viks and so be­came state­less émi­grés without pass­ports or a coun­try they could call their own; or, like Jack Ri­ley, those wanted by the law back home.

Far­ren made good money run­ning ex­trav­a­gant cho­rus lines at half a dozen night­clubs around town – the Paramount, the

Venus Café and oth­ers. Ri­ley, mean­while had man­aged to open a bar cater­ing to US Navy sailors on shore leave in

Shang­hai, on the French

Con­ces­sion’s most no­to­ri­ous strip, ‘ Blood

Al­ley’: a few hun­dred me­tres of bars, broth­els and opium dens teem­ing nightly with sailors, sol­diers and pros­ti­tutes.

Ri­ley’s Man­hat­tan

Bar was the most pop­u­lar joint on the Al­ley. Far­ren made ex­tra money

In Shang­hai there was one busi­ness that pro­vided a ton of money,

if you could get away with it: opium

help­ing Shang­hai’s le­gion of nightlife en­trepreneurs set up daz­zling night­clubs, and he brought over African- Amer­i­can jazz bands and Euro­pean dance acts. Jack Ri­ley soon made a lot of money bring­ing slot ma­chines to Shang­hai. They were new to China and both the for­eign­ers in the city ( called ‘ Shang­hai­lan­ders’) and the Chi­nese loved feed­ing coins into the ‘ one armed ban­dits’. The Chi­nese called them ‘ dime eat­ing tigers’. Ri­ley shipped them in from Manila in the Philip­pines and had them in every bar and night­club, as well as the club­house of the United States Fourth Marines. The Fourth Marines loved the slot ma­chines, they loved the Man­hat­tan Bar, and they wor­shipped Jack Ri­ley.

But none of it was enough. Joe Far­ren wanted to open the big­gest and most lav­ish night­club ever seen in Asia and, in Shang­hai, that would mean hav­ing a casino as part of the joint. Casi­nos were no­to­ri­ously ex­pen­sive to start up, but gold­mines once you man­aged it. Far­ren needed gam­bling know- how and a lot of start- up cap­i­tal. He needed Jack

Ri­ley. Ri­ley liked the idea but, suc­cess­ful as they were, more cash was needed. In Shang­hai there was one busi­ness that pro­vided a ton of money, if you could get away with it: opium.

Far­ren and Ri­ley went into the opium busi­ness around the mid- 1930s. The sit­u­a­tion was ideal: Shang­hai was the opi­um­trad­ing cen­tre of China, though the drug was con­trolled by lo­cal gangs, in par­tic­u­lar the fear­some and all- pow­er­ful Green Gang run by Du Yuesh­eng, ‘ Big- Eared Du’. At the same time the USA had re­pealed its Pro­hi­bi­tion laws, bars were re­open­ing, and al­co­hol was on sale le­gally again. For or­gan­ised crime in the US the money went out of il­le­gal booze im­me­di­ately. They needed a new rev­enue stream, and de­cided it was to be nar­cotics – es­pe­cially heroin. Heroin, of course, is merely re­fined opium. Louis ‘ Lepke’ Buchal­ter, the Jewish- Amer­i­can mob­ster and head of the Mafia hit squad Mur­der, Inc., sent emis­saries to Shang­hai to se­cure Big- Eared Du’s opium sup­plies for the USA.

Du was will­ing to sell and Lepke will­ing to buy as much as pos­si­ble. The ques­tion was how to get it from China to Amer­ica. Shang­hai cus­toms was easy – money was handed out, bribes taken, and ev­ery­one looked the other way. Amer­i­can cus­toms was a dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion. But in the 1930s things were dif­fer­ent, and no­body searched women dis­em­bark­ing ocean lin­ers in Cal­i­for­nia. What Lepke needed was women will­ing to act as ‘ mules’. And who knew every failed cho­rus girl, wannabe dancer and re­tir­ing pros­ti­tute head­ing home from Shang­hai? Joe Far­ren, the nightlife king.

And so the smug­gling started. Women headed up to the Red Rose Café in north­ern Shang­hai where they were pro­vided with tick­ets home and a pack­age to take with them to de­liver to a wait­ing man dock­side. Leav­ing them with a new life and some cash to start it with, Lepke’s heroin re­fin­ery ware­house in Brook­lyn re­ceived par­cel after par­cel. The opium flowed. And so did the prof­its. But Amer­ica’s taste for heroin was seem­ingly in­sa­tiable. Lepke de­manded more, Du had it, so new smug­gling routes were needed. Who were the only other group of pas­sen­gers never searched upon ar­rival back home? The re­turn­ing he­roes of the Fourth Marines. Far­ren talked to Ri­ley; Ri­ley talked to the marines and a whole new river of opium started flow­ing back to Amer­ica via army kit­bags. The prof­its mul­ti­plied.

Even­tu­ally of course the US au­thor­i­ties got wise to the scams and clamped down. Some girls got ar­rested, some marines busted. But by that time Far­ren and Ri­ley had made enough dope money to fund their night­club- casino. How­ever, Shang­hai had be­come a war­zone.

Into The Bad­lands

In the sum­mer of 1937 Ja­pan in­vaded China. War raged around Shang­hai, though the Ja­panese did not in­vade the In­ter­na­tional Set­tle­ment, as that would mean war with Britain, the USA and France. Shang­hai be­came iso­lated, sur­rounded by a ma­raud­ing Ja­panese army. Within the city, law en­force­ment be­gan to col­lapse. In the west an en­tire dis­trict of night­clubs, opium dens, casi­nos and shabu ( metham­phetamine) shacks sprang up. It was soon nick­named ‘ The Bad­lands’. And it was bad: when a se­nior Shang­hai Mu­nic­i­pal Po­lice com­mis­sioner drove through the area to see it for him­self his car was rid­dled with bul­lets.

The news­pa­pers de­clared the Bad­lands a ‘ new Chicago’. And Far­ren and Ri­ley opened their casino right in the mid­dle of the dis­trict. It was packed nightly.

Far­ren’s made a fortune. The prob­lem was the Ja­panese army de­manded mas­sive ‘ taxes’ to let the casi­nos of the Bad­lands stay open. Far­ren and Ri­ley paid and stayed open all night, shut­ting for only a few hours to clean up after dawn.

Mean­while, US au­thor­i­ties had never stopped look­ing for Al­bert Becker and had a good idea that he was now in Shang­hai and called Jack Ri­ley.

The Ja­panese soon de­manded even more taxes and took over Ri­ley’s slot ma­chine busi­ness at the point of a bay­o­net. Far­ren saw fel­low night­club own­ers pres­sured into sell­ing to Ja­panese army in­ter­ests. One who re­fused was blud­geoned to death and his house set on fire, while an­other who re­sisted was shot in the back of the head in front of his wife.

Per­haps any­one else would have got out. But Ri­ley and Far­ren couldn’t. Like so many oth­ers in Shang­hai, like the Rus­sian émi­grés and the newly ar­rived Euro­pean Jews flee­ing the Nazis, Far­ren ( as an Aus­trian Jew) now had no pass­port, no coun­try. The Aus­trian con­sulate in Shang­hai ( un­der the con­trol of the Nazis) would not re­new cit­i­zen­ship for Jews. Far­ren was state­less. Ri­ley, of course, had only a date in court and 32 of his 35- year sen­tence in Ok­la­homa to re­turn to. So they sat tight, kept spin­ning the roulette wheels and told the band to play on to the end in the Bad­lands.

It was a mis­take. They, like all of Shang­hai, learnt that the big­gest gang, by far the largest crim­i­nal and most vi­o­lent crim­i­nal or­gan­i­sa­tion in the city was the Ja­panese Im­pe­rial Army. They could never have won a fight against an en­tire na­tion bent on all- out war across the Pa­cific.

And so the old Shang­hai of Joe Far­ren and Jack Ri­ley ended on 8 De­cem­ber 1941, mo­ments after the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor, when the Ja­panese army over­ran the In­ter­na­tional Set­tle­ment and took con­trol of all of Shang­hai. After that the Bad­lands be­longed to them to do with as they wanted.

be­low- left Joe Far­ren, born Josef Po­lack in Vi­enna. He cre­ated daz­zling cho­rus lines for Shang­hai’s night­clubs but wanted more – he wanted his own casino and night­club to be the largest in Asiabe­low- Right Jack Ri­ley, born Al­bert Becker in Tulsa, was exUS Navy and an es­caped con­vict who be­came the ‘ Slot Ma­chine King’ of Shang­hai un­der his alias, and then bankrolled Joe Far­ren’s casino dream

be­low Shang­hai’s night­clubs and cho­rus lines were of­ten staffed by beau­ti­ful but tragic Rus­sian émi­grés who had fled the Bol­she­vik Revo­lu­tion. Larissa An­der­son, who danced forJoe Far­ren, was con­sid­ered the most beau­ti­ful woman in 1930s Shang­hai

above You can change your name and burn your fin­ger­prints off with acid, but the law al­ways catches up with you. Here Jack Ri­ley is fi­nally ap­pre­hended by the Shang­hai au­thor­i­ties

Top Never doubt that the Shang­hai Bad­lands was truly bad – when a se­nior po­lice­man went to take a look, his car was rid­dled with ma­chine gun fireAbove- right The se­nior po­lice­man was forced to lie down on the floor of the car un­derneath a pile of bul­let­proof vests to es­cape the hail of bul­lets. ‘ Po­lice not wel­come in the Bad­lands’ was the mes­sage

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