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
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.
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