This Day in Jewish History, 1970

‘Two-Gun Cohen,’ Manchu Foe and Zionist, Dies of Old Age

Morris Cohen turned from a life of wandering to war — for Sun Yat-sen’s nationalist cause in China, of all things, and for the Zionist cause.

Sengkan / Wikicommons

On September 13, 1970, Morris Abraham Cohen — best remembered as “Two-Gun Cohen” — died of old age, in Salford, England. Although many details of Cohen’s tumultuous biography were enhanced, if not fabricated, by him, there’s no doubt that he was at least a witness to much of the political and military drama that characterized the history of 20th-century China.

Abraham Cohen was born on August 3, 1887, in Radzanow, Poland, northwest of Warsaw. His father, Josef Leib Mialczyn, was a wheelwright who began working in the textile trade when the family emigrated to London, shortly after Abraham’s birth. His mother was the former Sheindel Lipshitz.

In England, Josef changed the family name to the easier-to-pronounce “Cohen” (his family was descended from the priestly tribe), and Abraham added the name “Morris,” although in the East London neighborhood where he grew up he was better known as “Fat Moishe.”

From juvie to overthrowing the Manchu regime

Although Cohen was sent to the Jews’ Free School, he preferred life outside the school’s walls, where he learned to box and commit minor crimes. In 1900, he was arrested as “a person suspected of attempting to pick pockets,” and was dispatched to the Hayes Industrial School for wayward Jewish boys. When he emerged, five years later, his parents thought he might benefit from being shipped off to the fresh air of western Canada.

After a year of honest work as a farmhand in Saskatchewan, Cohen began the wanderings that were to characterize much of his life. He worked in carnivals and circuses, gambled and speculated in real estate.

A turning point came in a restaurant in Saskatoon that catered to some of the thousands of Chinese immigrants building Canada’s railroads. According to his own telling, Cohen befriended the restaurant’s owner, Mah Sam, and proved he could be trusted after he came to the man’s assistance during an armed robbery.

It was through Mah Sam that Cohen learned about the revolutionary struggle being led by the nationalist Sun Yat-sen against China’s Manchu rulers. In 1912, he was invited to take the oath of allegiance to the Tongmenghui, the worldwide organization formed to support the cause.

Cohen finally met his new hero, Sun Yat-sen, in 1922 when, faced with a dearth of opportunities in post-World War I Canada, he traveled to China to begin working in the railroad business. Despite his minimal knowledge of Chinese, he soon became a bodyguard and right-hand man to Sun and his wife, Soong Ching-ling.

There were ample opportunities to fight, first against the imperial army and then against the Japanese. It was after being grazed by a bullet in battle, when he began to carry a second weapon, that he earned the “Two-Gun” sobriquet.

And a Zionist too

When Sun Yat-sen died, in 1925, Two-Gun worked for his warlord successors. In World War II he fought with the Chinese against Japan and provided intelligence to the British. In 1941 he was arrested and sent to Hong Kong’s notorious Stanley Prison Camp. After being released in a prisoner exchange in 1943, he returned to Canada.

He married, and divorced, and traveled frequently to China, becoming a raconteur who hung around hotel lobbies explaining the country — and describing his own exploits — to journalists. After the Communist takeover, in 1949, he became an apologist for the new regime, and was one of the few Westerners who could travel freely between the mainland and Nationalist Taiwan.

Cohen was also an enthusiastic Zionist, and he introduced representatives of the movement, and later of the young State of Israel, to officials of the Republic of China and its successor, the Communist regime. In 1947, armed with a 1920 letter from Sun Yat-sen expressing warm support for the Zionist cause, Cohen is said to have played a role in convincing China to abstain from — rather than oppose — the vote to partition Palestine.

Cohen spent the last two decades of his life representing British aviation companies in China and living in Salford, England with his sister, Leah Cohen. He died there on this date in 1970, and was buried in the Blakeley Jewish Cemetery in Manchester.