A decade ago the municipal government in Shanghai unveiled a monument to a Canadian physician who had died forty-some years earlier in a remote part of China while giving medical aid to the communists. No, not Norman Bethune. The memorial at the International Peace Hospital for the Protection of Mother and Child honours Dr. Tillson Harrison (1880?-1947), a lesser, rougher, and slightly later version of the same species, a person about whom Allan Levine, an Ottawa writer, has been researching a biography for years.
However important he may be to the Chinese, Harrison is so obscure in his homeland that Canadian news coverage of the dedication ceremony could barely hemstitch together a few basic facts. What came through is that Harrison was born in Tillsonburg, Ontario, southwest of London (descended from the family for whom it was named) and was a graduate of the University of Toronto medical school. His training, however, came after he had already launched himself on his primary career, as what the nineteenth century called a filibuster and later a soldier-of-fortune but what we know as a mercenary or freedom fighter, depending on the light.
As with most such people, what information does exist is contradictory even when not outright hearsay. Harrison is supposed to have left home as a teenager to join American volunteers in the Spanish-American War. He then practised medicine but threw it over for the Mexican revolution, in which he is said both to have supported and opposed Pancho Villa. He is alleged to have taken part in the First World War as a member of the Russian, French, British, and Canadian forces in turn. Then there is a vague allusion to the French Foreign Legion in Africa. Whereupon the record shows him fighting in China, first against the Japanese and then the Chinese Nationalists, before disappearing into the maddening darkness of unofficial history behind a whiff of cordite and toxic levels of testosterone. His heyday, 1930s China, is likewise the period about which the least information can be found. Such often tends to be the case with figures who are not merely ideologically promiscuous but bloodthirsty as well. I continue to await Levine's biography, but it shows no signs of appearing soon.
What reminds me of its promise is the appearance instead of Two-Gun Cohen, A Biography, by Daniel S. Levy (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99 cloth). Cohen (1887-1970) was a wonderfully picaresque figure whom a number of his fellow Canadians have attempted to write biographies of, only to fall away. It has been left for Levy, an American, to do the job; and considered as research, it's one he has done rather well indeed, even if his prose style sometimes betrays the fact that he works for Time.
Cohen is more appealing and a far better documented figure than the general run of foreign volunteers and adventurers in China. This soi-disant general in the Chinese army was born Morris Abraham Cohen near Warsaw, then sent as a small child to the East End of London and finally shipped off to Canada as a Barnardo Boy. He ended up in Winnipeg and moved farther west by degrees, working first as a pickpocket and carny, then as a professional gambler and a real estate agent. He served more than one term in jail on the Prairies. As he himself later told the story, the turning-point came in 1908 in a Chinese gambling den in Saskatoon run by an elderly friend of his named Mah Sam. Another Chinese came in and demanded the owner's cash and jewelry. "I saw it was a holdup," Cohen recalled, "but I wasn't heeled-that is, armed-and I had to be careful. I closed in till I was too near for him to use his rod and socked him in the jaw." Cohen then retrieved the booty and waited for the thief to regain consciousness. Thereupon he "gave him a kick in the pants-maybe two kicks-and told him to beat it."
This quick action endeared Cohen to the local Chinese and helped him to become the Nationalists' lobbyist and point-man among the English-speaking community in Western Canada. In time, he went to China and was hired as one of Sun Yat-Sen's bodyguards. During this period he acquired his distinctive nickname, which was derived less from an attitude perhaps than from a very tangible kind of prudence. When Sun died, Cohen, his patron gone, made himself indispensable to Chiang Kai-Shek, whom he disliked, and also built up a lucrative business as a military adviser, arms dealer, and (that portmanteau word) consultant. He had served in the Great War as a sergeant in the Canadian army. That may not sound like much of a foundation on which to establish private practice, but Canadian sergeants, familiar with the latest small arms and having at least sight recognition of tanks and aircraft, could name their own price in remote areas where bandits were still fighting with flintlocks in some cases. One of the great Canadian political scandals of the late war involved the Ross rifle, which had been developed at enormous expense and supplied to the Canadian troops. They were so poorly designed that they jammed and misfired frequently. Cohen knew where to get them cheap and how to sell them at a criminal mark-up in China. He became a well-known figure to bankers up and down the Bund in Shanghai, though his adopted hometown was Canton (and Hong Kong his place for recreation).
Cohen put up a good fight when the Japanese overran Shanghai. He fled to Hong Kong and was pretty harshly treated when it too fell in 1941. After the war he was repatriated to Canada but was soon back in the thick of events during the Chinese Revolution, though his exact movements remain tantalizingly unclear. What is apparent is that through much of the 1950s and even later, when relations between Mao and Chiang were hostile and intractable (when they could be said to exist at all), Cohen remained on acceptable terms with both. He was perhaps the only person, certainly the only non-diplomat, of whom that could be said, and he served as the unofficial link between Peking and Taipei. He died after returning to England, reaching full circle.
In 1954, Cohen collaborated on a book about himself with Charles Drage, a former British officer with intelligence contacts. The work has the ring of authenticity insofar as Cohen's tone of voice is concerned, but Cohen himself admitted the book touched only a few high spots on the leeward side of the statute of limitations. (As Margaret Atwood once wrote in a completely different connection, "The real truth is unprintable and the rest sounds like travelogue.") Now, Levy has examined the subject more thoroughly and (surprise) seems to have done a particularly thorough and painstaking job on the Canadian years in the West.
In his heyday of the 1920s and 1930s, Cohen was often spoken of in the same breath as a somewhat similar figure known as One-Arm Sutton (1884-1944). Sutton had been part of the Allied invasion force that landed at Gallipoli in the First World War. As a young British officer, he came ashore under fire carrying-like some character out of P. G. Wodehouse-a complete set of golf clubs. Up until that time he was simply Lieutenant F. A. Sutton. But ever afterward he would be called One-Arm and as such became famous or notorious as a gentleman-adventurer in Russia as well as China.
He acquired his sobriquet this way: He was with a group of Gurkhas and Tommies in a ruined gun emplacement. Having pinned them down, the Turks began tossing in grenades with eight- or ten-second fuses. A skilled cricketer, as he recounts in his autobiography, Sutton "was able to catch them and send them back so that the grenades exploded in the Turkish trenches. This much at least I learned at Eton: I was always a safe field." Seldom can Wellington's remark about battles being won on the playing fields of Eton have had such literal application, though in this case the battle was lost. Inevitably, however, Sutton bungled one of the incoming projectiles and his right hand was "blown off at the wrist" (making "One-Arm" a bit of a misnomer). Before he could compose himself, a Turkish soldier jumped down into the hole with him, bayonet fixed, and had to be dispatched.
Descended from very minor Lincolnshire gentry, Sutton was an engineer by training, and before the war had worked building a railway in Paraguay and refineries in Mexico. The latter job, for Lord Cowdray, who controlled much of the Mexican oil industry in those days, coincided with the Mexican revolution. Thus from earliest times Sutton was almost as much a military engineer as a civil one, and it was this borderline area that would always intrigue him.
When his arm healed, Captain Sutton, as he was by then, worked in the War Office, where he became acquainted with Lloyd George and Churchill. He was first assigned to vet ideas for new weapons, which were pouring in from cranks and amateur inventors. One prototype was for a delayed-action "musical bomb". It would be fired in the direction of the enemy who, taking it for a dud, would grow accustomed to the sight of it, perhaps dragging it into their shelter as a piece of furniture. Then it could be detonated by remote control by means of a flute-like instrument, whose tone, Sutton or his ghost-writer would state in the 1930s, "smacked of cubist art and the hellish dissonances of futuristic symphonies." Sutton himself came up with significant improvements to the trench mortar called the Stokes gun, and in 1917, when the Americans joined the war, he was sent to the United States to sell the big-wigs there on its efficacy. But the Armistice found him at sixes and sevens.
Amid all the stories of the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war, he also heard rumours of an incipient gold rush in Siberia and sent a colleague to do a little intelligence work. His source wired back: "Placer creeks better than reported. Great opportunities for dredging. Political situation improved. Country apparently secure under Whites." Sutton bought a three-hundred-ton dredge, the kind mounted on barges at Dawson in the Yukon, for shipment to Japan. From there it was taken across to Vladivostok on the Russian mainland to begin a two-thousand-mile trip in-country: first to Khararovsk, then up the Amur River to Blagoveshchensk (which he called Blago for short) on the border with Manchuria, and finally north some more to a promising tributary of the Zeya River, where there was a three-way dispute involving Japanese troops as well as the Bolsheviks and the Cossacks. Hearing of widespread shortages of just about all types of goods, Sutton also brought with him 10,000 pairs of shoes, 15,000 barrels of nails, and 50 tons of horseshoes ("for good luck"). He arrived to find that the "whole country, as far as the Urals, was under the White regime-or rather, the Pink regime. Like the deceptive radish, Siberia was both red and white and when bitten into had a peppery taste."
The so-called Intervention was under way, and Vladivostok was full of British and American invaders (Sutton was too polite to notice the Canadians). When unloading the dredge, local stevedores dropped a crucial part of it into the harbour, and Sutton had to retrieve it himself, as the last commercial diver in the port, the authorities assured him, had recently been executed, "they could not recall just why." Sutton carried a gold ingot with him, from which he shaved off appropriate gratuities with a strong knife. By bribing certain officials (he characterized the civil service by its "fantastic explanations, salutes, heel-clickings, eye-rolling, and bombast") he was permitted to commandeer two locomotives and forty-one pieces of rolling stock, which he fortified for the trip north in deference to the various snipers along the way.
One-Arm Sutton's book, also called One-Arm Sutton, contains some attractive travel-writing, as when he tells of his slow passage "with many incomprehensible pauses, through a sad, brown country flanked by low hills. It was indeed a mean country, and I cannot imagine anyone having an affection for it. The villages were all of a drab sameness, even to the wooden triumphal arches erected for some forgotten royal progress that never came off. The streets were unpaved, dusty, and rutted; soon they would be knee-deep with icy mud. An occasional farmer, working in the fields; an occasional traditional blouse and visored cap, high boots and loose trousers."
Later, as his mood and the Russian terrain improved, he revealed his class origins and political orientation:
"Here was a country as big as Canada and as fertile, a country whose vast natural resources were practically untouched, unheeded. To the north there were great forests. Nearly every creek was a potential gold mine. And all this magnificent country ready to the hand of the empire-builder.
"I allowed myself to dream a bit, visioning a future for this land, a future in which with luck I might play a part. Perhaps I saw myself-another Cecil Rhodes or a Shaughnessy-creating States out of a wilderness, order out of chaos, business out of banditry."
But fulfillment proved difficult to extract from the place. Sutton was attacked and robbed by Chinese bandits before reaching Blago, which was soon burned in a raid by the Red Army. He and what he unselfconsciously calls his "right-hand man", a Greek with whom he communicated in Spanish, set up in a former bank, trading the shoes, both horse- and human, to the new Bolshevik government. Eventually they even sold the dredge, which had cost him $75,000 to transport. In time, he claimed, he accumulated gold worth $1 million, only to have it confiscated by the local commissar, from whom it was confiscated by Moscow without so much as a thank-you. Despite more bandit attacks on the way out, Sutton left Siberia with $200,000, promptly lost in speculation on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. That put him in China and began the second and better-known part of his career.
This was the heyday of Chinese warlordism, when, in an atmosphere of generalized instability, the central government went through six presidents in ten years. Sutton was not only a sapper but he knew weapons. Surely he could find work in China as so many other advisers were doing. It was now 1924, and he travelled to Hankow to interest Wu P'ei-fu in his schemes, but to no avail. So he accepted an offer from General Yang-sen, a lesser leader, to go to Chungking (Chongqing), high up in remote Szechewan (Sichuan), nominally under the general's governance. Two other armies, independent of each other, were keeping Yang's own forces at bay there.
For centuries, thousands of Yangtze River coolies, known as water rats, trudged up and down, in a single constant motion, bringing all Chungking's drinking water to what was even then a city of 700,000 people-"a jumble of roofs, picturesque, prismatic.houses cling like swallows' nests to the hillsides." Sutton conceived of building a modern waterworks instead, but the plan fell apart when the water rats revolted, fearful of losing their livelihood, such as it was. Not until the 1950s, after the Communists had taken over, was the old system replaced.
Yang put Sutton to work making his Stokes gun from materials at hand. To this end, a production line was set up in the provincial mint, a location that had the extra benefit of giving Sutton a steady supply of silver coins to buy the loyalty of his workers. The loyalty came dear but was worth the investment, for troops under General Ma Yu-ching soon overran the city and Sutton was compelled to withstand a siege of the lightly fortified mint for eight days and nights. At one point he was captured and taken before the general, but he created a diversion and escaped in the confusion-during which the warlord was killed. Sutton later denied that he had killed him; others remembered differently.
The Englishman made it back to the mint and spiked its Krupp guns. After pausing for counsel at the home of a friendly Chinese (who was killed six months later for his trouble), Sutton escaped, carrying $20,000, to a British steamer on the river. Such a vessel would ordinarily have been immune from local squabbles, but this time the ship was attacked because Sutton was known to be aboard. He made it down through the three gorges to Hankow, where Wu P'ei-fu declined a further opportunity to hire him. In time Sutton went north for five years to be chief of staff to Marshal Chang Tso-lin, who gave him the rank of major-general. Three years into the contract, Sutton helped his new master defeat Wu, which made Chang the most powerful of the warlords. Wu should have seen the future coming toward him but he did not. He let down his guard and for the first time failed to stay abreast of technological know-how from the West.
Sutton not only published his autobiography but twice sat for word-portraits by Charles Drage, Cohen's first biographer. George Woodcock wrote in The British in the Far East that in such "flamboyant condottieri" as Sutton and Cohen "the fabric of the empire shredded out into its most disreputable fringes." Such figures were usually disavowed by the British colonial establishment. "Yet they worked under its shadows, made its outposts their bases, and in their own way helped to keep alive its commercial and political influence." Sutton was perhaps unusual in being both an official pariah and a popular figure. In Woodcock's words, he "was welcome by the British merchant community whenever he came down to Shanghai, and the time he won 30,000 pounds in the Shanghai Sweepstake was remembered as the deserved victory of a hero. For One-Arm Sutton and his kind were not only brave men to be admired; they were also good for business-the arms business. Few of the merchants of Shanghai were perspicacious enough to realize that by encouraging the warlords, the British mercenaries opened the way to forces-Japan and later communism-which would destroy the British commercial hegemony in China."
Sutton is worth going on about because he too had a Canadian connection. In the 1930s he bought up a small island on the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island, with the intention of developing it as a residential paradise. He might have become a Shaughnessy-sized capitalist after all. But events and compulsions called him back to China, and like Cohen he was interned by the Japanese at Stanley Barracks. (What conversations they must have had.) Unlike Cohen, he didn't survive the ordeal.