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IMG_2829I just finished the memoirs of Joseph Shieh (Xue Gengxin 薛耕莘 in Chinese) written with help of French journalist Marie Holzman. This is actually the kind of readings that leaves you with dozens, not to say thousands of questions. 

Hired by the Shanghai French Police in 1930, Joseph Shieh made his way through those troubled years marked by the control of gangs on the French Concession, the fierce fight between Communist Party and Kuomintang party and later the Japanese invasion. He ended his life in 2008 at the age of 104, having passed 25 years of his life in Mao's prisons due to his "support of colonialists and Kuomintang", although he claims his role also benefited to many communists hiding in the French Concession.


Educated in the catholic faith by the French Jesuits in Zikawei (read my article about Father Jacquinot and Chang Chongren to know more about them), his mother was half English half Chinese, which contributed to his multicultural background in the first place. He was particularly skilled to bear with the Shanghai multiracial context of those years. To describe the French Police, Robert Jobez, who was its Vice-Director in 1933 writes in his book "Être  Français libre", it was composed of 244 French staff, 3 Russian squads, a battalion of Anamites coming from the Indochina Native Guard, mainly composed of Thos, and some 1800 Chinese agents, translators and secretaries. When looking at the names of the French Police officers in the 1936 Hong Book, one clearly realizes that no Chinese was on the list, mostly used as field detectives. Their role, however, was decisive in the handling of the various situations that the French could not cope with within the complex Shanghai underworld, both for language and cultural reasons. 

A good exemple can be given with Green Gang boss Huang Jinrong who acted at the same time as chief detective in the French Police, a good way for the Foreigners to maintain public order through the use of such powerful allies. Of course the counterpart was to keep a blind eye on the running opium traffic, gambling houses and prostitution. About the collusion of Police and gangs, Joseph Shieh writes in his memoirs : It was impossible to be absolutely honest if you were a policeman in Shanghai 1930s. Not long after I joined, I was contacted by some emissaries of the mafia bosses who gave me 80 Yuans per month as "opium and gambling house indemnity". I received this indemnity for five months. Then M. Fiori was replaced by Colonel Fabre and the situation got a little cleaner.


The main interest of Joseph Shieh's memoirs is that he tells a lot about the methods used to solve the problems in the French Concession. A major difficulty came with the replacement of Capitaine Fiori by Colonel Fabre (read about it in my article about Albert Londres). This latter decided to close gambling houses and ban opium from the French Concession, which was a direct attack on Green Gang boss Du Yuesheng. Du first tried to bribe Fabre who refused and asked Du to publicly admit his attempt, which meant a lost of face for a Gang boss. Instead of that, the Green Gang chose to start a strike in the French Tramway company which blocked the French Concession for two months. A solution had to be found. Shieh writes that he persuaded Fabre to renounce his public apology in exchange of a promise from Du not to trouble the public order any more.

Thanks to Shieh's initiative, the famous gangster eventually put an end to the strike within one day and remained grateful to the inspector for helping him saving face. This is a typical exemple of the Chinese way of solving problems, very different from the tougher methods in the International Settlement (read my article about Fairnbairn). Many others cases are mentioned by Joseph Shieh, who had to deal with personalities' security or even privacy as well as large scale robbery from corporations. Each time, the soft way was prefered!


In 1937 things became different with the Japanese invasion of Shanghai and the set up of the Wang Jingwei puppet regime. Secret or private armies were at work in the Foreign Concessions, including assassins based on 76 Jessfield Road working for the collaborationist government or Chiang Kai Shek's violent Blue Shirts (read the Auxion De Ruffe affair). It became even more difficult for the French Police members to maintain the public security as political crimes had become a daily routine. At some point, even our inspector feared for his life after refusing, he said, to help Wang Jingwei. He then became member of the Green Gang, who was allied with the Blue Shirts, in order to be protected.

We have then interesting details on the admission rites within the Chinese triads given by Shieh. In 1943, as the French lost control of the Concession, Joseph got promoted as Chief of Security of Police Station number 3 then Head of Poste Mallet. He had to work closely with the Japanese commander Goto. In 1945, Chiang Kai Shek came back to power and things turned out badly for him with a first 3 years in Tilanqiao jail. Eventually released in 1948, the truce was short as 1951 Mao's anti rightist movement sent him to labor camps for 25 years!


Joseph Shieh got released in 1976 but his full honor was only regained in 1990, clearing him from all previous political accusations. His late life pride was to be become member of the prestigious Shanghai Cultural and Historical Institute after translating some Zicawei bibliotheca Jesuits manuscripts into Chinese. Joseph Shieh remained until his death one of the latest eye witnesses of the former Police of the French Concession with a unique point of view on daily interaction with Shanghai underworld. So his memoirs are a must-read!