Tongdeli and Tongyili – A Taste of Shanghai’s French Concession in Suzhou
By Steve Koss
There’s little argument that Shanghai life at its most notorious took place in the 1920s and 1930s, the era of the notorious criminal “Big Ears” Du (Du Yuesheng 杜月笙). Along with “Pockmarked” Huang (Huang Jinrong 黄金荣), and Zhang Xiaolin张啸林 (1877 – 1940), this gangster trio’s infamous Green Gang Triad constituted a Shanghai Mafia, controlling most of the city’s vice trade, from opium and gambling dens to brothels and protection rackets.
While the names of “The Three Tycoons” (三大亨, san daheng) may be recognizable to many Suzhouren and others familiar with Shanghai’s checkered early-twentieth century years, far fewer are likely aware of the mark—still visible today—“Big Ears” Du left on Suzhou’s ancient city. Yet thanks to Du Yuesheng, a stroll down a couple of parallel, not-so-hidden alleys within a stone’s throw of Guanqian Jie can give you an architectural taste of the French Concession in Shanghai’s International Settlement of the 1920s.
The Suzhou connections actually begin with Du’s mentor, “Pockmarked” Huang. Born in Suzhou to a police detective, Huang’s family relocated to Shanghai five years after their only son’s birth. Apprenticed as a picture-frame maker, the young man soon found himself at age twenty-two following in his father’s footsteps. However, his position as a detective in the French Settlement led him increasingly into contact with the local criminal element even as his crime-solving reputation propelled him upward within the French Concession’s police ranks.
In 1900, Huang Jinrong fashioned his most crucial alliance—he married Lin Guisheng 林桂生, a Suzhounese woman who became his most trusted advisor and helped steer his way into the ranks of criminal stardom. Equally important, it was Suzhou’s Lin Guisheng who recognized the criminal enterprise potential in Du Yuesheng. When “Pockmarked” Huang was arrested in 1924 for angering the military governor of Zhejiang, it was “Big Ears” Du who arranged for his boss’s release.
By the late 1920s, Huang had turned over his budding empire to Du. The wealth generated by their criminal network was immense, their profits alone said to have equaled a third of Shanghai city’s total revenue receipts. And it was at this time that “Big Ears” Du put his mark on 1930s Suzhou.
With money to spare, Du Yuesheng set out to create his own unique corner of Suzhou city, a “country home” respite from Shanghai in the nearby ancient city known for its beauty and elegance. To do so, he funded the construction of Suzhou’s first systematic real estate development in the two narrow lanes known today as Tongdeli 同德里 and Tongyili 同益里. What made them most noteworthy, however, was their architectural design; a combination of the then-popular “Minguo” style (which ran from 1912 – 1949) with the European flair of 1930s Shanghai’s French Concession.
Today’s French Concession Area in Shanghai
Needless to say, “Big Ears” Du carved out his own little corner of Tongdeli, seen today as a small courtyard-like space about halfway down the alley, with four doors facing one another. For a criminal kingpin like Du, the alley and the two pairs of facing doors in a confined area must have provided more than enough sense of privacy and security from unwanted eyes, ears, and visitors. Other wealthy financiers who plied the fringes of the Shanghai underworld are said to have been Du’s neighbors.
Even today, a walk down either lane feels like a walk through a vaguely European variant of Suzhou, from the ornate entrance arch and grape-strung arbor to the restored decorative flourishes atop each doorway in the alley. A local resident informed me that the Suzhou city government still owns many of the buildings; she pays her monthly rent to the city as landlord. Thankfully, the city took major steps in 2007 to renovate and preserve these two unusual and historic streets.
To see Tongdeli and Tongyili, travel to the intersection of Ganjiang Lu and Wusa Lu in the ancient city. As you enter Wusa Lu walking south (away from the Wyndham Hotel across the street on Ganjiang Lu), the entrance into Tongdeli will appear almost immediately on your right. The next right-hand alley entrance, perhaps 30 – 40 meters further south, will put you at the head of Tongyili. Take a stroll, and imagine yourself hanging out in the French Settlement with the big bosses of the Shanghai Green Triad Gang of the 1930s. But watch out for those armed thugs hired for their bosses’ protection!!