Morris (Moishe) Abraham “Two-Gun” Cohen (1887–1970) was born in Poland to a large (eight children) observant Jewish family. He grew up in East London. Morris Cohen was a tough kid who became a petty thief. Growing up, he was in trouble often. He was overweight and was called “Fat Moishe”. He became a boxer, but never fought on Friday night, as he was required to be home for Sabbath dinner.
Moishe Cohen was known as a petty thief and was sent to a Hayes Industrial School for delinquent Jewish boys. After graduating school at the age of eighteen, he left England and moved to Canada. He first worked as a farmer, rancher, dishwasher, but eventually became a gambler, mastering the art of cheating. He became a familiar face to the Canadian Police. Cohen also became friendly with some of the Chinese exiles who had come to work on the Canadian Pacific Railways. He loved the camaraderie and the food.
Cohen’s life changed drastically one evening in Saskatoon when he entered a chinese restaurant and found the aged Chinese restaurant owner, Mah Sam, being held at a gunpoint. Without hesitation, Moishe knocked out the robber and tossed him out into the street. He returned the stolen money to the owner. Such an act was unheard of at the time, as few white men ever came to the aid of the Chinese. To the Chinese, he became a hero at a time when anti-Asiatic feeling in Canada was even greater than its anti-Semitism. Cohen became the only white man admitted to the ranks of the secret Chinese Tong.
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the future leader of China came to Canada on a clandestine mission to raise money for the revolution from the Canadian-Chinese immigrants. He met Cohen in one of the secret meeting. They became friends and Moishe Cohen became his bodyguard while traveling in Canada. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen gave Moishe Cohen money to purchase guns and ammunition for the the Chinese revolution, which Moishe smuggled into China inside Singer sewing machines. During this period he began advocating for the Chinese.
Morris Cohen soon moved to the city of Edmonton. There he became manager of one of the provincial capital’s leading real estate agencies. In Edmonton, in Pre World War 1, Cohen recruited 750 members of the Chinese community and trained them to be soldiers in the future Chinese Army, and to serve in the present Canadian army.
When WW1 broke, the Chinese people were first refused by the Canadian army, but later, due to shortage of people, were enlisted to serve in the labor brigade. Moishe Cohen, who also volunteered to serve, was sent to France and fought with the Canadian Railway Troops in Europe during WW1. He saw some fierce fighting at the Western Front, especially during the Third Battle of Ypres. Later he became the leader of the Chinese volunteers.
After the war, he returned to Canada, but the economy had declined and Cohen looked for new opportunities. In 1922 he headed to China to help close a railway deal for Sun Yat-sen with Northern Construction and JW Stewart Ltd.
Cohen thought that the Chinese dream to free their land was the greatest dream of all. In Shanghai and Canton (Guangzhou), Cohen trained Sun’s small armed forces to box and shoot, and told people that he was an aide-de-camp and an acting colonel in Sun Yat-sen’s army. Soon he became one of Sun’s main protectors, shadowing the Chinese leader to conferences and war zones. Dr. Sung valued Cohen who be became his friend and confidant. He saved Sung’s life at least twice.
On one occasion, Cohen fought off three assailants attacking Sun on a train. He was nicked in his left hand. The wound made him think that it would have been a problem if it had been the right arm. Cohen started carrying a second gun. The western community were intrigued by Sun’s gun-toting protector and began calling him “Two-Gun Cohen.” The name stuck.
Moishe Cohen was very friendly to the Jewish community in China. He would come to court to influence the outcome when a Jew was on trial . He attended B’nai B’rith and Zionist meetings, attended synagogue on holidays, and always tried to be helpful.
Ultimately, Cohen became a military adviser, and an arms dealer. In 1922, he was named Director of the Chinese secret service. Cohen had a very limited knowledge of Chinese, but in his new post, he was able to use Yiddish quite a bit.
Sun died of cancer in 1925, and Cohen went to work for a series of Southern Chinese Kuomintang leaders, from Sun’s son, Sun Fo, and Sun’s brother-in-law, the banker TV Soong, to such warlords as Li Jishen and Chen Jitang. He was also acquainted with Chiang Kai-shek, whom he knew from when Chiang was commandant of the Whampoa Military Academy, which was located outside of Canton.
In 1927, Chiang Kai-Shek named Cohen to avital post with the Central Bank of China, where he was responsible for bullion vaults and issuing new currency. He came a long way from being a petty thief, a student in a school for juvenile delinquents, and a professional gambler.
Two-Gun was named to command the Chinese 19th field army. Time Magazine, in 1931, reported that Cohen “was gazetted by the Canton government a Brigadier General.” He led Nationalist troops in fighting against both the Japanese and communist Chinese. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, Cohen joined the fight. Cohen was in Hong Kong when the Japanese attacked in December 1941. He placed Soong Ching-ling and her sister Ai-ling onto one of the last planes out of the British colony. Cohen stayed behind to fight, and when Hong Kong fell later that month, the Japanese threw him into Stanley Prison Camp. There the Japanese badly beat him and he languished in Prison. By identifying himself as a Canadian businessman, he was able to fool the Japanese. Ultimately, Moishe Cohen was among a small number of prisoners released in exchange for important Japanese officials held in the US. He returned to Canada.
In 1945, the United Nations was being formed in San Francisco. And a resolution proposing the partitioning of Palestine into two states – one Jewish and the other Arabic – was to be submitted to the new organization. The international Jewish community was on hand to do what it could to see that the Resolution was passed. Two-Gun flew to San Francisco and convinced the head of the Chinese delegation to abstain from voting when he learned they planned to oppose partition. That abstention ultimately helped ensure passage of the measure partitioning Palestine – and allowing the creation of Israel.
He died suddenly in 1970, aged 83. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Salford. Representatives of both Mainland China and the Government of Taiwan attended (a rare occasion when the two enemies joined together in a public ceremony). His tombstone is black granite. One side of it is English and Hebrew, the other in Chinese characters, arranged by Mme Sun through the Chinese Embassy in London. She was still Vice-President of China. She never forgot her friendship with Morris and his devotion to her and Dr Sun. It was her last tribute.His grave’s headstone is in English, Hebrew, and in Chinese (a tribute from the people he served so well.) The tribute identified him as “Mah Sam”.It means “clenched fist.”