The Shanghai King of Beggars – is he a product of the western imagination or an actual individual? The face in the archival photograph above (reprinted in Shanghai's newspapers in 1927) belongs to the same man as the illustration in the fiction book A'Chu and Other Stories (1920), by Emma T. Anderson:
This illustration is, in fact, a stock photo. Various authors bought the rights to use it from Underwood & Underwood, New York, so it also appeared in J. R Chitty's Things Seen in China (1909) and possibly in other books. The original was a stereoscopic image taken by James Ricalton near the Longhua pagoda 龙华塔. This photographer vividly described this occasion in the Underwood & Underwood's annotated catalog China Through the Stereoscope (1910):
"On our arrival at Loong Wah, near the pagoda of the same name, which you see a few hundred feet before us, this jolly Old Beggar marched directly into our presence with greasy, but by no means a starved-looking face, and asked for alms. We were at once struck by his extraordinary manner as well as by his extraordinary appearance; the first thing unusual in his manner was his smiling face and his cheerful willingness to stand before the camera. This he did just as you see him, and before receiving alms. [...] You can see how thickly the rags are laid on, stratum upon stratum; but you cannot see how dirty they are. Clean rags would not be in good form. Even his royal scepter, which you will notice is a piece of bamboo, is decorated with emblems of poverty."
Here is a closeup from another print of the same slide:
Image: Museum of New Zealand
If only the King of Beggars had known he was entitled to the royalties from the use of his image he wouldn't have missed this opportunity!
There is also another portrait of him, taken in the fields but possibly still in Longhua. He is wearing yet another outfit (just how many did he have?):
So is he the Shanghai King of Beggars? Yes and no. There was more than one King.
Lu Hanchao's wonderful study of mendicancy and vagrancy, observes that in the 1930s the city had eight major beggar ringleaders, known as the Eight Brothers. Only their last names were known: Lu, Zhou, Zhong, Wang, two Shens and two Zhaos. The Eight Brothers divided Shanghai into four districts – East, West, South, and North – and each of the four territories was headed by two Brothers. "Toughness and aggressiveness, organizational skill, connections with the city's broader gang organizations such as the Green Gang, and some sort of chivalry usually were the keys that allowed a beggar to rise above his peers." So while the Longhua King was clearly the most photogenic, the downtown King was, perhaps, more powerful.
The organization was tight, but far from centralized: "Each ringleader appointed and controlled about six Big Heads, each of whom in turn had about five Little Heads. Rank and file members were also organized into five "labor unions" according to their place of origins: Fengyang (of Anhui province), Huiyang (of Henan province), Shandong, Jiangbei (northern Jiangsu province), and Shanghai locals. Each group had a Senior to represent the gang's interests and to communicate with the top beggar ringleaders." Lu describes in detail the income sources of the organization (alms and tax from the stores). For alms, there were a number of popular techniques and specializations, such as "midnight beggars," "bridge helpers," "red" (happy) and "white" (sad) events, "following a dog," "public toilet beggars," and others. By the mid-1930s, about 20,000 beggars were in the streets in Shanghai, and the number increased in the following years.
For the foreigners, however, the organization remained forever mysterious. Ellen Thorbecke writes in her Shanghai (1941): "It is officially denied, but often proved, that there is a well organized beggar league in Shanghai, headed by a beggar-king or chieftain who rules his ragged people with justice and autocratic power. Nobody knows him or could tell where he lives. Nevertheless his activities are obvious in the admirable manner in which he distributes the huge army of cripples, blind people and other wretches throughout the town. There are never two 'parties' working on the same spot; but on the other hand, there is hardly any spot without a beggar." The latter observation reflects the strict "zoning" within the city; a shrewd pedestrian could quickly get rid of his pestering followers by simply crossing the street – if that street marked a division between begging territories.
In 1930, a journalist of the North-China Daily News tried to locate the downtown King:
"Does that mysterious individual, the King of the Beggars, exist in Shanghai? If he does, he is the most elusive person in the port, for a thorough search for him last week failed dismally. Even those, whose business is to know everything that is going on, are doubtful about him, though they knew that he had reigned only a few years ago and levied tribute on all mendicants who came into this territory, controlled their beats, gave them orders, and also looked after their interests. [...] "Within recent years, the Chinese authorities have been strict against beggars. They have been periodically rounded up and kept in beggars' homes where they have been taught some trade to earn their keep. And thus the once powerful organization has been driven underground, and what was once a compact and strong body has now probably split up into a number of small sections, each with its secret headquarters and each governed by its own petty head. Perhaps in the background there looms the old chief, but who he is and where he hides nobody knows."
The photographer for that article just ended up disturbing some unfortunate persons and chasing them from their spots.
The beggars' organization did not look all that weakened by roundups in the eyes of Ernest Hauser, the author of Shanghai: City for Sale (1940):
"Old men would follow you for two or three blocks, murmuring pleas in the first block, obscenities in the second, curses in the third. And you were wise to drop your dragon coppers into their hollow hands. You did not know, of course, that in the fourth block they were likely to transfer some of their lice to your coat. You did not know that begging, as every other racket in this wide-open town, was organized as a monopoly. You did not know that those half-grown children were working for an unseen overlord; and that the half-starved mother had driven a pin into her half-starved baby to make it cry when you were passing her. You had not heard of His Heinous Majesty, the King of Beggars, who was ruling this mendicant army from behind the scenes. For all his hollow hands, His Majesty might have extended a helping hand to you, at times: if you had left a brief case in a public rickshaw, for example, he was the person to see. His observant subjects had watched you hailing that rickshaw on the corner of Nanking Road and Thibet Road, had watched you on your way along the Race Course, had seen you getting off on Bubbling Well. They knew the rickshaw and they knew the puller, and you would have your brief case back in a few hours, for a moderate contribution to His Majesty's treasury. You did not know, of course, and you dropped your dragon coppers into big and little hands."
Lynn Pan, in Tracing it Home (1995), observed that in 1937 things took a turn for the worse for the King of Beggars (and not just for him). Since the catastrophic onset of the Japanese occupation the city was flooded with impoverished refugees, and there was a lot of competition. But the old King still had some leverage:
"For a good many years, whenever my grandfather celebrated his birthday, the King of Beggars would come to the house to wish him a long life. The King of Beggars was no pauper, but a swell who was often seen wearing a long silk gown and Bata leather shoes that could do with a more thorough polish but which gleamed in the instep. He looked a man with a place in society, not just someone at the top of the dunghill. [...]Those who at fist begrudged him his cut of their takings had soon learned better; Shanghai was no place for the freelance beggar. My grandfather was one of his biggest and best clients in Frenchtown, regular with his payments, a man of his word. To the question as to whether he did right by his client, the King of Beggars would give an unhesitating 'Yes.' Let my grandfather ask himself how he would like it if his car were scratched the minute his chauffeur's back was turned, or if beggars beset him in droves whenever he stepped out of a street doorway. By paying his dues, he was sheathed against such nastiness."
Image: Sam Tata
ALSO... There was a foreign King of Beggars in the city. And he was a Russian. But that's another story...