Sun Yat-sen’s Bodyguard, Cohen Two-Gun

My historian brother alerted me to a fascinating far outlier, Two-Gun Cohen. Here’s the beginning of his entry on Wikipedia.

Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen (1887 – 1970) was a Polish-born adventurer who became a bodyguard for the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen and a general in the Chinese army.

According to a biography written by Charles Drage with Cohen’s assistance, Morris Cohen was born in London to a family that just arrived from Poland.

Morris Abraham Cohen was actually born into a poor Polish-Jewish family in Radzanów, Poland. Soon after his birth in 1887, the Cohens escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe and emigrated to London’s East End.

Cohen loved the theaters, the streets, the markets and the boxing arenas of the English capital more than he did Jewish day school, and in April 1900 he was arrested for picking pockets. A judge sent him to the Hayes Industrial School for wayward Jewish lads. When he was released in 1905, the Cohens shipped young Morris off to western Canada with the hope that the fresh air and open plains of the New World would reform his ways.

Cohen initially worked on a farm near Whitewood, Saskatchewan. He tilled the land, tended the livestock and learned to shoot a gun and play cards. He did that for a year, and then started wandering through the Western provinces, making a living as a carnival talker, gambler, grifter and successful real estate broker. Some of his activitites landed him in jail.

Cohen also became friendly with the Chinese exiles who had come to work on the Canadian transcontinental railroads. In Saskatoon he came to the aid of a Chinese restaurant owner who was being robbed. Cohen knocked out the thief and tossed him out into the street. Such an act was unheard of the time, as few white men ever came to the aid of the Chinese.

The Chinese welcomed Cohen and eventually invited him to join the Tongmenghui, Sun Yat-sen’s anti-Manchu organization. Cohen begun to advocate for the Chinese.

Cohen fought with the Canadian Railway Troops in Europe during World War I where part of his job involved supervising Chinese laborers. In 1922 he headed to China to help close a railway deal for Sun Yat-sen with Northern Construction and JW Stewart Ltd. Once there, he asked Sun for a job as a bodyguard.

In Shanghai and Canton 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. His lack of Chinese — he spoke a pidgin form of Cantonese at best — was thankfully not a problem since Sun, his wife Soong Qingling and many of their associates were western educated and spoke English. Cohen’s colleagues started calling him Ma Kun, and he soon became one of Sun’s main protectors, shadowing the Chinese leader to conferences and war zones. After one battle where he was knicked by a bullet, Cohen started carrying a second gun. The western community began calling the gun-toting aide “Two-Gun Cohen.”

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