More than once on this blog, I’ve talked about real-life people upon whom fictional characters have been based. Today we’re going to go in the other direction – a real-life individual who was, in a manner of speaking, based on a fictional character. Sort of.
In the first half of the twentieth century, starting in 1912, there was a series of books by a gentleman named Sax Rohmer about a Chinese character called Fu Manchu. You may well have heard of him. The character was a supervillain of sorts, using elaborate deathtraps and exotic henchmen to commit terrible and dastardly acts of criminality from his East End base. He was, in short, the archetypal “Yellow Peril.” Not the first such character, nor the last by a long shot, but the best-known and most influential.
The stories, as you might have already guessed, are incredibly racist. Not only is Fu Manchu a negative stereotype, but there’s a simple way of telling whether a character is evil in a Fu Manchu novel. Are they Chinese? Then they’re evil. A mixed-race priest in the second book is described as being “not entirely innocent of Asian blood,” which I think says it all. Oh yes, and the priest turns out to be evil. Rohmer himself argued that the books weren’t racist, because it was well known that the Chinese were a bunch of criminals anyway. Cough.
So when a real life Chinese criminal mastermind appeared in London, the newspapers thought it was Christmas. The gentleman in question is pictured on the right and went by the name of Brilliant Chang. Born Chan Nan, he came to the attention of the media in the early 1920s. He operated a restaurant on Regent Street, meanwhile selling drugs from a room upstairs. Newspapers of the day tend to mysteriously talk about “vices of the Orient” and suchlike, but cocaine seems to have been the main moneyspinner, bringing in over a million pounds over the years.
Apparently he was also something of a ladies’ man, with a gentlemanly way about him. The papers took this, of course, as a sign that he was hypnotising innocent flowers of English girlhood with some sort of sleazy Oriental magic. The World Pictorial News, for example, described him as essentially buying women with drugs, and when he did “the flame of passion burned more brightly within and he hugged himself with unholy glee.” I’m surprised they didn’t go the whole hog and have him twirl his moustache as well. Of course, the papers didn’t miss the opportunity to take a pop at women as well. The Daily Mail, for instance – that bastion of progressive thinking – noted that “Men do not as a rule take to drugs, unless there is a hereditary influence, but women are more temperamentally inclined.” Chang would later be directly accused of “corrupting the womanhood of this country.”
In 1924 he moved to Limehouse, which in those days (that being the Docklands) was Chinatown. The present-day West End Chinatown only appeared in the 1970s. He opened a new restaurant and, of course, started selling his more lucrative treats round the back. Unfortunately, a bust later that year would result in his arrest. Apparently there was a strong female presence at his trial – probably because they’d been corrupted by drugs or Chineseness or something. After being imprisoned for eighteen months, Chang was deported.
He was arrested again for the same crime in 1927 in Paris, but jumped bail and went missing. Thereafter, it’s not clear what became of him. Some stories have him ending his days in poverty and others have him becoming a secret drug trafficking mastermind. The former seems unlikely for a wealthy and resourceful gent such as Brilliant, but the latter, too, sounds like a sensationalist Fu Manchu-style bit of journalistic fun. Guess we’ll never know now.
I’m not entirely clear why, but drug crimes seem to have been inherently linked with race in the public mind during the twentieth century. You didn’t get people claiming that the razor gangs of the 1930s were the result of some deficiency in the Italian mind, or that prostitution was a curiously Maltese vice in the 1950s. Yet just about every report on drug dealing in the first half of the twentieth century seems to throw in something about the evil Chinese or the monstrous West Indian and, as like as not, they’ll throw in something about how they’re seducing white women. Says a lot about society, really.