Gangs of Old Shanghai: The Tipsy Gang

By Paul French, March 9, 2018

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Paul French, New York Times bestselling author of Midnight in Peking, is back in China in March presenting  City of Devils in Shanghai, Suzhou and Beijing. The book sees him delve into the murky underworld of Old Shanghai. There were plenty of wrong'uns about, and a whole lot of bad blood between them. In this 'Gangs of Old Shanghai' series, French presents us with a who's who of old time organized crime, and quite the rogues gallery it is too.


The Tipsy Gang

Boss: Akim & Natya
Base: The Tipsy Café, Wayside Road (Huoshan Lu)

Once upon a time it was cocktails in Shanghai for the swells and taipans up on the roof of the Cathay Hotel. For the rest of us ordinary folk there was ‘Hongkou Hooch.’ And if your chances of getting past the doorman of Sir Victor Sassoon’s Ciro’s nightclub, or edging up close to the bar at the Shanghai Club on the Bund weren’t too good, you could always find a drink on Wayside.

The Tipsy crew were more of a business rather than a gang, catering to the drunk, the poor, those on shore leave and those who’d reached pretty much the bottom rung of the Shanghai ladder. Wayside Police Station kept a squad of tall and broad Sikh constables with bamboo lathis to break up the nightly fights on the strip.

Akim and Natya came from Russia to Wayside via Harbin and Tianjin and set up the Tipsy Café. It did not serve coffee and pastries. It sold Hongkou Hooch and brewed it up too – basically a version of Ireland’s own potcheen, but with Chinese sweet potatoes. They also made samogon Russian moonshine and, on occasion, Jingbao juice.

Akim rigged up two jerry cans out in the back yard, a piece of copper pipe salvaged from a broken down car, and distilled a few gallons of cheap and nasty local rice wine into a potent brew that, it was said, you could dissolve an army boot in (as a compliment it seems!) It might blind you, but it was cheap and got impoverished patrons drunk in record time for pennies.

In the end it wasn’t the illicit booze that did for the Tipsy Gang, but a knife fight that started on the street outside. The stabbed prostitute staggered into the Tipsy, bled out and died on the floor of the bar. The Wayside cops decided enough was enough, and shut the place down once and for all.


Paul French will be one of the featured authors at Shanghai Literary Festival 2018 at M Glam on March 15 at 6pm and March 17 at 12pm. See event listings here and here.

He will be at the Bookworm in Suzhou on March 19, see event listing here.

He will be at the Bookworm in Beijing on March 21 and March 22, and hosting a pair of walking tours in Beijing on March 24 and March 31.

To read about more Gangs of Old Shanghai, click here.

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