Shanghai's Biggest Heist by China's Most Charming Gangster

By Paul French, September 2, 2023

3 0

Following on from New York Times bestseller Midnight in PekingPaul French released City of Devils, a 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 his 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 Heist

Monday September 2, 1940, 1am, the godown of the Commercial Express and Storage Company, Szechuen Road, Shanghai International Settlement.

It took four hours for Elly Widler’s ‘Swiss Gang’ to clean out the godown of the Commercial Express and Storage Company on the Szechuen Road (Sichuan Road). They arrived after midnight, chloroformed the White Russian gate keeper and backed up half a dozen stolen delivery trucks from Hongay’s coal depot two hundred yards up the road.

The Swiss gang loaded copper ingots worth about USD8 million in today’s money onto the back of the flatbed trucks and drove them away to... who knows where. By 5am, when someone raised the alarm, the Shanghai Municipal Police arrived to find that Shanghai’s largest ever heist had happened on their turf and on their watch.

Elly Widler’s boys – Swiss by name and Swiss by nature - left the place picked clean.

The problem was the amount – USD8 million American dollars worth of ingots. Never had so much money been stolen in one heist in Shanghai; probably never in China. Elly Widler’s heist of the Commercial Express and Storage Company was the largest robbery to date ever in Shanghai, by far.

And everyone knew who had committed the act – someone had tipped off the police. Some said it was Elly himself, proud of his achievement and entering the criminal record books of Shanghai. The next morning the Chinese newspapers called Elly and the Swiss Gang ming huo, daring robbers, and people speculated on the true amount stolen. Elly Widler had just gone down in Chinese criminal history.

For days nobody had the faintest idea where Elly or any of his gang were. However, in 1940, the Shanghai International Settlement and Frenchtown were gudao, the 'Solitary Island,' surrounded by the Japanese and with all ships entering or departing the Whangpoo River searched by the Japanese River Police. Elly was lying low, somewhere close…

Elly ‘the Swiss’

There are many fantastic stories about foreign adventurers in China in the last decades of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th. Elly Widler has to be in the top five, at least.

He was the second son of David Jaffa, who’d been born in Constantinople, Turkey in 1855. At some point, frustrated by the anti-Jewish laws in Ottoman Palestine, where he was trying to do business trading with various Swiss-based companies, David Jaffa became David Widler and declared himself Swiss. Whether Switzerland ever knew anything about this new citizen is unclear!

It seems that in the 1890s David got fed up with Palestine and relocated to China with his two boys – Naoum 'Ned' and Elly. Rumor has it that David set up a travelers’ inn at Kalgan (now Zhangjiakou) in Hebei, where a railway line had just been established.

Kalgan, in the late 19th Century, was a crazy town of about 70,000 bandits, robbers, Russian tea merchants, camel trains heading for or just departing Peking, and assorted adventurers, foreign and Chinese. A British diplomat passing through at the time noted:

The Police in Kalgan wore white arm bands bearing the word ‘Police’ in both Chinese and English, while Chinese, Mongol and Russian (and other European) business people spoke a sort of bastardized pidgin Mongol to communicate.

Russian tea agents had European style houses and there was a Russian Post Office with a Russian Post Master too, as well as a Greek and Russian Orthodox church.

There were some English and Swedish missionaries, a Russo-Chinese bank, a post of the Imperial Chinese Telegraph Administration that connected China to the telegraph lines in Siberia.

And the Widler family inn which, so some say, acted as a place thieves could bring stolen goods to sell and trade. Quite a place. David Widler upped and died in 1904. Ned and Elly set out to make their own fortunes.

Ned became a noted photographer running the Pluto Photography Studio on Shanghai’s Bubbling Well Road (Nanjing Xi Lu) taking portraits of visiting maharajas, the Burmese-Chinese ‘Tiger Balm’ King Aw Boon-Haw and, so it is said, travelling to Tokyo to photograph the Japanese Emperor and his family. 

Elly went in the other direction, and headed deeper into the Chinese hinterlands…

Just a Normal Swiss Businessman

In the chaos of 1920s China, as warlords rampaged across the country grabbing territory the size of European countries for their private armies, Elly liked to refer to himself as “just a normal Swiss businessman.”

That was stretching the truth. At first he set up a business buying up fox and other furs on the Tibetan borders, taking them back to Chongqing and then shipping them down the Yangtze to Russian and Jewish furriers in Shanghai for a very decent mark-up over what he paid the local trappers in Qinghai.

It was a profitable business, and Elly flipped the proceeds into opening the Cosmos Club in Chongqing. It’s highly doubtful if Chongqing had ever had, or has ever since, had a dodgier nightclub. Elly brought jazz, gambling, opium smoking in public and Russian prostitutes to Chongqing.

Out the back he started dealing guns and ammunition to the Northern Warlords, perpetually fighting among themselves across the vast plains of Manchuria and down to Peking. 

With profits from the Cosmos gun-running operation he set up a savings trust promising big interest payments for those who chose to trust their money to Elly ‘the Swiss’ – many did, foreigners and Chinese. After all, who doesn’t trust the Swiss with money?

But Elly played too many sides. In 1923, two warlords fought a series of battles not far from Chongqing. Elly sold guns and ammo to both.

General Yang Sen of the Sichuan Clique

The losing warlord, General Yang Sen of the Sichuan Clique, took umbrage to this opportunism. Yang Sen was a Taoist master with numerous wives, concubines and children, but he didn’t like Elly selling guns to both him and his enemies simultaneously. So he took Elly hostage.

Barefoot, with a rope around his neck and his hands tied behind him, Elly was led at the head of Yang Sen’s army for 200 miles. Holding the rope was a powerful Chinese executioner, his broadsword for head-chopping slung over his back.

Yang Sen then kept Elly in a jail cell for six months, until some generous foreign diplomats (none of whom could actually work out who was responsible for Elly) secured his release.

Some said Yang Sen was glad to get rid of him – Elly had taken over the jail, organized the other prisoners into a smuggling gang that made a small fortune from opium, cigarettes and women of dubious occupation brought into the prison, and terrorized the warden into staying in his office all day.

Free, Elly decided to head to Shanghai (and, by the way, nobody back in Chongqing who ever invested in his savings trust ever saw their money again!)

On the Run

By November 1940 Elly was hiding deep in the Badlands (which you can take a tour of right here). The police had raided his luxury apartment in Broadway Mansions, right by the Garden Bridge, overlooking the Soochow Creek. Elly had long been bolt-holed up there, running scams, controlling his 'trading empire,' planning heists like the Commercial Express and living in some splendor.

Broadway Mansions today

Elly was in his early 50s; his beautiful Russian girlfriend was barely 20. He had lived his entire life in China, except a few years as a young boy in Palestine. He’d never been to Switzerland, yet he remodeled his Broadway Mansions apartment to look like it was in a luxury chalet in some affluent Swiss canton – cuckoo clocks, a roaring log fire, cow bells, wooden ornaments... fondues and bündnerfleisch for his whole gang of Swiss and French outlaws on Fridays!

But Elly had another bolt-hole, one out of the reach of the Shanghai Municipal Police. A nightclub in the Badlands of the old Western Roads District – Huxi, as the Chinese called it – out beyond the Settlement and Frenchtown, on Avenue Haig (now Huashan Lu).

Elly had built a giant nightclub and casino that covered an entire block called the Six Nations. He and his Swiss gang moved there, set up cot beds and poured themselves a large glass of kirsch to celebrate life beyond the long arm of the law.

6-nations-1.jpgThe Six Nations nightclub and casino

A Man Fighting Against the Odds

Hiding out in Shanghai in 1940 Elly was alone, apart from his gang. He’d appealed to the Swiss Consul General, arguing that he hadn’t stolen the copper ingots but only removed them on orders of the Japanese Army, and who could say no to them?

He wrote to the papers telling the people of Shanghai that he had withstood the tortures of Yang Sen’s jail cells, that his mother had been given a medal by Queen Victoria (there is absolutely no evidence for this), that he was, “a man fighting against the odds … chivalrous, generous, courageous.”

Actually, many would have agreed with him. Elly was a charming gangster. There were few inhabitants of the Shanghai demi-monde, the Badlands clubs and bars, who hadn’t regularly been stood a drink by stand-up Elly the Swiss.

At one point, Elly had somehow secured a cache of German bulletproof vests in his business dealings. The Shanghai Municipal Police needed vests as the city’s crime rate spiraled in the 1930s and guns became everyday items. But could you trust Elly to sell you decent goods?

So Elly took the police over to Hongkew Park (now Luxun Park), donned a bullet proof vest and told the nearest copper to shoot him. The policeman obliged, fired at a range of about twelve feet, and Elly went down in the Hongkou dirt.

But then he got up, showed the police the bullet lodged in the vest, took it off and showed them his bruised chest, and they bought the whole consignment and toasted the deal with bootleg champagne. Even the coppers liked Elly. 

Life was good – business was up, heists and robberies were plentiful in rich Shanghai. Things went bad a few times – Elly’s brother Ned died in 1936, of poisoning, and there were a lot of suspects, but none ever prosecuted. But Elly got rich, got a young girlfriend and got the most sumptuous pad in the Broadway Mansions.

As Shanghai Falls, So Elly Falls…

The end of Shanghai was the end of Elly. He robbed the Commercial Express godown in September 1940. For a year he hid out in some style at the Six Nations Club in the Badlands.

And then, on December 8 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and, at the same time, occupied the International Settlement of Shanghai. Elly stayed a free man, still claiming Swiss nationality (and neutrality) until the spring of 1942.

Then, somehow, he got on the wrong side of the Japanese army and they locked him up in the notorious Bridge House on Szechuen Road. Elly may well have been struck by the irony that Bridge House was just a stone’s throw from the old Commercial Express godown he’d robbed of USD8 million in September 1940. 

Unlike many others, Elly managed to survive Bridge House. He then managed to somehow get out of Shanghai to America at the end of the war. He died in 1962 in Manhattan.

He lived a pretty good life and his post-war days were said to have been quite comfortable – but then not one single, solitary ingot from the Commercial Express heist in Shanghai was ever recovered…

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

For more history stories, click here.

[Images courtesy of Paul French]

more news

47 Awesome Upcoming Events in Shanghai

The city is your oyster!

The Challenges & Rewards of Being a Family Doctor in Shanghai

A conversation with Dr. Peggy Lu of United Family Healthcare

35 Awesome Upcoming Events in Shanghai

Mother's Day and so much more!

Shanghai French School – We Change Lives with English

Lycée Français de Shanghai – much more than a French school.

Carry on Kidnapping: A New Paul French Podcast

Northern China, 1932, a chaotic time when poverty, war and desperation led to an epidemic of kidnappings.

Opium Smuggling & Femme Fatales: A New Paul French Podcast

January 1939: Seto Gin is busted smuggling several dozen tins of opium from Hong Kong to San Francisco.

0 User Comments

In Case You Missed It…

We're on WeChat!

Scan our QR Code at right or follow us at Thats_Shanghai for events, guides, giveaways and much more!

7 Days in Shanghai With

Weekly updates to your email inbox every Wednesday

Download previous issues

Never miss an issue of That's Shanghai!

Visit the archives