Following on from New York Times bestseller Midnight in Peking, Paul 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 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 Route Vallon Gypsy Clan
Base: Route Vallon (Nanchang Lu)
Shanghai’s gypsies kept to themselves. They lived almost exclusively on Route Vallon (Nanchang Lu), round onto Rue Bourgeat (Changle Lu) and Route Pere Robert (Ruijin Er Lu). Essentially three extended families, there were as many as 300 of them at their peak, and members of the community inter-married, did business with each other, and were feared by others.
Most came from Russia, or what is now Ukraine, and many were officially recorded as White Russians rather than Roma. In the 1920s, there were reports of gypsy begging gangs and organized pickpocket crews ('dippers') in Shanghai, but just how much organized crime they were into is hard to estimate – they were accused of much, much more than they were responsible for.
They were important in the entertainment industry, providing the popular gypsy bands and dancers around town. They were also into fencing stolen gems, fortune telling and various other scams.
Through their historical migrations, many of the Route Vallon gang obtained Iranian citizenship after Pearl Harbor, which placed them in the category of 'second-class enemies.' Though they were required to wear a red armband by the Japanese military police, they remained at liberty during the occupation.
They ran many bars across the city during the occupation, and specialized on joints catering to American soldiers after 1945. The Route Vallon boys were able to handle the numerous GI brawls and knife fights. After 1949, some Shanghai Roma went to the USSR with an uncertain future, while others fled to Hong Kong, Macao, Scandinavia, and many of them ended up in Brazil.
[Images courtesy of Paul French]