Gangs of Old Shanghai: The Swiss Gang

By Paul French, September 16, 2019

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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 Swiss Gang

Boss: Elly 'The Swiss' Widler
Base: The Six Nations Casino, Avenue Haig (Huashan Lu)

Born in China to a Swiss father who ran a notorious smugglers bar in Kalgan (Zhangjiakou), Elly Widler ran a fur trapping business on the Tibetan borders, and then an investment scheme in Chongqing that went bust and all the money disappeared (into his pocket).

He was then kidnapped by an angry warlord, who held him hostage for six months until he got his money back.

Elly then hightailed it to Shanghai, selling guns and body armor to the Shanghai Municipal Police. He set himself up in a suite at the Broadway Mansions on Suzhou Creek, where he redecorated the entire place like a Swiss chalet – though he’d never been to Switzerland in his life!

Broadway Mansions today

He recruited French, German and Swiss thieves to form his gang, and was loved by every one of them. Nobody in the foreign criminal underworld of Shanghai didn’t love Elly ‘The Swiss’.

In 1940, he stole a haul of copper ingots from an American-owned warehouse in Shanghai (the equivalent of USD8 million today). The incident is regarded as the largest single heist in Shanghai’s history (you can read all about that blag, and more about Elly, right here).

Elly 'The Swiss' Widler

Afterwards, Elly went on the run. He bought the massive Six Nations Casino in the Badlands (take a tour of the Shanghai Badlands here), to put himself beyond the reach of the Shanghai Municipal Police, and was forced to pay enormous ‘taxes’ to the Japanese to not be handed over.

As a Swiss citizen, he remained free after Pearl Harbor, but eventually he stole one too many times without the Japanese army’s permission, and they locked him up in the notorious Bridge House jail and torture chambers on Sichuan Bei Lu. 

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. His young wife also fled Shanghai to settle in some comfort in America.

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

[Images courtesy of Paul French]

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