Two gun Cohen

Morris Cohen (in the white suit) with Chinese officers celebrating the first anniversary of the founding of the Nationalist Government (1926). From the collection of Josef L Rich.Morris Cohen (in the white suit) with Chinese officers celebrating the first anniversary of the founding of the Nationalist Government (1926). From the collection of Josef L Rich.

Morris Cohen, the inspiration behind The General Dies at Dawn starring Gary Cooper, will be the subject of a Wanstead Players production at the Kenneth More Theatre this month, directed by Spencer Simmons.

From a babe in arms in Russia in 1887 to the East End of London, then the Wild West of Canada, the First World War, China, the Second World War and finally dying in Manchester in 1970 aged 83, Morris Cohen did it all. He was a larger-than-life character who lived life to the full.

As a child in the East End he loved the music hall and hated school. He was a child boxer and then progressed to breaking the windows of houses for a glazier, who would subsequently appear and fix them for the grateful owners. He also became a pickpocket, and was caught and sent to a reform school for four years.

When he came home, his parents sent him to Canada to work on a distant cousin's ranch. There he learned to shoot and play cards and dice. He then worked, among other things, as a land agent, fairground barker and conman, but he loved to play poker with the Chinese community.

One day he saved the life of a Chinese restauranter and became a hero of the community. He joined a Chinese Tong and was introduced to Dr Sun Yat Sen, the first man to try and unite China. Cohen became his bodyguard and spent many years in China protecting both Dr Sun and his wife, whom he was smitten by. One day he was shot in the arm and decided that he should carry two guns in case it happened again. The Hong Kong press quickly named him Two Gun Cohen.

In the First World War he joined the Canadian railway troops and was wounded several times. On his return to Canada he was in court more than once for being a troublemaker. On one such occasion, when he was accused of inciting a riot when German businesses were attacked, he defended himself and was successful.

Eventually he returned to China and was made a General. After Dr Sun's death he helped Chiang Hai Shek and, when the Communists under Mao Tse Tung prevailed, he was one of the few people who could pass between Communist China and Nationalist Taiwan.

In 1941 he was arrested by the Japanese in Hong Kong, put in a prison camp and then taken to the Kempeitai headquarters (the Japanese Gestapo), where he was beaten and tortured. Eventually he was released and returned to Canada. He married, but it ended in divorce as he still constantly travelled to China trying to broker commercial deals. When the formation of the state of Israel was to be voted on by the United Nations, it was Cohen who was asked to persuade the Chinese not to vote against the resolution. Eventually, he moved back to England. When he died in 1970, both the Communist and Nationalist Chinese sent representatives to the funeral.

How can a play tell such an amazing story? Come along and see.

Two Gun Cohen runs from 23 to 25 May at the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford (7.30pm each day with a Saturday matinée at 3pm). Tickets are £10 (concessions: £9; theatre club members: £8). Call 020 8553 4466

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