Morris Cohen was born Abraham Mialczyn in Radzanow, Poland. His father, Josef Leib Miaczyn, was a wheelwright who worked in the textile industry after relocating his family to London, England, in 1889. His mother was Sheindel Lipshitz. Josef changed his family name to Cohen, which was easier to pronounce, while Abraham went by Morris. Growing up, Morris was also known as “Fat Moishe” by his East-London neighbours.
An unruly youth, Cohen was arrested for pickpocketing when he was 12. After he spent five years at a trade school, Cohen’s parents sent him to work on a farm in Whitewood, Saskatchewan, in 1905 (see British Home Children). The following year, he left the farm to pursue other opportunities, working in a brick works and as a circus barker. In frequent contact with the law, he served two prison sentences — for “carnal knowledge of a girl under sixteen” (1909) and pickpocketing (1910).
Sun Yat-sen and the Tongmenghui
Cohen moved to Saskatoon in 1909. It was there that he met Mah Sam, the owner of a restaurant with illegal gambling in the back. Cohen was at that point an inveterate gambler and small-time gang member. He earned Mah’s trust and friendship when he stopped a man from robbing Mah at his restaurant. In turn, Mah drew Cohen into his circle and introduced him to the republican ideas of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary leader who sought to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and unify China, which had long suffered through civil conflict and imperial intervention.
After the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911 and a republic was established in China, Cohen became a member of the Tongmenghui (United League, or TMH), which raised funds for Sun’s campaign. Some accounts of Cohen’s life allege that he met Sun Yat-sen in 1911; however, Cohen was incarcerated for pickpocketing at the time. Still, Cohen was one of only a few Caucasian members of the organization at the time.
That same year, Cohen moved to Edmonton and became a successful real estate agent. Meanwhile, he continued hustling card players at illegal gambling saloons. He also acted as unofficial English-language press secretary for TMH, which was reorganized as the Guomingdang (GMD). He represented Chinese interests at the municipal and provincial level, where he was appointed Commissioner to Administer Oaths on 23 April 1913. As commissioner, he helped Chinese immigrants become naturalized citizens (see Chinese Head Tax in Canada). Cohen helped train members of the Chinese community in Edmonton for service in China under Sun Yat-sen. He also acquired two hundred rifles for Sun Yat-sen, which he sent to China under the guise of sewing machines.
In 1916, Cohen enlisted for service in the First World War, working his way up the ranks from lance corporal to acting sergeant. After sailing to Europe the following year with the Canadian Railway Troops, he served as a sapper in the Battle of Passchendaele. Because he could speak a pidgin form of Cantonese and had previous experience with Chinese immigrants, Cohen was put in charge of Chinese labourers employed by the army to build and maintain railway supply lines near Ypres, Belgium.
Life in China
In 1922, Cohen travelled to China after Sun Yat-sen asked him to find a Canadian company to build a railway there. Cohen contacted the commander of his railway battalion during the war, John W. Stuart, who ran Northern Construction and J.W. Stuart Ltd., a railway firm in British Columbia. The company took the contract.
Cohen met Sun Yat-sen and was brought into the revolutionary fold, training soldiers and serving as bodyguard to Sun Yat-sen and his wife, Soong Qingling. During this time, he was grazed by a bullet in a shootout and decided to carry more than one handgun, earning him the nickname “Two Gun.”
After Sun’s death in 1925, Cohen remained close to Chinese politics. He stayed in China, notably in Canton, over the next two decades and was involved in banking and in arranging arms deals with Western countries. Interned by the Japanese in Hong Kong in 1941, he was repatriated to Canada in 1943 through a prisoner exchange (see Canada and the Battle of Hong Kong).
Later Life and Legacy
Cohen settled for a time in Montreal, where he married Judith Clark, a successful clothing store owner. Following the communist victory in China in 1949, Cohen maintained his standing with Chinese officials.
Cohen was a man of great charm who came very close to matching the legends that flourished around him. Many of those legends sprang from his autobiography, The Life and Times of General Two-Gun Cohen (1954), a mixture of truth and self-aggrandizing tall tales he dictated to British author Charles Drage.
Following his divorce in 1956, Cohen moved to Salford, England, to live with his sister. He established business ties with China, arranging deals between the communist state and Vickers (planes), Rolls Royce (engines) and Decca Radar.
Cohen died 11 September 1970 in Salford. His tombstone was paid for by Soong Qingling. She had the stone inscribed: “This is the tomb of Ma Kun inscribed by Soong Qingling, vice chairman of the People’s Republic of China Beijing.”