Morris (Moishe) Abraham Cohen (1887–1970), better known by the nickname Two-Gun Cohen and also known by his Chinese name Ma Kun (Chinese: 馬坤), was a Polish-born British and Canadian adventurer of Jewish origin who became aide-de-camp to Sun Yat-sen and a major-general in the Chinese National Revolutionary Army.
Cohen was born Abraham Mialczyn into a Jewish family in Radzanów, Poland on 3 August 1887. His father was Josef Leib Miaczyn, a wheelwright, and his mother was Sheindel Lipshitz. In 1889 the family emigrated to England and settled in East London, where Josef worked in a textile factory. They changed their family name to the easier-to-pronounce Cohen, and Abraham went by Morris and Moishe.
Cohen loved the theaters, the streets, the markets, the foods and the boxing arenas of the British capital more than he did the Jews' Free School, and in April 1900 he was arrested as "a person suspected of attempting to pick pockets". A magistrate sent him to the Hayes Industrial School, an institution set up by the likes of Lord Rothschild to care for and train wayward Jewish lads. He was released in 1905 and Cohen's parents shipped the young Morris off to western Canada with the hope that the fresh air and open plains of the New World would reform his ways.
Cohen initially worked on a farm near Whitewood, Saskatchewan. He tilled the land, tended the livestock and learned to shoot a gun and play cards. He did that for a year, and then started wandering through the Western provinces, making a living as a carnival talker, gambler, grifter and successful real estate broker. Some of his activities landed him in jail.
Cohen also became friendly with some of the Chinese exiles who had come to work on the Canadian Pacific Railways. He loved the camaraderie and the food, and in Saskatoon came to the aid of a Chinese restaurant owner who was being robbed. Cohen's training in the alleyways of London came in handy, and he knocked out the thief and tossed him out into the street. Such an act was unheard of at the time, as few white men ever came to the aid of the Chinese. The Chinese welcomed Cohen into their fold and eventually invited him to join the Tongmenghui, Sun Yat-sen's anti-Manchu organization. Cohen began to advocate for the Chinese.
Morris Cohen soon moved to the city of Edmonton in the neighbouring province of Alberta. There he became manager of one of the provincial capital’s leading real estate agencies and was appointed, on the personal recommendation of the Attorney General Sir Charles Wilson Cross, to serve the province as a Commissioner of Oaths, an appointment offered only to "fit and proper persons".
It was in pre-World War I Edmonton that Cohen commenced his long and varied military career by recruiting members of the Chinese community and training them in drill and musketry on behalf of Dr Sun Yat-sen’s representative organization in Canada.
Cohen fought with the Canadian Railway Troops in Europe during World War I where part of his job involved supervising Chinese labourers. He also saw some fierce fighting at the Western Front, especially during the Third Battle of Ypres. After the war, he resettled in Canada. But the economy had declined and the days of the real estate boom were long over. Cohen looked for something new to do, and in 1922 he headed to China to help close a railway deal for Sun Yat-sen with Northern Construction and JW Stewart Ltd. After disembarking in Shanghai, Cohen went to see George Sokolsky, the New-York born journalist who worked for Sun's English-language Shanghai Gazette. Sokolsky arranged an interview for him with Eugene Chen, Sun's English language secretary. Cohen was hired, and soon ensconced himself at Sun’s home at 29 Rue Molière in the city’s French Concession. He then got right to work.
In Shanghai and Canton (Guangzhou), Cohen trained Sun's small armed forces to box and shoot, and told people that he was an aide-de-camp and an acting colonel in Sun Yat-sen's army. Fortunately for Cohen, his lack of proficiency in Chinese — he spoke a pidgin form of Cantonese at best — was not a problem since Sun, his wife Soong Ching-ling and many of their associates were Western-educated and spoke English. Cohen's colleagues started calling him Ma Kun (馬坤), and he soon became one of Sun's main protectors, shadowing the Chinese leader to conferences and war zones. After one battle where he was nicked by a bullet, Cohen started carrying a second gun. The western community were intrigued by Sun's gun-toting protector and began calling him "Two-Gun Cohen." The name stuck.
Sun died of cancer in 1925, and Cohen went to work for a series of Southern Chinese Kuomintang leaders, from Sun's son, Sun Fo, and Sun's brother-in-law, the banker T. V. Soong, to such warlords as Li Jishen and Chen Jitang. He was also acquainted with Chiang Kai-shek, whom he knew from when Chiang was commandant of the Whampoa Military Academy, which was located outside of Canton. His dealings with Chiang, though, were minimal since Cohen was allied with southern leaders who were generally opposed to Chiang. Cohen ran security for his bosses and acquired weapons and gunboats. Eventually he earned the rank of acting general, though he never led any troops.
When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, Cohen eagerly joined the fight. He rounded up weapons for the Chinese and even did work for the British intelligence agency, Special Operations Executive (SOE). Cohen was able to prove that the Japanese were using poison gas to exterminate the Chinese masses. Cohen was in Hong Kong when the Japanese attacked in December 1941. He placed Soong Ching-ling and her sister Ai-ling onto one of the last planes out of the British colony.
Cohen stayed behind to fight, and when Hong Kong fell later that month, the Japanese imprisoned him at Stanley Prison Camp. There the Japanese badly beat him and he languished in Stanley until he was part of a rare prisoner exchange in late 1943.
Cohen sailed back to Canada, settled in Montreal and married Judith Clark, who ran a successful women's boutique. He made regular visits back to China with the hope of establishing work or business ties. Mostly, though, Cohen saw old friends, sat in hotel lobbies and spun out tales—many of them tall—of his exploits. It was his own myth making, together with the desire of others to fabricate yarns about him, that has resulted in much of the misinformation about Cohen, from the claim that he had a hand in the making of modern China, to such outlandish ones like him having an affair with Soong Ching-ling and a wife in Canada back in the 1920s.[verification needed] After the 1949 Communist takeover, Cohen was one of the few people who was able to move between Taiwan and mainland China. His prolonged absences took a toll on his marriage, and he and Judith divorced in 1956.
When the newly formed United Nations began the debate on the UN Resolution on the Partition of Palestine, following the UN Special Committee on Palestine recommendation, Morris Cohen flew to San Francisco and convinced the head of the Chinese delegation to abstain from voting when he learned they planned to oppose partition.
Cohen then settled with his widowed sister, Leah Cooper, in Salford, England. There he was surrounded by siblings, nephews and nieces and became a beloved family patriarch. His standing as a loyal aide to Sun Yat-sen helped him maintain good relations with both Kuomintang and Chinese Communist leaders, and he soon was able to arrange consulting jobs with Vickers (planes), Rolls Royce (engines) and Decca Radar. His last visit to China was during the start of the Cultural Revolution as an honoured guest of Zhou Enlai.
There are numerous publications that focus on the life of Morris Cohen:
- Charles Drage with Morris Cohen, Two-Gun Cohen (1954)
- Paolo Frere, The Pedlar and the Doctor (1995)
- Daniel S. Levy Two-Gun Cohen: A Biography (1997)
- Jim Christy, Scalawags (2008)
- In Frank Capra's "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933), the character of a western adviser to the general resembles Cohen. The movie was based on a book of the same name by Grace Zaring Stone, who lived in Canton in the 1920s. In an interview with Stone's daughter in the early 1990s, she said that she was not sure if her mother and Cohen's paths crossed. But since the western community in that city was relatively insular, she said that it was quite likely that Stone at least knew of Cohen.
- The General Died at Dawn (1936) was inspired by Cohen, with Gary Cooper playing the part of an Irish-American [sic] adventurer in China.
- The Gunrunner (1984), a Canadian movie with Kevin Costner was inspired by Cohen