Story behind the Story


When Spencer Simmons inherited a leather travel case some 45 years ago, little did he realise it would lead to the writing and production of a play for the Edinburgh Fringe, with a preview at Redbridge Drama Centre 

The leather travel case in question came with the initials ‘MAC’ embossed on it. I was told the case belonged to an American named General Cohen, but I could find no information about it. My uncle, who I inherited it from, was the black sheep of the family, known as Spider (after the snooker cue rest), and who allegedly worked for two weeks, didn’t like it and spent the rest of his life earning a living in unconventional ways. I used the case as a period prop in many am-dram productions, but always wondered whose case it was.

Thirty years later, at a funeral, by sheer chance, I overheard a conversation about a relation, Two-Gun Cohen, and it clicked. MAC was Morris Abraham Cohen, otherwise known as Two-Gun Cohen, who incredibly started life as a babe in arms of an immigrant Jewish family in London’s East End and became a general in the Chinese army and aide-de-camp to Sun Yat-sen, one of the founding fathers of modern China and Taiwan.

Cohen was a wild child, a boxer and a pickpocket who, after being sent to Borstal aged 10, was sent away by his despairing parents aged 15 to work on a relative’s ranch in the wilds of Canada. There, he became a gambler, land salesman and fairground worker. He became involved with the Canadian Chinese community as a gambler, and after saving the life of a Chinese friend was inducted into a Tong, a Chinese secret society, and introduced to Sun Yat-sen. Cohen fought in the First World War, the Chinese civil war and the Sino-Japanese war, where he was captured, interrogated and brutally beaten by the Japanese.

With the idea of producing a play, I started researching Cohen’s incredible life, recounted by two biographies, three films based on his life, numerous internet articles, family recollections and even a tape from the Canadian Broadcasting Service of his appearance on a What’s My Line-style TV programme in the 1960s.

I still didn’t know exactly how I was related to Cohen, but after much research and a chance comment by my mother, it was found that Spider’s wife was Two-Gun’s cousin. 

In 2013, I was excited to produce and direct a full-length play for WP Drama (then known as Wanstead Players) on Cohen’s life at the Kenneth More Theatre, written with a cousin, with five in the cast, but I dreamed of putting it on in Edinburgh. Some 10 years later, it has now been rewritten as a two-man play set in a Japanese prison in 1941, with Jonathan Meyer reprising the title role he played a decade ago. 

How did Cohen come by the name Two-Gun Cohen? The play reveals all.

WP Drama will perform Two-Gun Cohen at Redbridge Drama Centre in South Woodford on 5 and 6 July (7.30pm; tickets: £11.50), and again at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Visit twoguncohen.co.uk