What a woman she was! Rather slender and short, her hair jet black, with jade pins gleaming in the knot at the neck, her ear-rings and bracelets of the same precious apple-green stone. She was exquisitely dressed in a white satin robe fastened with green jade buttons, and green silk slippers. She wore a few plain gold rings on her left hand; her right hand was unadorned. Her face and dark eyes were intelligent… and rather hard. She was probably not yet forty.
This is how journalist Aleko E. Lilius described his subject, the “Queen of the Macao Pirates,” Lai Choi San (sometimes also known as Hon-Cho Lai or Mrs. Hon-Cho Lo). Lilius was in China in 1921 researching local pirates when he managed to find a berth (possibly by paying the pirate queen) aboard Lai’s ship. He would document his adventures in the book I Sailed with Chinese Pirates. Originally published in 1931, Lilius’ book is still in print today.
Lai Choi San, like so many infamous pirates, comes from a hazy background and fades into obscurity, seemingly without a trace. The only documentation of her exploits is Lilius’ book, which is both fortuitous and unfortunate. Mr. Lilius, who himself is somewhat of a mystery, is punch drunk with excitement at his good fortune to be aboard a pirate ship. He also gets over his interest in the unusual pirate queen fairly quickly and moves on to talk about piratical pillaging, vices and “the body-warm smell of blood”. We know who Lai was, which is wonderful, but it is sad to have such an extraordinary person lost to talk of opium and gambling.
How Lai became a pirate, running a number of armed junks up and down the China Sea, is debatable. Lilius is not forthcoming on the issue other than a brief mention in his first chapter of an interview with a local American. This man tells him that Lai is “… said to have inherited the business and the ships from her father…” but he goes on to say that “… so many stories center about her that it is almost impossible to tell where truth ends and legend begins.” Other sources claim she took charge of her pirate flotilla when her husband died. Even the number of ships in her charge is up for debate with seven or twelve mentioned by Lilius and as many as forty or even sixty-four by later writers.
Lai appears to have been in the pay of the Chinese government. Her armed junks were, in theory, protecting local fishermen and merchants. In fact, like that other Chinese pirate queen Cheng I Sao, she probably collected money from those she was sent to protect thereby allowing them to avoid raids not only by other pirate gangs but by hers as well. Those who failed to pay up would be boarded and taken hostage with ransoms demanded for anyone who looked solvent. A second failure led to dismembered body parts like ears and fingers being sent to the families of the captives. No ransom at all was a death sentence for the unfortunate hostage.
The Macao pirates also staged land raids, swooping down on villages along the Beihai coast to take supplies. Lai hand picked young women to take prisoner and then sold them for a tidy profit to “flower boat” owners in the harbors of larger cities. The boats, of course, were floating brothels and the good looks of each girl determined her value. Because of her involvement in the sex slave trade one wonders if Lai didn’t come from a flower boat herself. This was certainly the case with Cheng I Sao who started out as a prostitute, married into piracy and ended her days running a brothel and gambling house of her own. That’s pure speculation on my part but it is worth noting that the Madams who ran the flower boats didn’t deal with just any pirate; they had to know and trust their supplier.
Lai’s raiding and pillaging seems to have terminated suddenly early in 1923. Theories abound on what became of her. Some authors have her retiring much like Cheng I Sao. Others say she was taken prisoner by the Japanese after her junks confronted one of their torpedo squadrons. Still others say she was betrayed by her own men and turned over to the Chinese government in exchange for their heads. Clearly, no one has the first clue and it goes without saying that Lilius, whose book became a bestseller, didn’t bother to follow up.Sometimes fate steps in, however, and that was certainly the case when another writer took up where Lilius left off. Milton Caniff made Lai the model for the villainous Dragon Lady in his 1930s comic Terry and the Pirates. He even went so far as to use Lai’s name, leading to a legal battle between Lilius and the publishers of the strip.
Like so many pirates before her, Lai Choi San was a mystery at all levels to just about everyone. Well, except for those who had the sincere misfortune to meet her in battle.
Header: Vintage Chinese illustration c 1925 and “Enter the Dragon Lady” from Terry and the Pirates