The Godmother of the Chinese Underworld
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because ruthless criminals come in all shapes and sizes.
By Seth Ferranti
- Xie Caiping, aka “Mama San,” was a ruthless gangster who operated an illegal gambling ring in the Chinese city of Chongqing.
- The queenpin was undone when her thugs brutalized an undercover cop.
- She’s now serving an 18-year prison sentence — and her corrupt deputy police chief brother-in-law was executed.
For 25 hours, an undercover cop named Xie Yingkuang was interrogated and beaten senseless. Then he was left for dead in the wilds outside of Chongqing, all for having the nerve to investigate one of China’s most brazen and notorious gangsters: Mama San.
Her given name was Xie Caiping, and she was known to go the extra mile to prove her viciousness. In going after Xie Yingkuang — who was working a lead into Mama San’s gambling dens when he was found out and abducted by the queenpin’s thugs — Mama San’s hubris led to her downfall.
Ron Chepesiuk, author of Queenpins: Notorious Women Gangsters of the Modern Era, says precious few women rise to the upper echelons of organized crime, but those who do “are not afraid to kill to maintain their power. Mama San is one of those women. She was ruthless, brash and debauched, and she knew how to generate fear to her advantage.”
She achieved what she did as a woman in a violent and cutthroat world controlled by unscrupulous men — until she was arrested.
The Chinese underworld respected her because she could negotiate, make money and drink at an equal pace, if not better, than her male counterparts. Her foes, inside and outside her organization, ended up imprisoned or beat down. She maintained power through her vast political and police ties — most prominently her brother-in-law Wen Qiang, the powerful Chongqing deputy police chief — ruling with a firm hand and vindictive heart.
“Legend in the region claimed that when she was done with a boyfriend, she would have them jailed, more than a dozen in all during her reign.” says Scott Burnstein, a true crime author who runs The Gangster Report website. “Her lovers were typically younger and resembled Southeast Asian celebrities. The final boyfriend she had while free was 26 and she lavished him with expensive gifts. He was convicted of taking part in her organization and was sentenced to five years in prison.”
Her rise to power didn’t come easy. Mama San was a gambling addict herself, says Laszlo Montgomery, who hosts The China History Podcast, before she moved on to working in the local tax bureau. With her brother-in-law’s help, she started opening black market casinos throughout the city. Her police connections allowed her to work with impunity: Some of her casinos were literally next-door to courts, government offices and police departments.
“Wen Qiang was able to supply her with the requisite lowlifes, ex-cons and toughs to assist her in managing her businesses,” Montgomery says. “And government people that came sniffing around were thrown off the scent or dealt with more violently by Wen Qiang’s (and by extension Xie Caiping’s) helpers.”
In crime, as in business, if you surround yourself with talented and loyal people and you don’t have to worry about the law or government regulations, you can’t help but be successful. The criminal organization that Mama San ran was nickel-and-dime compared to some of the more spectacular cases involving organized crime. Court testimony revealed her take to be about 2 million yuan ($285,000) from 10 casinos over the course of a four-year investigation. But she achieved what she did as a woman in a violent and cutthroat world controlled by unscrupulous men — until she was arrested.
The brazen beating of the cop was the last straw, and with allegations of corruption, Chinese officials moved in and brought charges against everyone involved.
The trial was a global media circus, producing salacious headlines about Mama San’s lovers with the public clamoring for more about the lady gangster. But the the main target of the Chongqing Gang Trials was Wen Qiang, who proved to be the real power behind Mama San’s tough-as-nails front.
Wen Qiang was sentenced to death for taking bribes worth more than 16 million yuan (about $2.4 million), while Mama San was sentenced to 18 years in prison. “Her sentence was light, given her crimes and the fact that the Chinese authorities were not afraid to hand out the death penalty,” Chepesiuk says. “I think this is where being a woman, no matter her crimes, played to her advantage.”
Mama San hasn’t been heard from since. Her sentence at an undisclosed Chinese prison is up in 2027, when she’ll be 64 years old.
- Seth Ferranti Contact Seth Ferranti