When Shanghai Joe ruled Astra

DESPITE his disability, which had seriously inhibited his movement, Shanghai Joe had ironically adopted the nickname from a Chinese movie star featuring in fast-paced, action-packed Kung Fu movies at Kitwe’s Astra Cinema hall.
Even boys and men twice bigger, stronger and older than him respectfully called him “Ba Shanghai (Mr Shanghai)”.
His deadly, arm-sized wooden staff (inkonto), which he used for support, also served as his weapon of first choice.
Shanghai Joe was a small but ruthless bully who took advantage of his disability to attack innocent people without any provocation in the 1980s through to the ’90s.
Those who were familiar with Astra Cinema hall on Matuka Avenue, which was owned by the now defunct Zambia Cinemas, will remember how the ruffian used to harass and assault children and their older escorts during the highly popular Martinee shows on Saturdays.
Ndola-based journalist Bernard Phiri, who lived and grew up in Chimwemwe, remembers the little fellow quite well.
“He used to live in Chimwemwe but frequented Mindolo a lot. It was like his second home. His closest and best friend was King Davie, whose street name was John Davely,” Mr Phiri recalls.
Like many other people who lived in Kitwe then, Mr Phiri witnessed the brutality and reckless violence of Shanghai Joe.
He had one normal leg while the other was smaller and deformed, probably from birth, and used his wooden staff liberally to assault innocent people.
On Saturdays, the then famous Astra showed children’s movies from 10:00 hours to 12:00 hours, which were called Martinee shows.
Adult shows were from 12:00 hours to 14:00 hours, 16:00 hours to 18:00 hours and the last one from 18:00 hours to 20:00 hours.
Management was very strict when it came to age. Children would be barred from buying tickets or entering the hall if a film to be beamed was not appropriate for their age.
Those days manual projectors were used with reels of film, and the picture would be beamed overhead onto the wall or large sheet in front from the operator’s cubicle above.
During working days the most popular show times were 12:00 hours-14:00hours and 14:00 hours-16:00 hours as it allowed viewers enough time to travel back to their homes safely.
Sometimes the reel of film would snap in the middle of a captivating scene sparking vulgar protestations from the gallery.
There was always a lot of excitement if there was a latest movie, with queues forming as early as one hour in advance.
This created lucrative business for Shanghai Joe and his gang. They would buy as many tickets as they could well in advance and re-sell them to desperate would-be viewers at double or more the price.
Some of Shanghai Joe’s boys would squeeze themselves in the line at different points and deliberately cause it not to move.
Others would be re-selling tickets at highly inflated fares.
The thugs in the queue would be preventing those who wanted to buy from the window at the normal price.
In the meantime, Shanghai Joe would be watching from the corridor of NIEC Store, now Shoprite, across the street, shouting obscene instructions to his minions every now and then.
Once in a while, he would cross over and attack the line while swinging his deadly inkonto, hitting people indiscriminately.
The purpose was to create confusion and break up the line, displacing those who wanted to buy the tickets from the window.
In the melee, Shanghai Joe’s lackeys would worm into the line and position themselves near the ticket sales window.
Others would be calling genuine ticket holders one by one to take up the positions in front at the entrance to the hall.
Although the cinema had employed marshals, they seemed powerless against the violent Shanghai Joe and his band of thugs.
Many of those with genuinely bought tickets would only enter after the film had started showing.
Sometimes some of the thugs would take up a number of seats and ‘sell’ them to the viewers coming after them.
Mr Phiri recalls that Shanghai Joe lived in Chimwemwe but was found in Mindolo most of the time.
“I didn’t know why. He died of natural causes in the 1990s,” he said.
Following the series of articles the Daily Mail has been publishing on Kitwe’s history of gangs, readers have been reacting. Here are some of their reaction:
Dear Mr Chisala,
Your detailed and well-researched articles on Copperbelt gangsters, particularly in Kitwe, make very interesting reading.
Recently, one politician or clergyman, in reference to the re-emergence of gangsters in Kitwe, commented that gangster culture is alien to Zambia.
That is far from the truth.
Having grown up in Ndola myself through the 1960s and ‘70s, I can testify to the fact that gangs were very much a part of the emerging Copperbelt towns, especially in Ndola, Kitwe, Luanshya and Mufulira.
Youngsters from Lusaka feared to visit relatives on the Copperbelt because of reports of the cruelty of these gangsters.
Ndola was famous for the Masala Boys while Chifubu had names like Abena Chinyoze.
Rivalry between gangsters led to fierce fighting with rival gangs carving out their own territories, which were no-go areas for their opponents.
Whereas most gangs were ethnically diverse because the new urban areas were melting pots for difference ethnic groups, some gangs were strongly ethnically inclined because of the tendency of some ethnic groups being highly localised in certain townships or ‘compounds’.
Clearly, gangsterism has always been a phenomenon in Zambia’s urban environment, particularly on the Copperbelt, partly fuelled by Western movies of that era.
Mr Chisala,
I have enjoyed reading those articles on Kitwe gangs. But you have not written about Kaingo. He used to be a character also, although he was not a criminal.
It will be interesting to write about him also.

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