Publishers Weekly calls the book "a jaw dropping study of a lesser-known yet larger-than-life figure.”Opium Queen is the true story of the widely mythologized genderqueer Burmese opium-pioneer of noble Chinese descent, Olive Yang, who secretly ran an anti-communist rebel army supported by the CIA in the 1950s heyday of the Golden Triangle. Olive Yang was a widely mythologized genderqueer lesbian opium-pioneer in the 1950s heyday of the Golden Triangle. After escaping an arranged marriage with a noble cousin, Olive felt that she had no choice but to lead a life of banditry with an anti-communist rebel army supported by the CIA. As her smuggling empire grew, she became so powerful and infamous, novelists were inspired to write about her evil ruthlessness and beauty. Yet, Olive’s real life and identity remained a mystery to many.
To the Kokang people whom the Yang family once ruled, Olive was both folk-hero and villain. To the communists Olive’s men harassed, she was the saboteur of the historic Sino-Burmese border agreement. To the generals who jailed her at the dawn of the Burmese military era, she was a national security threat. And to at least one man at the CIA, she was “Miss Hairy Legs.”
Opium Queen is a journey to uncover the true story behind the propaganda and legends. Declassified intelligence documents portray Olive as a critical operator in one of the most important fronts of the clandestine Cold War against China. Through extensive interviews with the Yang family, Olive emerges as a complex anti-hero, searching for a way to live as an open homosexual, in an era when such a lifestyle was considered deeply shameful in Burma. The great military alliances that facilitate narcotics traffic in Myanmar today are Olive’s lasting legacy in the Golden Triangle, as is the disenfranchisement of the people of Kokang. Through the story of Olive’s formidable life, Opium Queen examines historic events that underpinned critical diplomatic relationships between the U.S., Myanmar, and China; and were at the root of Myanmar’s current political crisis.
Investigative journalist Gabrielle Paluch spent six years living in Myanmar and Thailand, reporting on both countries for Voice of America, the LA Times and other publications on a wide range of subjects including: natural disasters, coups, trafficking, migrants, parliamentary politics, elections, religious violence, civil war, and foreign investment.
She holds an MA from Columbia University’s Graduate School in Journalism and was awarded the H.L. Stevenson Fellowship for her groundbreaking reporting on female genital mutilation in Thailand. She spent the duration of the fellowship reporting from the AP’s Bangkok Bureau. She is currently a contributor to McClatchy’s investigative unit, focused on real estate and money laundering investigations. She has been selected as a SABEW Goldschmidt Fellow for 2018 and won a Best in Business award from the Society for Business Editors and Writers in the Explanatory Reporting category for her contributions to an investigation into Donald Trump’s real estate deals across post-Soviet states. She lives in New York City.
Note to Readers
Chapter 1: The Country Formerly Known as Burma
Chapter 2: Before There Was a Golden Triangle
Chapter 3: Man, Woman, Myth, or Legend?
Chapter 4: Olive’s Coming-Out
Chapter 5: A Curse on the House of Yang
Chapter 6: Operation Paper and the Queen of Kokang
Chapter 7: The Olive Branch
Chapter 8: In Prison, in Love, in Mandalay
Chapter 9: You Shall Not Say Her Name
Chapter 10: Sensuous Opium Queen, Miss Hairy Legs
Chapter 11: Call Me Uncle
Chapter 12: A Shame to Earn Great Riches
Chapter 13: The Right Man for a Favor
Journalist Paluch debuts with a detailed and compassionate portrait of Olive Yang (1927–2017), a "gender-queer opium kingpin of noble descent" in Kokang, "a strip of land nestled in mountainous gorges" along the Myanmar-China border. While covering a 2015 rebel uprising in Kokang, Paluch first heard about Olive, whose personal army, known as "Olive’s Boys," was rumored to have been funded by the CIA in the 1950s and ’60s. Interviews with Yang family members reveal that Olive, the strong-willed second daughter of Kokang’s hereditary ruler, resisted traditional foot binding, was expelled from Catholic school, dressed like a man, loved women, and wore an artificial penis. In the early 1950s, she joined anti-communist forces in Kokang, earning a reputation as a Burmese Joan of Arc while sparring with local chieftains, the Chinese army, and rival family members for control of smuggling routes in the region. Paluch, whose investigation culminated in a sit-down with Olive shortly before her death, makes a persuasive case that the CIA was heavily involved in the opium trade.... It’s a jaw dropping study of a lesser-known yet larger-than-life figure.
When investigative journalist Paluch worked as a reporter for a government-censored newspaper in Myanmar (formerly Burma), she learned of Jin Xiu “Olive” Yang, a near-mythical opium warlord. Many viewed Yang as a greedy, ruthless Golden Triangle gangster, whereas others were convinced she was a CIA conspirator who ran an anti-communist rebel army. The author spent years chasing Yang’s true story, conducting interviews with some of Yang’s relatives, business associates, (alleged) former lovers, a man who wrote a mostly fictional book about her, and with Yang herself, albeit briefly. The author uncovers many details: Yang used she/her pronouns but male honorifics, such as Uncle Olive; her family forced her to marry her cousin and bear a child; she left her husband and had women lovers; she used her influence as the member of a noble family to make her opium-trade fortune; and she helped negotiate a handshake-ceasefire in Kokang. This well-written, well-researched book portrays a central figure who never quite emerges from her shroud of legend.
This quasi-memoir from Paluch, who began working in Rangoon for the Myanmar Times in 2009, also serves as a Burma/Myanmar history lesson crafted around the author's search for revered folk hero Olive Yang, aka "Two-Gun Mulan," “Queen Commander,” “Miss Hairy Legs,” and “Uncle Olive.” This woman warrior supposedly led armies and inspired rebellions, with her exploits celebrated in media accounts, books, songs, and even a couple of popular movies. Yang's heroism focused on the ever-changing power dynamics in Burma during the middle of the twentieth century, a period of constant unrest fueled by opium money and CIA funding. Working through false leads, unverifiable verbal testimony, and meetings with Yang's relatives, Paluch documents what she can, dismisses a bit more, and offers inside historical and social perspectives on Myanmar's recent past. Eventually, Paluch does meet the nonagenarian Olive for a few precious moments, only to have her whisked away again. Readers will appreciate this in-depth look at a specific slice of history and marvel over this enigmatic Opium Queen.
In "The Opium Queen," Gabrielle Paluch separates reality from myth in telling the story of the legendary warlord Olive Yang, a character from a James Bond movie if ever there was one. In doing so, she also sheds light on the complex interplay between CIA operatives, Kuomintang remnants and the growing opium and heroin trade along the Chinese-Burmese border in the 1950s and 1960s and on the head-spinning personal and political intrigue that surrounded Olive Yang's life for decades.
Whether calculating or quixotic, Olive Yang remains a formidable figure in the modern history of uplands Southeast Asia. Gabrielle Paluch makes brilliant bounds to add emotional depth and personal context to Yang’s story, weaving threads of commitment, anguish and heartache through a fierce, commanding persona in the rugged battlefields of the Golden Triangle. A stellar accomplishment and a must-read.
This is a fascinating account of the eccentric Olive Yang, a dynastic ruler of Kokang state, along the Burma-China border. Filled with intrigue, murder, treachery, civil war, the CIA and the opium trade, with Chinese Communists, Chinese Nationalists, warlords, scoundrels and heroes, this brilliantly written narrative is one you won’t want to put down.
An intoxicating journey into the bizarre and brutal world of one of the 20th century's most colourful if little known characters
Through extraordinary shoe-leather reporting, journalist Gabrielle Paluch turns Olive Yang's swashbuckling, gender-bending, heroin-smuggling legend into a more complex and human story. Set in the contested Kokang region between Burma and China, the reign of The Opium Queen is unforgettable.
Author Gabrielle Paluch has written an impressive book combining the archival skills of a historian, while pursuing interviews as a journalist.
9/8/22, Choice: This book was included in a roundup of forthcoming Asian & Asian American Studies titles.
4/14/23, CrimeReads: An excerpt from the book is featured.