The Chinese American Gang Wars That Rocked New York
A new book offers a mesmerizing look at life among the most violent sections of early 20th-century America's Chinese underclass.
Coming to the United States is never easy, but Chinese Americans had it especially rough around the turn of the 20th century. The feds had passed a law in the 1880s specifically to block new Chinese arrivals and deny rights to the people already here, and conditions for immigrant laborers were often atrocious. As with plenty of other marginalized minorities desperate to establish themselves in a foreign and often hostile land, some of these immigrants decided going into crime was the only way out.
Scott D. Seligman's forthcoming book, Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money and Murder in New York's Chinatown, offers a mesmerizing and brutal look at the hidden world of Chinese tongs (or fraternal organizations). From the 1890s through the 1930s, hit men, drug lords, gang leaders, crooked cops, city officials, and lawyers courted money, prestige, and influence in New York City's Chinatown in a deadly dance of underworld intrigue.
What began as community-based support groups turned, in some cases, into criminal syndicates that ran opium, prostitution, and gambling dens. Secret brotherhoods—the On Leong and Hip Sing among them—fought a war as bloody as any in gangster lore. With hatchets and meat cleavers, pistols and automatic weapons and even bombs, these men turned swaths of America's largest city into a killing zone. VICE sat down with Seligman, who's fluent in Mandarin and also speaks Cantonese, to discuss what it was like for the Chinese underclass in the early 20th century, why the tong wars jumped off, and how they finally came to an end after 30 years of violence.
VICE: What was life like for newly arrived Chinese immigrants in New York City at the turn of the century? How did these gangster societies originate?
Scott D. Seligman: Chinese throughout the country were a marginalized people during this period. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, made it clear that Chinese were not citizens—and couldn't be. American law also criminalized their chief forms of recreation, including gambling. The power the authorities wielded over them in New York went mostly unchecked, and underpaid police shook down businesses with impunity and threatened owners if they were not paid. They were also biased against the Chinese and saw them as a scourge. Nor could Chinese count on sympathy from prosecutors or impartiality from the courts.
To protect their interests, Chinese immigrants organized mutual aid societies, and most of these were not in any way criminal enterprises. These included regional societies—organizations set up by people from a specific district in China—and clan societies, open to Chinese from anywhere who happened to share a surname. The third category was sworn brotherhoods generally known by the term "tong," meaning "chamber," with no geographic or family requirements and generally with fewer members. These were secret societies, and although they, too, were ostensibly benevolent associations, in the early 1900s they came to be associated with a variety of underworld activities.
How far back does the history of these groups go in China?
The organization of the American tongs owes something to Chinese tradition, but the two that accounted for most of the violence in New York until the 1930s were homegrown American organizations. One, the On Leong Tong, was formed in New York; its chief antagonist, the Hip Sing Tong, was established on the West Coast and made beachheads in the East in the late 1880s. Many tong practices are said to derive from a tradition that got its start in China early in the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911) as a sworn brotherhood/gang of outlaws committed to restoring the earlier Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644).
What set off the tong wars in the first place?
New York saw four major tong wars of varying duration between the turn of the century and the 1930s, and each broke out for a different reason. The first started over control of gambling; the second was about the "ownership" and murder of a woman. The third broke out over opium distribution, and the fourth was fought because of a defection from one tong to another. The commonality was that after each war broke out, it was hard to stop because not responding to a provocation was considered a loss of face. It usually took prolonged negotiations to get to a ceasefire. Sometimes these stuck, and sometimes they didn't.
How did the violence evolve from meat cleavers to pistols to bombs?
It was a slow process, but it escalated as weapons got more sophisticated and capable of taking out more people at a time. In the late 1800s, they were mostly using cleavers and knives; by 1900, Chinatown saw a large influx of revolvers. Explosives were only used once or twice later in the game—about 1912—and they fortunately did more damage to property than to people.
Did the tong wars break into mainstream consciousness with any massive battles or events?
In 1905, the police staged a massive Easter Sunday raid on twelve Chinatown gambling establishments. It was the largest and most spectacular raid ever carried out in New York up to that time. That same year, Hip Sing gunmen massacred On Leongs at the Chinese Theatre on Doyers Street, one of the most famous incidents. The gruesome murder of a concubine named Bow Kum in 1909 launched the second war. And in the third, the On Leongs decapitated the Hip Sing Tong by murdering its president and vice-president.
How did a gang war run rampant for thirty years with local officials not stepping in and doing something? American police loved going after immigrants at this time, no?
Officials very much did step in, every step of the way, in fact; there's a lot about that in the book. They just weren't all that effective in stopping the violence for more than temporary periods. Police shut down the gambling halls and the brothels. They arrested the perpetrators, and many served jail terms. District attorneys saw tong men convicted of murder, and some of them were executed. Judges negotiated ceasefires and truces. Eventually, even federal government officials stepped in and deported some Chinese.
There was often quiet for a while after a crackdown, but battles had a way of breaking out again after a while.
What was the significance of being a kingpin like Mock Duck, the leader of the Hip Sing Tong?
The tongs, like most Chinese organizations, were hierarchical, and there were always senior officers in charge. What was unusual about Mock Duck was that he was quite young to be running such an organization, especially in a culture in which age is revered. It was his ruthlessness and his intelligence that catapulted him to the top of the Hip Sing pyramid. Tom Lee, who ran the On Leong Tong, on the other hand, was an éminence grise.
Who were some of the other major players in these criminal organizations?
Charlie Boston, who led the On Leongs after Lee's death, controlled a nationwide opium distribution network. Gin Gum was the On Leongs' longtime consigliere. His counterpart on the Hip Sing side was Wong Get. The Hip Sings also had Chin Jack Lem, who started out as an On Leong and singlehandedly started the fourth tong war.
How and when did the corruption dissipate, if it ever did?
The major factor was the Great Depression, because it sapped the tongs of the wherewithal and the incentive to continue to do battle. By 1931, fully twenty-five percent of America's Chinese were out of work, and many looked to the tongs for welfare. But other factors also helped bring the wars to an end. Whatever spare money wasn't being used to feed their poor was sent back for the defense of China, which Japan had invaded in 1931. Plus, the police had done a good job of kicking out gambling, and Tammany Hall was in decline. Also, most of New York's eight thousand or so Chinese no longer lived in Chinatown, and more than forty percent were US-born and less dependent on tongs for protection.
What put you in position to write a book like this, one that's being praised as much for its precise historicism as its gangster imagery?
Tong Wars is my third book on the Chinese experience in America. I began to focus on this subject nearly a decade ago because it combined a lifelong interest in China, my undergraduate study of American history, and my experience in genealogical and historical research. The first two books were biographies of men whom you might call Chinese American heroes. In Tong Wars, I decided to look at some people who weren't so upstanding.
Most of our knowledge of early Chinatown comes from newspapers, especially the major New York dailies, which provide a serviceable chronology. But their coverage was the work of white journalists who relied on Chinese informants for their stories. They couldn't always distinguish fact from fiction. To complement these, I consulted federal and state census records, ship passenger manifests, vital records, court records, and the Chinese Exclusion case files in the National Archives, which provide rich detail about individuals. I also reviewed a few memoirs in English and in Chinese.
I had seen references to the Chinatown tongs frequently in my research on the other books, but I knew very little about who they were and why they fought. Most Chinese had nothing to do with the tongs, but New York Chinatown was a small place, and I was surprised that many of the figures I had met in my earlier research played roles in this book as well.
Tong Wars drops Tuesday, July 12. Learn more or order a copy here.
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