A trail of bullets and bodies: when Tongs ruled New York’s Chinatown
Before there were the Five Families of New York, there were the Tongs. The On Leong Tong and the Hip Sing Tong waged a bloody battle for control of Manhattan’s Chinatown over the course of 25 years, starting around 1900.
The story of the Tongs’ heyday in New York is vividly recreated in the book Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York’s Chinatown (Viking, 2016), by Scott D. Seligman. The author, fluent in Mandarin, is a historian, retired corporate executive and career China hand with degrees from Princeton and Harvard.
In his research, Seligman sifted through old newspapers and books but often came up against exaggerated accounts or stereotypical portrayals of the Chinese by the reporters of the day.
“Chinatowns have long suffered from tabloid-style coverage that portrays them as dangerous places run by inscrutable, all-powerful villains, their streets washed in the blood of the victims of the evil tongs,” Seligman writes in the book’s introduction. “But the Fu Manchu stereotype belies the reality that most of the restaurateurs, laundrymen, cooks, grocers, cigar makers, street peddlers, and other Chinese in New York at the turn of the century were decent, law-abiding people trying to make their way in a society that may have offered them a living but leavened it with a large measure of discrimination and abuse.”
Many Chinese began arriving in New York in the late 1880s, after public jobs were closed to them on the West Coast, mainly in San Francisco.
Guangzhou-born Tom Lee sent out east from San Francisco, headed up the On Leong Tong. Lee, aka the “Mayor of Mott Street”, was the first Chinese to hold a New York City government position — deputy sheriff — which he used to his advantage as a middle man between illicit Chinese businesses, (such as fan tan and pi gow gambling parlors) and the New York Police Department, which at the time was rife with corruption.
The Hip Sings were led by the flashy Young Mock Duck, who if he were around today, could pass for a pop singer.
The tongs’ weapons of choice included hatchets and six-shooters, and when it came to style, they favored fedoras and pinstripe suits, not unlike their Italian and Irish contemporaries. They ruthlessly controlled the gambling parlors, brothels and opium dens of Chinatown.
And it was from these mean streets, in particular one street — winding, narrow Doyers Street — that the term “hatchet man” was coined, as axes flew unseen by unwitting victims.
“The street is angled in such a way that when you’re on one end of the street, you can’t see the other end of the street, which [made] it easy to ambush victims and to escape,” Beatrice Chen, public programs director at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), told China Daily in 2014.
It was on that very street on Aug 6, 1905, when the violence reached its peak. A crew of Hip Sing gangsters stormed into the Chinese Theater during a performance of The King’s Daughter and let loose a fusillade of 100 bullets, killing four On Leong Tong and two civilians.
The US newspapers took note of the massacre and ramped up coverage about New York’s crime wave. The Chinese consul general in the US called on the New York district attorney for help in stopping the bloodshed.
In the 1920s, after years of intermittent bloodshed and the killings of some non-Chinese, the city finally asked the US government to crack down on Chinese immigrants.
“No other immigrant group had ever been targeted the way the authorities were going after the Chinese. Italian and Irish émigrés had fought their share of brutal gang wars, but nobody had ever rounded them up for wholesale expulsion,” the author writes.
“Yet this time, the government was acting as if the only way to bring peace to Chinatown was to get rid of its Chinese, through whatever means necessary.”