A trail of bul­lets and bod­ies: when Tongs ruled New York’s Chi­na­town

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICA - Wil­liam Hen­nelly Con­tact the writer at williamhen­nelly@ chi­nadai­lyusa.com

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.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.