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Fatal superstition or suspicious frame-up?

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A handwritten declaration from Choy Kum alleges Fong Ah Sing shot Choy on Oct. 27, 1881. (Courtesy photo)
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Either Fong Ah Sing was framed or he had one of the strangest motives for murder ever heard.

On Oct. 27, 1881, Choy Kum, a 33-year-old prostitute, was standing in the front room of a brothel in Cum Cook Alley, a.k.a. Sullivan Alley, a tiny street near Grant and Pacific streets. A man standing outside the house fired a bullet into her chest, mortally wounding her. When police arrived, Kum claimed that a man named Fong Ah Sing had shot her.

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Fong’s motive? Superstition.

Choy’s dying statement was that she had accidently spilled some water on Fong the day before the murder. Fong reportedly became very angry, said it was bad luck and demanded that she give him a present. He came back and shot her the next evening.

Other Chinese witnesses said they saw Fong do the shooting. When Fong was confronted by a policeman, the first thing he said was, “I did not kill that woman,” indicating guilty knowledge.

Fong admitted visiting the house often, because he was a good friend with another woman who lived there. He also admitted to having breakfast with Choy the day before the murder. In his defense, three men testified that Fong was in a meeting with them at the time of the murder, and one man testified that he told Fong about the shooting and warned him that the police were looking for him.

Despite this testimony, Fong was convicted and sentenced to death.

Fong claimed that he was the victim of a conspiracy by the Chee Kung Tong. Founded in 1853, the Chee Kung Tong, also known as the Chinese Freemason Society, is the oldest Chinese fraternal organization in America. In the 1870s, there was a split in the tong and a new, smaller group was formed: the Dook Kong Society.

The Chee Kung Tong set out to destroy the new group. Fong was the translator and an important member of the new group. He was sent around the state to defend Dook Kong members against false charges lodged by the Chee Kong Tong. Translators were powerful because of their influence in court proceedings. A translator can help or hurt witness testimony by shading the meaning of statements.

One unusual coincidence in the first trial was that Louis Loche, the translator, was the same man who wrote and witnessed Choy Kum’s dying statement. Choy could not read or write, so she signed the document with an “X.”

Fong appealed and was granted a new trial. At the second trial, a new prosecution witness testified that he saw Fong throw the gun away. Fong was again convicted and sentenced to death.

After the second trial, two new witnesses surfaced with a surprising story. On the night of Oct. 27, 1881, H.J. Holbrook and C.J. Lewis ran into an old friend, a stranger to San Francisco who wanted to see the town. They took him to Chinatown, starting with the red-light district. As they arrived near Choy’s brothel, they heard a shot and saw a Chinese man walk rapidly past them and disappear. The man was not Fong, according to Holbrook.

Holbrook knew Fong — not by name but by appearance, having seen Fong many times at a friend’s apartment building. With the typical attitude of the times, Holbrook never bothered to learn Fong’s real name.

“The boarders at the apartment house called him ‘Charlie,’ but I call a Chinaman ‘John,’ Holbrook said. The testimony given by Lewis supported Holbrook’s contention that the shooter was not Fong.

Unfortunately, Holbrook’s and Lewis’ testimony was not included in the appeal, which was denied.

To make matters worse for Fong, his fellow Dook Kong members had abandoned him and had rejoined the Chee Kung Tong. In his last days, Fong converted to Christianity and changed his name to Frank Richter. He was executed on Nov. 19, 1886.

The real motive for Choy Kum’s death had nothing to do with superstition and had everything to do with money. Choy, who had been working for a member of the Chee Kung Tong, ran away with another man to Grass Valley. When she returned a few years later, she refused to pay her former owner the $250 he had paid for her. The Tong saw this as an opportunity to kill two birds with one bullet. “Kill Choy Kum, and we’ll get witnesses to say that Fong committed the murder.”

And that’s just what happened.

So is there a Chinese superstition about spilling water? No source I’ve contacted has ever heard of it. Most likely, the Tong made it up, figuring that Americans, with their ignorance of Chinese culture, would believe any story they were told. After reading reports in newspapers and books on this case, it appears that they were correct.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. Drexler will lead a Crooks Tour of Chinatown on Dec. 10 at noon. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.

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