Chinatown tong wars

The San Francisco Police Department's Chinatown Squad, pictured in 1989, were known for using direct means to squash the tongs' presence in Chinatown. (Courtesy photo)

The San Francisco Police Department's Chinatown Squad, pictured in 1989, were known for using direct means to squash the tongs' presence in Chinatown. (Courtesy photo)

Kwong Duck Tong member Ming Long was not a happy camper on that April day in 1875. He had just learned that Kum How, a prostitute known as “The Golden Peach,” had been passing the money he gave her to Low Sing of a rival gang, Suey Sing Tong. Ming waited outside Kum’s Ross Alley brothel, his weapons ready. When Low emerged, Ming stabbed him numerous times, seriously wounding him.

The Suey Sing Tong soon gathered in their Waverly Street headquarters, outraged at the attack on their member. They posted a Chin Hong (a notice) on the Waverly Street wall demanding an apology and financial reparations from the Kwong Ducks. Otherwise, the Kwong Ducks were challenged to meet in open combat at midnight of the following day. The invitation was accepted, and the stage was set for the largest tong battle in San Francisco history.

Just before midnight, 22 Suey Sings stood on one side of the street while 25 Kwong Ducks gathered on the other. A gaggle of Caucasian tong fight fans looked down from the roof and nearby streets. At a given signal, the two tongs rushed into the streets and began assaulting each other with knives, hatchets and guns. After five minutes, a squad of police, blowing whistles and firing into the air, ended the mayhem.

Both sides retreated, leaving their casualties behind. When the butchers’ bill was tallied, three Kwong Ducks and one Suey Sing were dead with 12 wounded. The Suey Sings were declared the victors and, after several days of negotiations, the Kwong Ducks agreed to provide a written apology and pay $10,000 — half of which went to Low Sing, the original victim. The peace was sealed with a banquet, which both tongs attended.

In a romantic coda to the battle, Ming Long fled to China, and Low Sing regained his health and married “The Peach.”

Conflict over a woman was often the cause of tong wars. Other reasons were control of gambling, opium and prostitution, but literally anything could begin a war. In 1898, a fight over a cat led to a war between Bing Kung Tong and the Hip Sing Tong. In 1916, a member of the Suey Sing Tong shot five Hop Sing members when his seat was taken in a theatre — starting another tong war.

Tongs began in 1852, with the establishment in San Francsico of the Ghee Kung Tong — the mother of all tongs. Inspired by the 17th century Triads of China, the Ghee Kung Tong began as a protective organization but soon developed a strong criminal component. This tong played a small but significant role in the establishment of modern China.

When Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s attempt to overthrow the Manchu dynasty failed in 1895, he fled to America, pursued by agents of the Chinese government. The Ghee Kong Tong protected Sun and raised money for him until he returned to China in 1912. There, Sun defeated the Manchus and helped establish the first Republic of China.

More recently, however, the Ghee Kung Tong has been in the news for a less heroic reason: It is the tong headed by Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, who was convicted of 162 counts of racketeering and murder.

The fighting soldiers of the tongs were known as highbinders or “boo how doy,” which means “hatchet men.” These hatchet men had written contracts that specified their responsibilities. “If, in the discharge of your duties, you are slain, this tong undertakes to pay $500 sympathy money to your friends.”

For tong war cognoscenti, an upcoming conflict would be signaled by the appearance of wildcat meat at Chinese butchers. Hatchet men believed eating wildcat meat would give them a feline’s superior eyesight and reflexes.

Tong wars were widely covered in the San Francisco Examiner and other major newpapers. They were often presented as sporting events, with a listing of the warring tong deaths and injuries listed in a box score. Tongs were most powerful between 1890 and 1920, with almost constant wars during this period.

Tong wars were bad for business, and the Chinatown merchants sought help from the Six Companies, the Chinese Consulate and the police to bring peace to their district. Each group had its own method.

The Six Companies, the business and political establishment, tried to put pressure on the warring tongs — bribing them — especially if the Chinese New Year was close at hand. Many members of the Six Companies were also tong members, and this often reduced their effectiveness. The Chinese Consulate would often threaten the tongs’ relatives in China.

The police force, through its Chinatown Squad, used more direct — though not always legal — means. The squad would invade the tong headquarters and smash up all the furniture. These methods worked, but only temporarily, and another incident would lead to a new war.

By the 1920s, conditions had changed. The overthrow of the Manchu dynasty reduced the flow of tong members from China. As a result, Chinatown was becoming a more middle-class area. Community leaders realized they could make more money from legitimate commerce than from vice and became more supportive of The City’s government. Additionally, the Chinatown Squad, under the leadership of Sgt. Jack Manion, changed tactics and used community policing to win the trust of the Chinatown population.

Though tong wars continued in California, there was little violence in San Francisco. This situation continued until the new Chinese immigration began in the 1960s.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, Duck TongMing LongNotorious CrooksPaul DrexlerSan FranciscoTriads

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