ON AUGUST 12, 1900, Lung Kin visited New York’s Chinatown, as he did most Sundays. He worked uptown, on Amsterdam Avenue, in a Chinese laundry. For reasons unknown, he ended up at 9 Pell Street, which The New York Times described as “a gloomy, grayish building of five stories, filled with countless holes called rooms and reeking with sickly odors”.

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At about six o’clock that evening, a commotion erupted in a narrow hallway in the building. How many people were present? Six, 12, as many as 18 – the news reports were as confused as the chaotic scene. But this much was indisputable: after two gunshots rang out, the crowd quickly dispersed, leaving Lung alone and fatally wounded as “a pool of blood slowly formed itself around his body”.

Soon afterwards, police arrested Gong Wing Chung across the street, on the second floor of an apartment building into which he had fled. The Times, which rendered Gong’s name as Goo, described his capture thus: “Goo, when confront­ed with the charge of murder, never moved a muscle. As he was being led away, a smile played over his face.”

The shots that killed Lung would prove to be the opening salvos in a three-decade cycle of war radiating from New York’s Chinatown. He had been a member of an organised-crime syndicate called the Hip Sing Tong. Gong, his killer, belonged to its chief rival, the On Leong Tong. Within six weeks, an On Leong, Ah Fee, was murdered in retaliation; he just happened to be an alibi witness for Gong, prepared to testify that his comrade was nowhere near 9 Pell Street at the time of the killing.

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There had been friction between the two secret societies for more than a decade. They tussled over not only the financial rewards of vice – gambling, opium, prostitution – but also something beyond price: pride. The New York tong wars, as they were collectively known, would eventually claim countless lives while generating breathless accounts in the newspapers, inspiring Hollywood movies, and reinforcing threatening stereotypes of the Chinese in America. But until this summer’s publication of Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York’s Chinatown, by Scott D. Seligman, there had never been a popular accounting of the full sweep of battles and skirmishes.

Seligman’s book is an exhaustively detailed reconstruction of the key moments in the New York tongs’ bloody battles. A Washington-based historian and former businessman who has lived in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China, Seligman has written two other books about Chinese-American history, including a biography of 19th-century Chinese-American newspaperman and activist Wong Chin Foo (published by Hong Kong University Press).

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In his research into Chinese-American history, Seligman “kept coming across references to the tongs”, he says, when we speak. “I realised I ought to know more about them than I actually did. Most people know they fought some wars, but that’s pretty much the end of it.

“Having written about heroes, I thought it was OK to look at people who were not so savoury.”

IMMIGRATION REMADE NEW YORK in the late 19th century. Its population nearly quadrupled between 1870 and 1900, to almost 3.5 million, making it the world’s second-largest city, after London. The adoptive home of JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, it boasted immense, even ostentatious wealth and, with the establishment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Carnegie Hall, was becoming
a global cultural capital.

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At the same time, New York was a city of pro­found poverty. In 1890, Jacob Riis, the Danish-American photographer, writer and activist, wrote in his seminal How the Other Half Lives that “three-fourths of its people live in the tenements, and the nineteenth century drift of the population to the cities is sending ever-increasing multitudes to crowd them ... the ‘system’ that was the evil offspring of public neglect and private greed has come to stay, a storm-centre forever of our civilization. Nothing is left but to make the best of a bad bargain.”

That last sentence describes well the situation of New York’s Chinese immigrants. While it may sound odd to describe New York then as a frontier town, in terms of the development of a Chinese community, it was. In the late 1870s, a man named Tom Lee was dispatched from San Francisco by the Six Com­panies, an umbrella organisation comprising the traditional fraternal groups in California’s largest Chinatown, to both support and impose order on the growing Chinese populace.

“Nobody likes disorder, and the Chinese in America, they had so much going against them – so many problems. They realised that if Chinese were massing in other cities, they needed a similar structure. The Chinese looked at that as a real positive. They were used to hierarchy, and they were used to authority,” Seligman explains. Why not replicate a power structure familiar from the motherland? “If your village has always had a head man to whom you could go for adjudication, you would want the same in Chinatown.”

Lee’s arrival came as the Chinese confronted rising discrimination. Most of them spoke poor, if any, English, and the police certainly didn’t speak Chinese. This was especially problematic for gambling-hall bosses, who craved protection from the authorities. Shrewd and oppor­tunistic, Lee, who spoke decent English and even had an American wife, gathered the bosses. He announced he would be taxing them; the money would be used to pay off the police and the aldermen.

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Lee cleverly built strong ties with – read: gave lots of money to – the bosses of Tammany Hall, an Irish Catholic-dominated fraternal society that mushroomed into the dominant political force in New York politics. They rewarded him by making him a deputy sheriff in 1880. This was significant. As Seligman writes, “Lee was the first Chinese to hold any government office, appointive or elective, in New York’s history. And he wore his new title, quite literally, as a badge of honor, affixed to his suspenders. The New York Herald reported that ‘the Celestials are delighted over the success of his application,and feel sure that they will not be molested in their own neighborhood.’”

The Chinese community, which had lacked political power, clearly could not rely on the police or courts for justice. In Lee, they had a well-connect­ed advocate. But if nature abhors a vacuum, then capitalism detests mono­polies. Soon, rival factions emerged to challenge Lee and his On Leong Tong. The most powerful, the Hip Sing, were connected to a brotherhood founded in San Francisco decades earlier. The Hip Sing cleverly recognised that it could exploit Lee’s alliance with Tammany Hall by aligning with Tammany Hall’s enemies.

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In the early 1890s, Hip Sing’s leaders gradually worked their way into the good graces of the anti-Tammany forces, led by moralistic Methodist minister Charles Parkhurst and a crusading assis­tant district attorney called Frank Moss. Parkhurst in parti­cular was determined to bring moral order to Chinatown, and soon became convinced that the Hip Sing loathed the corrup­tion and vice perpetrated by the On Leong.

The Hip Sing Tong was led by Mock Duck, whom Seligman describes as having “a reputation for cunning and brutality”. He didn’t seem a conventional ally for a Methodist minister; contemporary news accounts note that he would occasionally strut down Pell Street wearing chain mail and diamonds. But what he did offer, beyond moralistic clucking that echoed Parkhurst’s own, was hard data: he provided a list of establish­ments of vice – conveniently all run by members of the On Leong Tong.

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“All of a sudden, they have power behind them,” Seligman says. “That was a brilliant tactical move.”

Even more brilliant: Mock Duck withheld the addresses of the On Leong’s most lucrative establishments, along Mott Street. It was his way of signalling to Lee that there was still more to be lost, if he played this wrong or attacked the Hip Sing unwisely.

In the three decades after the first tong flare-up, ignited by the killing of Lung, three more “official” wars would erupt, along with many more skirmishes during seasons of alleged detente. The second, which began in 1909, was known as the Four Brothers’ war, after a clan organisation that fought the On Leongs. The third, launched in 1912, just a few days after Chinatown celebrated the declaration of Sun Yat-sen’s Republic of China with the explosion of 100,000 firecrackers, was spark­ed by a battle over control of the New York opium trade. The fourth had nothing to do with illicit businesses at all; it kicked off, in 1924, after a large group of renegade On Leongs joined the Hip Sing.

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Seligman’s account of the tong wars is bloody. One quickly loses track of the fast-accumulating body count as well as the related jailings and legal proceedings. But while the wars have long been perceived as Chinese-on-Chinese crime, “nobody really understands that the Chinese were only half the equation in what was going on”.

It wasn’t just that the Chinese attempted to exploit partner­ships with Tammany Hall on one side and the Parkhurst organi­­sation on the other. The importance of the political backdrop cannot be underestimated. This was the era of rising distrust of Chinese immigrants. In 1882, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first – and still the only – immigration law to have targeted one particular ethnicity. It severely restricted Chinese immigration while making it nearly impossible for those who had already arrived to become US citizens. It also presaged several decades of legal and overt discrimination against ethnic Chinese – which manifested itself, on the ground in New York, as poor treatment at the hands of the authorities.

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The Four Brothers’ war was sparked partly by a conse­quence of the Exclusion Act: a lack of Chinese women in America. There were thou­sands of Chinese men for every Chinese woman in America’s Chinatowns.

“At the turn of the century, to the extent there were children in Chinatown, the majority were mixed-race,” Seligman explains. “There weren’t many Chinese women you could marry, so [the Chinese men] would marry lower-class women, usually Irish or Italian.”

One of Chinatown’s few Chinese women was Bow Kum, 21, who, on August 15, 1909, was found murdered and mutilated in an apartment at 17 Mott Street. When the police were summoned to the scene, they found she had been “gored twice through the heart”, Seligman writes, “and a bloody, seven-inch hunting knife stuck upright in the floor beside her corpse.”

Bow was born in China and sold into slavery in California. She had been a captive in the San Francisco home of Lau Tong, a Four Brothers member, until a Presbyterian missionary res­cued her. She eventually married Chin Lem, a laundry owner and On Leong member, with whom she moved to New York. Lau travelled east in a failed attempt to reclaim his “property”. He then sought compensation of US$3,000 – US$80,000 in today’s dollars – from Chin, who declined, and the issue went to the On Leong Tong’s leaders for arbitration. They “determined that because the girl had been procured through the mission and not directly, the demand was without merit and no payment was required”, Seligman writes. “The On Leongs’ decision turned out to be not only Bow Kum’s death warrant but also the trigger for out-and-out war.”

One theme that emerges from Seligman’s narrative is a consistent underestimation of the Chinese on the part of white Americans. Once, when the Hip Sing syndicate bombed the On Leong headquarters, “there was a perception on the part of the police that the Chinese didn’t have the technology to use bombs, so they must have hired Italians”, Seligman says. “Sure, they invented gunpowder and fireworks, but they couldn’t put together a bomb.”

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Racism laced interactions with law enforcement, too. Infuri­­ated by the continuing violence, New York County district attorney William T. Jerome said upon seeing two high-ranking tong leaders in the hallway after a court hearing: “Please tell the head men of your societies or gangs or tongs or whatever you call them, that I want to see them, and that they had better accede to my request. That is, I mean – I callee and they comee.”

News accounts were written by white reporters with little or no familiarity with Chinese culture. Even after the tong wars, the othering continued, most significantly in popular-culture portrayals of the battles. From the 1920s through to the 60s, the wars provided creative material for Hollywood, playing a significant role in the plot of The Cameraman (1928), in which Buster Keaton is saved by the police from being killed in the violence wracking Chinatown, and inspiring jokes and puns in the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (1932). All the films inspired by the wars featured white actors playing Asian roles.

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Perhaps the most significant tong wars cultur­al moment came in 1932, with the release of The Hatchet Man. The film stars Edward G. Robinson as an assassin who must kill his best friend and Loretta Young as his best friend’s daughter, whom he then raises as his own – and later marries. In The New York Times, film critic Mordaunt Hall praised it as “a ruddy affair … a fast-moving tale with an Oriental motif”. In particular, he lauds the work of those who turned a nearly all-white cast into Chinese characters: “one of its particularly effective features is the make-up of the players”.

Seligman’s assessment of The Hatchet Man is less positive: “Crap,” he says. “It really was just crap.”

SELIGMAN’S OWN FIRST encounters with Chinese people and culture came when he was growing up in Newark, New Jersey, in the late 50s and early 60s. There was Ming’s Restaurant, the first place at which he ate Chinese food. There were a couple of Chinese kids at his elementary school, though none in his class. There was the Chinese-run laundry, where his father had his dress shirts washed and ironed.

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After studying American history at Princeton University, he signed up for Princeton in Asia, a programme that sends fresh college graduates away for a year or two of life and work. He was sent to Taiwan, where he learned basic Putonghua. He later lived in Beijing and Hong Kong, on Robinson Road, in Mid-Levels. He has not visited Hong Kong since 1997, when he came to observe the return to Chinese sovereignty, and, he confesses, he no longer follows news out of China closely.

“I like the 19th century better,” he says. “It’s a little simpler. It’s easier to understand.”

One of the core Chinese-cultural concepts Seligman came to understand during his years living and working in Asia was mianzi – face. While the tong wars were, on the surface, about money, influence and power, at heart they were about face – something that was not at all understood by law enforcement amid the violence.

Mianzi is a very powerful motivator,” Seligman says. “It often trumps money. It often trumps power. The four tong wars became wars of face.”

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In the end, Seligman believes, the tong wars petered out because of a convergence of factors. Tammany Hall’s power faded, weakening the On Leong along with it. Demographics and the market­place were both changing, with an increasingly Americanised Chinese population. Thanks largely to the pressures of law enforcement, Chinese-controlled gambling moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey while many Chinese people, laundries and restaurants migrated to other parts of New York City and out to the suburbs.

Then there was the sheer cost of continuing the fight – what began largely because of econo­mics also ended because of it. Each round of war sent signals to tourists as well as Chinese who lived elsewhere
in Greater New York: stay away. Then, when the Great Depression broke out in the late 20s, Chinatown restaurants began closing in large numbers and jobs became scarce, with the unemployment rate rising above 25 per cent.

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“Tong wars were expensive propositions,” Seligman writes. “Weapons had to be purchased in quantity, and guns, explo­sives, and tear gas were far more costly than hatchets and cleavers had been. Gunmen had to be recruited and paid, and their escape – or their legal defence, should they be apprehend­ed – had to be underwritten.”

While the organisations have persisted into the 21st century – only two decades ago, top officials of both the On Leong and Hip Sing tongs were named in federal indictments in connec­tion with racketeering, extortion and murder – they have faded from the headlines.

“America created the tongs as much as the Chinese did,” Seligman says. “This has to be looked at in the context of how these people were treated in the US.”

As such, the stories and lessons of the tong wars have taken on new relevance during this American election year, as Republican nominee Donald Trump has targeted China as a threat to US economic well-being and identified immi­grants more broadly as cause for concern.

Seligman sees clear connections between the thinking behind official Chinese exclusion in 1882 and anti-immigrant sentiment today. In the late 19th century, he noted in an op-ed for The Seattle Times in February, “Some were deported. Others were cut off from families. Many were forced underground, compelled to live in fear of arrest and expulsion. It created an underclass that lacked a say in the laws that governed them and the ability to get justice from the courts.”

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Today’s political environment, of course, is radically differ­ent than that in the days of the tong wars – as is New York’s cityscape. As Seligman notes, even in the later years of the battles, “Manhattan’s Chinatown had slowly been morphing into a centre for legitimate business and tourism.” That trans­formation has continued.

The ground floor of 9 Pell Street, where Lung Kin was shot, now houses Joe’s Shanghai, a popular purveyor of xiaolongbao. The apartments upstairs start at US$1,800 a month for a one-bedroom.

Around the corner is L-shaped Doyers Street; its curve was legendarily known as the Bloody Angle, because it was said to be prime ambush territory. Today, you’re much more likely to find hipsters there than tong hatchet men, thanks to establish­ments such as Apotheke, a bar styled after Prohibition-era speakeasies that offers US$15 cocktails and zero danger.

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One of the last remnants of the tong-wars era is the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a bakery and dim sum joint that opened in 1920. The old art-deco tables endure, as do the tin ceiling and ancient cash register, though the menu and kitchen were revamped recently.

Given the history of Doyers Street, it seems particularly fitting that one of the things the Nom Wah has always been famous for is its home-made lotus paste, which you’ll find in its sesame balls and mooncakes. The lotus, of course, symbolises peace, unity and harmony.