Los Angeles Chinatown rattled by double killing at mahjong club

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 January, 2017, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 January, 2017, 8:00pm

Tiles clacked at the mahjong tables in the main hall of the Hop Sing Tong, the slow cadence of a typical afternoon at one of Los Angeles’ oldest institutions.

The quiet broke when an intruder entered the Chinatown building and started to argue with a man in his 60s playing the game at a felt-covered table. He pulled a knife and attacked the man and another who tried to defend him, slashing both fatally in the neck, law enforcement sources said.

One of the victims was the president of the tong, a Chinese fraternal organisation. The attacker, thought by police to be a former member of the tong in his 30s, fled and is still at large.

Los Angeles police detectives are now trying to sort out a mystery that conjures memories of the violence wrought by tongs in the past.

A law enforcement source told the Los Angeles Times that police believe they know the identity of the attacker and that the slayings appear to be related to a personal dispute. Neither the suspect nor the dead men have been publicly identified by police.

The Hop Sing Tong formed in San Francisco in 1870 to help Chinese immigrants – who faced severe discrimination and violence – band together. The one in Los Angeles was founded six years later.

Though the tong and other Chinese clubs remain a part of the Chinatown fabric, the centre of power in LA’s huge Chinese community has shifted east into the San Gabriel Valley over the last few decades.

The boom in wealth from mainland Chinese and Asian trade has been felt much more in valley cities such as Alhambra, Monterey Park, San Gabriel and Industry than in Chinatown itself, which has struggled to reinvent itself over the years.

More recently, Chinatown has seen an increase in art galleries and trendy restaurants as well as new residential development spilling north from a rapidly gentrifying downtown LA.

The law enforcement source said the suspect in Thursday’s stabbings was once a member of the Hop Sing Tong and had visited the club several times in recent days.

Connie Vuong, a staff member with the Chinatown Business Improvement District, said the attack was not believed to be random, though she would not say how she knew that.

A man wearing a crime scene clean-up crew uniform answered the door at the association’s building in New Chinatown Plaza, but no staff members were available for comment.

Vuong described the association as a social club that attracts an older clientele. Only members and associates of members are allowed inside, and Vuong said that meant the assailant probably knew someone at the club.

The attack, she said, had left residents somewhat rattled with the Lunar New Year beginning Saturday.

“Everybody is calling us because this is a busy time,” she said. “We have a lot of tours, a lot of tourists coming in.”

Officers with the Los Angeles Police Department responded to the 900 block of North Broadway about 2:45pm after receiving reports of gunshots.

“It was personal and isolated,” said Detective Patricia Hauck of the LAPD Central Division’s homicide unit. “We don’t know if he planned to go there and kill somebody ... He came back over and over again recently.”

Officials said there is no evidence the killings have any links to the notorious gang wars that plagued the groups years ago.

In the 1920s, the Hop Sing Tong and its rival, the Bing Kong Tong, waged war on each other to seize control of Chinatowns from San Diego to Seattle, killing numerous members of both groups. On the illicit side, they were known to run gambling dens, prostitution rings and extortion schemes. They also helped immigrants find jobs and places to live, dispensed justice and settled disputes in the insular communities.

As Chinese Americans assimilated throughout the century, the tongs’ power waned and the violent rivalries subsided, but they remained vital in urban Chinatowns, such as those in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.

A gang war associated with the Hop Sing Tong in San Francisco erupted in 1977 over control of the fireworks trade. In 1994, the president of the tong in Los Angeles, Phillip Lieu, was shot and killed after a group meeting.

Inside the hall Friday, four mahjong players sat in an area with about 30 chairs and a faded red linoleum floor. Headlines in Chinese-language newspapers stacked on a black table in the centre of the hall were dominated by the stabbings.

People at the hall declined to speak extensively about the attack, noting that the suspect had yet to be apprehended.

Employees and owners at the businesses near the Hop Sing Tong said they were slightly on edge, even as tourists buzzed through the gift shops and eateries inside Chinatown Central Square, seemingly unaware of the bloodshed that took place the day before.

“We have not had troubles here,” said Jennifer Hanna, a 50-year-old cashier at Realm, an art and design store just 50 feet from the entrance to the Hop Sing Tong. “Today I feel a little apprehensive.”