The Tong Wars of Chinatown

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Even though the Italian mafia pretty much dominates American organized crime history books, there have been coordinated groups that engaged in illegal activities on US soil long before it appeared on the scene. Historically, for people of all regions, coming to America has never been easy. That applies to everyone, from the first settlers to those that came in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The latter may not have faced similarly harsh living conditions, but they had to deal with social ostracisation, as they faced xenophobia and racism in doses that are unimaginable today.

The immigration of Chinese people to the US began in the 19th century and went through three massive waves. Those that were a part of the first one found work as laborers for the transcontinental railroads and suffered from varied discrimination at every level of society. Prejudice against them was super strong back in those days, as many saw Asians as inferiors who stole jobs from Americans. Things went so far that, in 1882, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade immigration from China for a decade. It also excluded those already settled in the US from becoming legally recognized subjects of the country. Meaning ones that could vote and enjoy the same privileges as native taxpayers. Thus, for decades following the passing of this law, the Chinese in the US got treated as second-class citizens.

Law enforcement officers in massive US cities targeted Asians and their unfair treatment towards this minority when largely unchecked. Being subjected to such inequality forced members of the Asian community to bond together in small groups that looked out for their best interests. Over time, these outfits, known as Tongs, turned to crime and began operating gambling dens that offered casino games like roulette, craps, and even card action.

What Are Tongs?

A tong is a Chinese secret organization. The first instance of this type of entity appeared during the Ming dynasty in China, in 1664, established by the Zhigongtang society.  Located in the Guangdong province, the primary aim of this initial Tong was to remove the new Manchu rulers from power. What is notable about Guangdong is that it was home to many of the first Chinese migrants that arrived in the US. Thus, they brought many of their homeland traditions with them to North America.

The Chinese migration to the United States began slowly in the early to the mid-18th century. However, it ramped up at the start of the 19th one. The first US Tongs sprung up in San Francisco, where Chinese immigrants got extensively mistreated by locals. They got paid lower wages for doing the same work as Americans and suffered verbal/physical abuse from their American peers, who did not like that it was cheaper for companies to hire Chinese workers instead of them.

Under such pressure, many Chinese founded benevolent associations that protected and supported those living in Chinese-populated districts. These groups got comprised mainly of young men, many of which were social outcasts. Hence, it came as no surprise that these initially well-meaning Tongs swiftly turned to crime. When this switch happened, they showed many similarities to the Hong Kong triads, boasting the same initiation ceremonies and worshiping matching deities.

The Tongs Proliferation in New York & the Chinatown Wars

After the US Tongs appeared in San Francisco, these organizations spread to other metropolitan cities like Boston, Washington, Portland, and New York. Some even got established in British Columbia in Canada. Some of these got founded by ex-San Francisco residents, who moved away from the Golden City after its 1906 earthquake.

From the early 1900s to the 1930s, New York saw four Tong wars, with the first one starting over who will control gambling in several NY areas. In the late 19th century, the New York Tongs primarily focused their illegal operations on betting activities and smuggling women. The two main Tongs in the Big Apple, at this time, were the On Leong and the Hip Sing Tongs. The first got established in 1893, and the latter’s founding date cannot get pinpointed. Although, the Hip Sing rose to prominence around 1904 and dominated the drug trade in New York while also having offshoots in Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle.The New York Tong wars were extremely violent, with members of both fractions evolving from using cleavers only to utilizing revolvers and bombs. Their clashes quickly caught the eye of authorities, who in 1905 began raiding Chinatown’s many gambling spots. At the onset of the 1930s, the Great Depression was in full swing. Many Chinese found themselves out of work and out of Chinatown by this decade. Newer generations did not depend on the Tongs for protection, leading to their dissipation in the US.