RW_640x140_Static_06_SUN.jpg Advertisement

While gang wars are not unusual in San Francisco, perhaps the longest running ones involve tongs, which are societies or organizations within a Chinese-American community.

Tongs were associations formed within Chinese immigrant communities in the 1800s. They were meant to help the Chinese with "legal, monetary, and protective services," because they weren't able to use "white" services. Soon the tongs became criminal enterprises, trafficking in drugs, prostitution, gambling and even slavery.

In the 1880s, Fung Jing Toy, nicknamed "Little Pete," created his own tong and soon gained control over Chinatown, thanks to an alliance with "Blind" Buckley, the Democrat who controlled City Hall. But after a decade in power, rival tongs banded together and offered the extravagant amount of $3,000 for Little Pete's death. On January 23, 1897, two men went into the barbershop in Little Pete's building. The tong boss was sitting in the barbershop chair, with a towel over his face, and was shot five times.

Eleven years later, on January 4, 1908, 50 members of different tongs were killed and over 100 were injured in a feud over a slave. Here's the NY Times' account of the bloodshed:

The trouble started over the sale of Wan Len, a slave girl, to Luing, a member of the Ping Kun Tong, by Ah Wong, a member of the Hop Sing Ton,. Luing paid $2,100 forWan Len, but Ah Wong declared that there was not full payment. As Luing refused to pay more war was declared between the Ping Kun Tong and the Hop Sings.

The first battle between the tongs was in Clay Street and resulted in seven killed and ten wounded. Since that time fighting has been frequent. Lately the Hop Sings, in their desire to get back the money alleged due their tong, held up a fan tan game at Los Angeles. Two members of the Bo Ons, a totally different and inoffensive tong, were shot by the Hop Sings with the result that the fight became general and every tong was implicated.

Seeing that the feud was likely to spread too far the Presidents of the Six Companies called a meeting last Thursday to settle it. Luing was awarded the girl and the Hop Sings declared to be in the wrong.

(The Six Companies were generally benevolent groups not related to the tongs.)

The fighting between tongs was also rampant in the 1920s. San Francisco police tried to clean up Chinatown; one cop who started on the beat in 1925 recalled, "I remember in the last of the Tong Wars there was a guy named Wong Quong, who was killed on January 6, 1926, in Ross Alley. And on April 20, Ju Shuck was killed in the back of the Chinese Theatre [at 420] Jackson. They were all from different Tongs, and we knew they'd been killed because of a war, but we could never figure out just who did it. The Chinese were a secretive lot anyway, by and large, but none of them could talk about a murder like that. They would have been violating the code."

By the 1960s and 1970s, the tongs were "displaced by vicious foreign-born organizations" whose violence left even the innocent victims.

People looking at tong announcements in 1898 (Arnold Genthe)