Institutionalization of the Chinese Tongs in Chicago's
by Andrew Sekeres III
When you drive east on Cermak Road or get off on the CTA’s
Red Line stop, Cermak/Chinatown, you will be greeted by rising pagodas
in the sky, Chinese kanji (the written characters that make up the Chinese
language), Asian-influenced architecture, and an array of Asian restaurants.
You have entered Chicago’s Chinatown. It seems like a nice safe
neighborhood to shop in its various shops selling everything from martial
arts weapons to ginseng and shark’s fin to Asian food items including
the well known soy sauce to eating various Asian cuisines ranging from
Cantonese to Vietnamese to Japanese to even Korean food. However, you
should be aware of the unfamiliar especially in this neighborhood. This
is not due to heavy areas of violence, but rather to the unseen. Beyond
the pleasing facade of gift shops, bakeries, herbal medicine shops,
grocery stores, restaurants, and fresh markets pandering to locals and
tourists alike, Chinatown has a dark side to it.
What does this dark side compose of? This dark side composes of the
presence of a major Asian criminal enterprise- the tong. The two tongs
that make up of Chicago’s Chinatown are the On Leong tong and
the Hip Sing tong. In recent years, these two organizations have been
major players in heroin trafficking and operating illegal gambling dens.
Unfortunately, this activity is not new for these groups. You can trace
the illegal criminal activities of these organizations to the late 1800’s.
From that time to the present, the tongs have been involved in the following
crimes: murder, prostitution, illegal gambling, drug trafficking, extortion,
alien smuggling, blackmail, money laundering, RICO violations, and bribery.
These are very dangerous organizations because not only the multitude
of their crimes crosses every spectrum of the criminal code. Rather,
it is the insufficient research in the field about these organizations.
Criminal justice organizations are trying to decipher their unorthodox
practices with well-established criminal investigative techniques. However,
this is virtually impossible because the tongs do not follow the normal
patterns of groups like them. The tongs follow their own criminal patterns.
In order for criminal justice organizations to bring these groups into
custody, they must understand what they are dealing with. Besides understanding
the complex nature of the tongs, law enforcement officials must understand
the dynamics of the neighborhoods that these groups originate from.
They must understand the complexity of the Chinese communities in this
country: the Chinatowns. Also, they must comprehend the history of the
Chinese in this country from the first arrival to the present. It is
within the structure of these communities and the history of the Chinese
in America that make up the components in which it allows these groups
to prosper for over a hundred years. No other criminal group can say
that they lasted for a hundred years without major setbacks in their
How is this possible? How can a criminal group like the tongs last in
power for some many years without being caught? This is precisely what
this paper is going to be about. This paper will examine the dynamics
of the Chinese tongs and will try to show how the tongs were successful
over a period of more than a hundred years in the United States. In
doing so, the paper will lay out, also, the history of the Chinese-American
in order to show how the history of the Chinese in the United States
plays a significant part in the formation and success of the tongs.
Plus more then that, this paper will examine the Chinese in Chicago
from the first immigrant to the present-day. With the history of the
Chinese in Chicago, this paper will examine and try to conceptualize
for the reader how the tongs influence the Chinese community in Chicago.
The tongs play a major part in the Chicago Chinese community.
Why is this paper going to focus upon the tongs in Chicago?
This paper is going to focus upon the Chinese community and the tongs
because there is not any research in the field that focuses upon Chicago
when it discusses the tongs. Why is that in city like Chicago known
around the world for organized crime and corrupt politics that there
is little research on Chinese organized crime in Chicago? The Chinese
tongs did exist in Chicago primarily among its Chinese inhabitants.
The tongs in Chicago were known for vice, gambling, and recently for
smuggling drugs. However when you look at the research that was done
in Chicago on vice and organized crime, it does not mention anything
about Chinese vice or Chinese organized crime. Walter Cade Reckless’s
influential and well-researched book titled Vice In Chicago
does not mention anything about the Chinese and their businesses of
vice. Also, another great book about Chicago when it deals with organized
crime is John Landesco’s book, Organized Crime in Chicago,
has a great chapter on prostitution and its links to organized crime
does not mention the Chinese and the tongs. Finally, one of the profound
books on prostitution and vice in the city of Chicago does not mention
the Chinese either. The Chicago Vice Commission’s findings in
The Social Evil in Chicago does not look at the Chinese prostitutes
when they are discussing foreign women in the vice trade. They primarily
focus on African-Americans and foreign-born whites when they are discussing
immigrants in their research. Why is that there is little research
done on the tongs when it comes to Chicago? The Chinese are a viable
force in the social fabric that makes up Chicago. Chicago was the
catalyst in research when it comes to new views when dealing with
criminology and social structures. Chicago was the birthplace of the
Progressive Movement with its Chicago School of Criminology based
at the University of Chicago. If Chicago was the birthplace of the
Progressive Movement, then why is there little research about the
Chinese in Chicago. An example of what this is trying of show is that
one of the founders of the Chicago School of Criminology, Ernest W.
Burgess, discussed the Chinese population when showing his theory
of urban growth only in the context that the Chinatown as “immigrant
colonies fascinatingly combing old world heritages and American adaptations
(Burgess: The Growth of the City: An Introduction to Research Project,
Why is there such a lack of research when it comes to the Chinese
community in Chicago? This paper will be trying to find the roots
of why researchers in the City of Progress did not take the time and
effort to examine the Chinese population in more detail. In order
to accomplish this task, this paper will show and examine the history
of the Chinese people in America because it is through looking at
history, we can develop a picture of what was going on during that
time. The lack of research on the Chinese population is due to the
fact that the Chinese were victims of a syndrome that hit America
during the late 1800’s: the “yellow” fear syndrome.
Americans especially those on living on the West Coast in cities like
San Francisco did not like the recent Chinese immigrants who landed
in their cities. These immigrants were taking over jobs that whites
already occupied. The white settlers in San Francisco did not understand
the culture of the Chinese. The whites feared the Chinese because
of this misunderstanding. Acts of discrimination began appearing against
the Chinese. This paper later on will go further in examining these
acts of discrimination because through the annals of history, we can
see why the Chinese felt that they had to defend themselves against
the whites. This is the start of the tongs in America.
How did the tongs become such a powerful group in America? Before
this paper goes into this very question, it has to examine the nature
of this group. Was it a gang or was it something else? The tongs were
not a gang. Instead, you can classify them as a secret society. What
is a secret society? Frederic M. Thrasher in his book The Gang
classifies a secret society as:
The gang may develop the features of a secret society- secrecy,
initiation, ritual, passwords, codes, and so on, -either spontaneously
because these devices perform a real function in its life, or in
imitation of such secret societies as it observes in its cultural
environment. In the latter case, the chief motive seems to be the
thrill of mystery and the prestige of the social pattern in the
community rather than mutual protection (Thrasher: The Gang: A Study
of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago, 55).
The tongs are a classic example of a secret society
because they had secret initiation rituals, passwords, codes, symbols,
and their own set of rules and punishments that every member must
oblige by. These practices will be explained later on in fuller
detail to the complexity of the tong. According to Thrasher’s
definition of a secret society, the tongs are a great example of
the definition because they are heavily integrated in the Chinese
culture and society.
Now, the question is what was the process of the creation of the
tongs? How did this group form and become such a powerful group
in the American underground? If you look at the classic works of
gang research, you will come across the works of the Chicago School
of Criminology based at the University of Chicago. The sociologists
and criminologists that make up this school were concerned about
the formation of gangs particularly in Chicago. They wanted to show
how gangs were formed in America’s urban centers like Chicago.
Their final findings were brought together and formed the theory
we know now as social disorganization. They argued that it was “space”
rather then “race” that attributed to the growth of
the gangs. They look at the organization of a city and found that
there are social patterns within the city’s design that correspond
to the crime within a certain part of the city and not other parts.
Before the Chicago School was around, people believed in the notion
that certain races are predisposed to crime because it is not where
they live instead it is what they are. Ethnicity was a major factor
in determining what groups are more likely to commit crimes. However,
the Chicago School argues that it the places that these groups live
cause the deviant behavior found within the groups of people living
there. Thrasher explains the relationship of the gang to the expansion
process found within a city to the creation of gangs by writing:
Gangland represents a geographically and socially interstitial
area in the city. Probably the most significant concept of the
study is the term interstitial- that is, pertaining to spaces
that intervene between one thing and another. In nature, foreign
matter tends to collect and cake in every crack, crevice, and
cranny- interstices. There are also fissures and breaks in the
structure of the social organization. The gang may be regarded
as an interstitial element in the framework of society, and gangland
as an interstitial region in the layout of the city. The gang
is almost invariably characteristic of regions that are interstitial
to the more settled, more stable, and better-organized portions
of the city. The central tripartite empire of the gang occupies
what is often called “the poverty belt”- a region
characterized by deteriorating neighborhoods, shifting populations,
and the mobility and disorganization of the slum. Abandoned by
those seeking homes in better residential districts, encroached
upon by business and industry, this zone is a distinctly interstitial
phase of the city’s growth. It is to a large extent isolated
from the wider culture of the larger community by the process
of competition and conflict which have resulted in the selection
of its population (Thrasher: The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs
in Chicago, 20).
This can explain the creation of many gangs in Chicago. Most the
gangs found in Chicago were from poor neighborhoods. They were a
product of their environment. However, this cannot explain the creation
and success of the tongs because according to ethnic succession
once a group leaves a poor neighborhood, the gang members will become
old and then leave the life of the gang for a better life. This
was not the case of the tongs. The tongs existed in this country
for about hundred years. The tongs did not go away when their members
became old. Instead, this group existed even long after the original
members passed away.
How did the tongs last for a long time in power unlike other criminal
groups that failed with time? This cannot be explained by using
the social disorganization theory as proposed by the Chicago School.
Then, what can it possibly be? Is it something within the social
structure of the Chinese-American society that allows these groups
to survive? The tongs in America particularly in Chicago survived
over a hundred years because it institutionalized themselves within
the community. The tongs became a vibrant force in the Chinese community
from its beginnings as an organization formed together for protection
against white settlers on the West Coast. This group helped the
Chinese in this country to survive the racist attacks that would
endure from day to day. However, this only lasted for a short while
because in the long run, the tongs would prey against its own people:
the Chinese living in the numerous Chinatowns that were popping
up everywhere. The tongs were a major player in the Chinese community
because they provided services to citizens living there. This dynamic
of institutionalization of the tong in the Chinatowns will become
more clearer when this paper goes into further detail of the inner
workings of Chinese-American history and the structure of the Chinatown.
Also further on in the progression of the Chinese tongs
in Chicago, this paper will explain how the tongs in the modern age
survive in the city. The Chinese tongs of today survive in the city
because of two factors: institutionalization and the placement of
the modern day Chinatown. Today’s Chinatown is located between
physical barriers on all sides. To the south, there is the Dan Ryan
Expressway. To the north, there are the CTA’s Orange Line commuter
railroad tracks and the Chicago River. Also located just north of
the river and the commuter rail track, you will find large open spaces
that are covered with railroad tracks. To the east, there are the
Metra Commuter Rail railroad tracks and the CTA’s Red Line commuter
railroad tracks. Plus beyond the railroad tracks, you have public
housing that was built by the city of Chicago in late 50’s to
house the African-American population living there. It is a ghetto.
To the west, there are the Dan Ryan Expressway and the Chicago River.
These physical barriers built by the City of Chicago enclose Chinatown
into a confining space. What does all of this have to do with the
survival of the Chinese tongs in Chinatown? These physical barriers
put Chinatown into what is known as a natural area. Harvey W. Zorbaugh
who wrote The Natural Areas of the City argues that the natural
areas of a city are those areas surrounded by the physical barriers
built by the city. These natural areas are havens for crime. Zorbaugh
elaborates by writing:
The structure of an individual city, then, while always exhibiting
the generalized zones described above, is built about this framework
of transportation, business organization and industry, park and
boulevard systems, and topographical features. All of these break
the city up into numerous smaller areas, which we may call natural
areas, in that they are the unplanned, natural products of the city’s
growth. Railroad and industrial belts, park and boulevard systems,
rivers and rises of land acting as barriers to movements of population
tend to fix the boundaries of these natural areas, while their centers
are usually intersections of two or more business transportation,
or natural advantages each area acquires a physical individuality
accurately reflected in land values and rents.
Now, in the intimate economic relationship in which all people are
in the city everyone is in a sense, in competition with everyone
else. It is an impersonal competition- the individual does not know
his competition. It is a competition for other values in addition
to those represented by money. One of the forms it takes is competition
for positions in the community. We do not know all of the factors
involved, but each individual influences the ultimate position of
every other individual.
In this competition for position the population is segregated over
the natural areas of the city. Land values, characterizing the various
natural areas, tend to shift and sort the population. At the same
time, segregation re-emphasizes trends in values. Cultural values
also play a part in this segregation, creating repulsions and attractions.
From the mobile competing stream of the city’s population
each natural area of the city tends to collect the particular individuals
predestined to it. These individuals, in turn, give to the area
a peculiar character. The physical individuality of the natural
areas of the city is re-emphasized by the cultural individuality
of the populations segregated over them. Natural areas and natural
cultural groups tend to coincide (Zorbaugh: The Natural Areas of
the City, 46-47).
Within the physical barriers surrounding Chinatown, the population
mostly consists of people of Chinese descent. This has been the case
for close to 90 years when the Chinese population moved there in 1910.
Only in the recent years have Chinese-Americans been moving out of
Chinatown to neighborhoods surrounding including Bridgeport. However,
this is only recent change in demographics of Chinatown. Why was it
until recently Chinese-Americans were placed into an area surrounded
by physical barriers? It is important to note that these physical
barriers excluding the river were built in the late 50’s. It
is due to these barriers placed by city that the tongs went on without
notice to the outside world. The Chinese always had to live within
the presence of the tongs, but with these barriers in place, it makes
more difficult for the citizens of the Chinatown to live the grasp
of the tongs.
Now that we somewhat understand the processes around the creation
and successfulness of the tongs from a theoretical perspective, this
paper will go into the history of the Chinese immigrant in America
to show how history played a major role in the creation of the tongs.
The start of the Chinese immigration began during the California gold
rush in the 1840’s. The Chinese immigrants came to America in
search of gold and fortune. However, this was not the case when they
arrived to these shores. Peter Kwong, author of The New Chinatown,
The California gold rush during the late 1840’s
brought the first wave of Chinese. When the rich surface gold mines
were exhausted, most white miners moved on to more productive sites.
Only large mining companies had the necessary capital to work underground,
and to realize a fair return, they needed a reliable source of cheap
labor. “Coolies” (“bitter labor” in Chinese)
from the southern Chinese provinces were brought to America as contract
labor. By 1851, there were 25,000 Chinese in California (Kwong: The
New Chinatown, 11-12).
The Chinese settlers in America were all male. They
had to leave their wives and children back in China. Gerald L. Posner,
author of Warlords of Crime: Chinese Secret Societies- the New
Mafia writes about the promises that the Chinese had coming in
The first immigrants arrived withed the promise of
high pay, and they thought of making fortunes in and around San Francisco,
a name that in Chinese means “Golden Mountain”. Instead,
they found backbreaking work, restricted and squalid living conditions,
and constant abuse directed at their different dress and customs (Posner:
Warlords of Crime: Chinese Secret Societies- The New Mafia, 206).
Also besides these horrid conditions, the Triads from
China were making the immigrants stay even harder. Martin Booth, author
of The Dragon Syndicates: The Global Phenomenon of the Triads
They, the Chinese immigrants, were ripped off from
the moment they landed. Triads operating the travel agencies in China
were in league with confederates in San Francisco. Once the immigrants
arrived, they had to register with the appropriate Triad-affiliated
hui guan, which welcomed them, temporarily housed them, and if necessary
found them work, but also kept an eye on them, making sure they paid
their debts (Booth: The Dragon Syndicates: The Global Phenomenon of
the Triads, 296).
Then a few years later, the gold mines were completely exhausted.
Afterwards, the Chinese population started building the Trans-Continental
Railroad. The Chinese were the ones who went into the mountains and
set up the dynamite in order for the tracks to go through. The conditions
were horrible. After the railroad was completed, the Chinese had no
money to return home. Booth states:
With no laboring to do, they did as Chinese have always done. They
adapted. Some set up chophouses and bakeries, some general stores.
Chinese laundries appeared in the streets and Chinese servants in
the homes of the rich. Chinese barbers cut hair whilst by 1890,
over half of San Francisco’s fresh vegetables were grown by
the Chinese market gardeners. The more successful they became, the
more discrimination they faced (Booth: The Dragon Syndicates: The
Global Phenomenon of the Triads, 297).
Then during the late 1870’s, a recession hit San Francisco.
This proved to be the powder keg of Chinese immigration. Peter Kwong
elaborates on this by writing:
Employers hired Chinese at low wages, pitting them against white
workers, and triggered a chain of reactions. The labor movement,
then in its early stages of organization, considered the Chinese
strikebreakers who cooperated with the monopoly capitalists. A group
of skilled craft workers tried to use this anti-Chinese sentiment
to gain political power. “Chinamen must go!” became
their battle cry; racial demagoguery became the issue to rally white
working people, many of whom were frustrated by unemployment. The
period was marked by public hysteria over the specter of the “yellow
peril”. Finally, politicians from Western states, with the
support of colleagues from the South, pushed the Chinese Exclusion
Act through Congress in 1882. The Act barred all immigration of
Chinese laborers. It was the first time and, as it turned out, the
only federal law ever to exclude a group of people by nationality
(Kwong: The New Chinatown, 13).
The Chinese Exclusion Act was even supported by the Supreme Court
who said “that Congress had an inherent power to exclude foreigners
of a different race who will not assimilate with us” (Posner:
Warlords of Crime: The Chinese Secret Societies- The New Mafia, 207).
It is important to note that while this Act prohibited the immigration
of Chinese laborers into this country; Chinese merchants were allowed
to come in.
What happened to the Chinese immigrants that were already living here?
The Chinese settlers were targets of discrimination, abuse, and even
victims of mob violence. They were restricted to live in certain neighborhoods
that later coined as Chinatowns. Peter Kwong examines this movement
of the Chinese into these Chinatowns.
The shift of Chinese into these urban ghettos was
not voluntary. These were not like the immigrant ghettos of Italians,
Jews, or Poles, which tended to disappear as each group integrated
into American society. Rather, they were segregated areas where the
Chinese were meant to stay. The segregation was maintained by the
exclusion of the Chinese from the larger labor market. American capitalists
had moved on to recruit cheap labor from other Asian nations, such
as Japan, Korea, and the Philippines (Kwong: The New Chinatown, 13-14).
With the Chinese placed in Chinatowns, the creation
of the tongs took place. The word tong (or tang in Mandarin) translates
to meeting hall. The tongs first started as community groups helping
the Chinese immigrant in settling in America. Booth analyzes this
even further in reporting:
The tongs started as mutual societies but were soon
central to the life of Chinese communities, becoming the unofficial
local Chinese administration providing a social legal framework, arbitrating
in disputes, operating a credit union and banking structure, offering
welfare in needy cases and running schools. As members were frequently
unrelated in place or clan, they pledged their allegiance to each
other with an oath taking ceremony backed up by religious ritual,
a secret code and body language. In other words, they became secret
societies (Booth: The Dragon Syndicates: The Global Phenomenon of
the Triads, 298).
What did the rituals of the tongs look like? Richard
H. Dillon, author of The Hatchet Men: The Story of the Tong Wars
in San Francisco’s Chinatown describes an initiation ceremony
of the Chee Kong Tong, one of the first tongs in Chinatown. See the
Appendix B to see the initiation ritual practice. Also in the Appendix,
there is a picture of an initiation ceremony. The initiation ceremonies
of the tongs are heavily influenced from Chinese culture. These specific
rituals that the tong recruit goes through showcase the power and
influence of the tongs on their members. They are joining a secret
society through these various practices that are borrowed from the
surrounding culture that is present in the Chinatown. These initiation
ceremonies are just one facet that makes the tongs so unique from
other criminal organizations.
The tongs are heavily influential in the Chinatowns
because throughout their history they have been helping and at the
same time oppressing the citizens of Chinatown. They become institutionalized
in Chinatowns by providing services that help the Chinese immigrant
to adapt and survive in the United States. With some legal services
provided by the tongs, there are also illegal enterprises that are
funded by the tongs. Booth describes some of the services by reporting:
Wherever Chinese communities sprang up, tongs provided
services for them, organizing primitive sanitation, a watchman corps
to look out for racist goons and even street lighting, yet their main
provisions were gambling and opium dens, brothels, and doss houses.
Legal opium was shipped in, illegal whores smuggled in hidden boxes
or bales of cloth, or brought in overland from Vancouver (Booth: The
Dragon Syndicates: The Global Phenomenon of the Triads, 298).
The tongs brought illegal enterprises to the doorsteps
of Chinatown. See the Appendix to see pictures of opium dens from
the turn of the century. The tongs that prospered in violence and
in vice were called “highbinder” tongs. These are the
groups who used violence in wielding their power. Early on, these
“highbinder” tongs were called “hatchet men”
because they used a Chinese cleaver as a weapon. They would use cleavers
in order to “chop” their victims. The wound resulting
from a “chopping” would be a symbol that this attack was
done by the tongs. This act of using cleavers was also borrowed from
the Triads located in China. See the Appendix to see pictures taken
of chopping and the weapon that did the damage.
A huge industry for the tongs took place in the vice
industry. The tongs supplied Chinatown with Chinese prostitutes. The
reason being that the Chinatowns was 95 percent male due to the restrictions
of Chinese female immigration. The prostitutes of Chinatown were called
“singsong girls”. How did prostitutes enter this country
all the way from China? The girls were promised jobs and freedom in
America by smugglers in China, who are called “snakeheads“.
However, this was certainly not the case. Chinese smugglers back in
China made the women sign contracts that were basically life sentences
in the brothels. One such contract can be found in The Hatchet
Men: The Story of the Tong Wars in San Francisco‘s Chinatown.
An agreement to assist the woman, Ah Ho, because in
coming from China to San Francisco, she became indebted to her mistress
for passage. Ah Ho herself asks Mr. Yee Kwan to advance to her six
hundred and thirty dollars, for which Ah Ho distinctly agrees to give
her body to Mr. Yee for service as a prostitute for a term of four
years. There shall be no interest on the money. Ah Ho shall receive
no wages. At the expiration of four years, Ah Ho shall be her own
master. Mr. Yee Kwan shall not hinder nor trouble her. If Ah Ho runs
away before her time is out, her mistress shall find her and return
her. Whatever expense has incurred in finding her and returning her,
Ah Ho shall pay. On this day of agreement, Ah Ho, with her own hands,
has received from Mr. Yee Kwan six hundred and thirty dollars. If
Ah Ho shall be sick at any time for more than ten days, she shall
make up by an extra month of service for every ten days of sickness.
Now this agreement has proof. This paper, received by Ah Ho, is witnessed
by Tung Chee in the twelfth year, ninth month, and fourteenth day
(Dillon: The Hatchet Men: The Story of the Tong Wars in San Francisco‘s
When the woman would arrive in America, she would be
escorted to her new home, the brothel. Conditions in the brother were
sanitary if that. The women would have to service men all day long
at slave labor wages. It would take them a lifetime in order to fully
repay their captors. The prostitutes did not run away from the brothel
because they were afraid of being deported back to China. Also, they
did not have the proper language skills that allow them to use the
law to their behalf. The term “singsong” girl comes from
the notion that the girl would work in bars and fan-tan (a popular
Chinese card game used for gambling) parlors. They would work at these
parlors for their meager wages. Booth describes some of the vice establishments
that were being found around in the Chinatowns.
The whores operated in two types of establishment.
The first was typically Chinese, consisting of a “crib”-
one bed cubicle surrounded by wooden panels, the entrance hung with
a curtain. The occupant traditionally wore black silk. The second
was the Western-style “parlor house”, a well-appointed
bordello with bedrooms and a saloon bar (Booth: The Dragon Syndicates:
The Global Phenomenon of the Triads, 299).
Later on in this paper, Chicago’s Chinese prostitution
will be discussed by looking at Ivan Light’s scholarly article,
Ethnic Vice Industry, 1880-1994, who particularly looked at
the various techniques and issues surrounding African-American and
Chinese prostitution in Chicago. See the Appendix to see pictures
of the “singsong” girls.
In San Francisco and other cities around the 1890’s
with Chinese neighborhoods, they were experiencing the tong wars.
Factions of different tongs were at war against each other for territory
and power rights. Also during this time, people were avoiding the
Chinatowns after hearing about the presence of drug addicts (“opium
heads”), the violence of the tongs (“hatchet men”),
and the lucrative brothels and bordellos littered with “singsong”
girls. Chinatown was not a happy place to live in or to visit that
is why you are beginning to see immigrants moving east to mid-west
towns like Chicago.
Chicago’s Chinatown began with the presence of
one man, T. C. Moy, in 1870. For Moy, life was good in Chicago. Richard
Lindberg, author of Passport’s Guide to Ethnic Chicago: A
Complete Guide to the Many Faces and Cultures of Chicago, writes
about the experiences in the life of T. C. Moy.
Life was good in Chicago, Moy reported in glowing
terms to his relatives in Hong Kong. There were no discriminatory
head taxes or contract labors, and the virulent racism of local whites
that competed for scarce jobs during the building of the Trans-Continental
Railroad was greatly diminished in Chicago. By 1878, Moy had convinced
sixty friends and relatives to embark on the perilous journey to Chicago.
“They never said to me that the Chinese have got the perfection
of the crimes of 4,000 years,” recalled Moy years later. “They
never asked me whether or not I ate rats and snakes. The Chicagoans
found us a peculiar people, to be sure, but they liked to mix with
us. I was destined not to return to my fatherland, I thought.”
(Lindberg: Passport’s Guide to Ethnic Chicago: A Complete Guide
to the Many Faces and Cultures of Chicago, 259).
The Chinese slowly came to Chicago due to the legal
restrictions that were placed upon them by the federal government.
The Chinese in 1890 founded the first Chinatown around the streets
of Clark and Van Buren. It was right in the middle of the old Levee
district with its brothels and saloons everywhere. In this Chinatown,
the residents established laundries, restaurants, herbal shops, fresh
markets, and even brought with them two tongs (On Leong and the Hip
Sings). These two tongs can actually find their roots in New York’s
Chinatown. These are the only two tongs that actually existed in New
York and still do today. Since Chicago was placed on the eastern half
of the United States, the tongs from New York could use Chicago as
a base. This is why you see the similarities between the two tong
names in here and New York. Like in other Chinatowns, the tongs had
a presence. These two groups ran gambling dens, opium dens, and brothels
to service the community. See the Appendix to see a picture Chicago
tong men. Also in the Appendix, there is a picture of one buildings
founded by the tongs in the original Chinatown around Clark Street.
However by 1905, this area became too expensive for the Chinese to
The anti-Chinese hysteria that had spread eastward in the three
decades following the completion of the transcontinental railroad
infected the Custom Custom Place landlords, who raised their rents
to exorbitant levels. With no recourse, the Chinese followed the
criminal gangs and vice lords southward to 22nd and Wentworth- the
fringe of Chicago’s notorious levee district.
The evil specter of racial prejudice made assimilation
into the American culture exceedingly difficult, despite the Chinese
capacity for hard work and perseverance. The 22nd Street district
on the near South Side was a “badlands." Rents were generally
cheap, but police protection was minimal. Open lawlessness and vice
in its lowest forms tested the spirits of these hearty immigrants,
banished as they were by the city fathers (Lindberg: Passport’s
Guide to Ethnic Chicago: A Complete Guide to the Many Faces and Cultures
of Chicago, 260-262).
It was during this time that you begin to see the creation
of the two tongs because the Chinese immigrants located there. Lindberg
reports, “Some of these Tong gangs did much good during the
early years providing the community with mutual assistance programs,
culture identity, and a small but certainly viable political lobby”
(Lindberg: Passport’s Guide to Ethnic Chicago: A Complete Guide
to the Many Faces and Cultures of Chicago, 261). However, not all
of the tongs was doing well for their community. The On Leong (translates
to prosperity and peaceful conduct) and Hip Sings tongs existed only
for criminal purposes. They were in charge of the many gambling dens,
opium dens, and brothels that existed in Chinatown. Vice was a major
player in Chicago’s Chinatown. From 1880 to1924, white males
wanted to purchase sexual contacts, whores. This is why the Chinese
tongs decided to get into the vice industry in Chicago. They wanted
to supply the Chinese and white demand for sex. Ivan Light, author
of Ethnic Vice Industry: 1880-1944 writes about the creation
of Chinese vice industry in Chicago.
A white-patronized, ethnic-staffed vice industry thus
developed in the Chinese community for the identical reason. Naturally,
Chinese continued to conduct a vice traffic for co-ethnics throughout
this period. White patronage probably doubled the volume of prostitution
in Chinatown (Light: Ethnic Vice Industry: 1880-1944).
The Chinese tongs in Chicago promoted vice in their
neighborhood in order to bring in more business and money to the gangs.
However with time, the On Leong and Hip Sing tongs began to lose money
and business in 1930 due to the start of the Great Depression. This
is the time in which Chicago experienced its own tong war. The two
gangs were fighting for a piece of the pie. Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer,
authors of Chicago Confidential write about the differences
of the tongs and the result of the tong war.
The On Leong were the top men but permitted the Hip Sings to go
along in a secondary position. When the territories were divided,
the Hip Sings, the conquered, were allowed to operate only in the
small, old Chinatown located on Clark, which was described as being
between Van Buren Street and Carrie Watson’s whore-house.
The On Leong, the winners, took the big one, new one, on Wentworth
Avenue, and with it the cream of the trade.
The treaty provided for everything in specific detail. Chop suey
restaurants and laundries in certain sections were set aside for
On Leong, with the less desirable locations reserved for the Hip
Sing, who found their fan-tan games limited as the big, profitable
fan-tan and mahjong play everywhere else in town except a bit on
the North Side went to the On Leong.
Based on arrests of Chinese dope peddlers, the indication is that
only members of the On Leong sell opium and the Hip Sing sells white
stuff- cocaine and heroin. Most Chinamen prefer the hop pipe. Few
use the needle (Lait and Mortimer: Chicago Confidential, 90).
The treaty between the Hip Sing and the On Leong tongs was carefully
arbitrated by Chin Kung Fong.
The tongs in the two Chinatowns became institutionalized in their
neighborhoods. They were a part of their communities. Just like in
other Chinatowns across America, they were helping their communities
by providing services for a fee. They became an integral part of their
community structures. For a long time, the tongs ran gambling dens
in Chinatown. The Chinese citizens around them just accepted the fact
that these gambling dens were meant to stay in their neighborhoods.
Besides the gambling dens, the tongs smuggled in heroin from the Golden
Triangle, which makes up the borders of Laos, Burma, and Thailand.
The tongs survived in Chicago for a long time due to the fact that
these were not ordinary criminal groups. They were secret societies
like those, which this paper explained early on. The tongs followed
a code of silence that does not allow them to speak to anyone on the
outside like the white “foreign devils” or the Chinese
themselves. This is one of the ways in which the tongs lasted for
so long in their community. The tongs were a part of the community.
Although they were not visible at times, they were there conducting
their illegal enterprises.
Another way how the tongs institutionalized into their society was
that the outside community did not know or really care about the Chinese
was particularly doing. The outside world particularly knows about
the vice and violence that occurs supposedly quite frequently in the
Chinese communities. Walter Cade Reckless, author of The Distribution
of Commercialized Vice in the City: A Sociological Analysis writes
quite clearly about this very notion.
The relationship of Chinatown to the commercialized vice areas
of American cities is too well know for elaboration. It is only
fair to say, however, that the assumption of the usual parasitic
activities by the Chinese in the Western World is probably to be
explained by their natural segregation at the center of the cities,
as well as by their uncertain economic and social status (Reckless:
The Distribution of Commercialized Vice in the City: A Sociological
Why did a noted and educated sociologist write these
horrible comments about the Chinese community? Where did these racist
views manifest? The views are manifested from the history of the relationship
between the white man and Chinaman. This relationship is thoroughly
explained and examined in the earlier part of this paper.
Plus, the tong became institutionalized in their communities
by allowing the community and its leader to help resolve the issues
between the tongs. The Chinatown had its problems but resolved its
own problems. Lait and Mortimer explain how this process actually
worked in Chicago.
Chicago’s Chinese are pacifists as to the white man’s
courts and the white man’s law. Disputes between Chinese are
almost always cleared up by local arbitration. If both parties belong
to the same tong, it is settled within its walls. If they belong
to different tongs, the Chinese Protective Association, made up
of all Chinese in Chicago, takes over. If no decision can be reached,
the matter is referred to the Chinese Consul, and in rare, important
cases, the matter is referred the Chinese Ambassador in Washington.
In a dispute between a Chinese and a white, the Orientals try to
agree without going to court, even by paying more than a court could
award (Lait and Mortimer: Chicago Confidential, 91).
The community kept to themselves by maintaining their own law and
order. Street violence, vandalism, and petty crimes are not visible
on the streets of Chinatown due to the fact the community runs the
show. They wanted to show Chinatown as a model neighborhood in which
you can do your shopping and eat some good Chinese in. This was and
continues to be the vision of Chinatown.
Although Chinatown was a model neighborhood due to everything was
running smooth; Chinatown could not expand it borders to encompass
more area. The city of Chicago at the start of the 1930’s started
new projects that cut the area of Chinatown even further down then
it already had been. The Chicago Chinese Chamber of Commerce reports
the history of Chicago’s Chinatown on their website. In its
report of the history of this neighborhood, the section lays out in
detail; the projects that make Chinatown look the way it does today.
Extension of Cermak Road for the 1933 World’s Fair cut housing
in half. Construction of the Dan Ryan and Stevenson Expressways
in the 1950’s halved its size again. Even more housing was
demolished in 1969 after the state announced the construction of
the Franklin Street extension of the Dan Ryan, a project never realized
(Chicago Chinese Chamber of Commerce: History, 1-2).
Why did the city of Chicago put a neighborhood like Chinatown into
its own natural area? Why did they go forth with many of these expansions
like the Dan Ryan and Stevenson Expressways? Once again in the history
and expansion of Chicago, another neighborhood is victim to racial
discrimination. The Chicago Chinese Chamber Commerce reports that
expansion problems that Chinatown faced and even now faces are due
In the 1960’s, Chinese residents forced the Chinatown Redevelopment
Association to purchase land for public housing. They faced many
problems in the beginning, including shortage of funding and willingness
of buyers. Some banks had no confidence in lending money to the
Chinese. This was due to racial discrimination and moneylenders
did not know enough Chinese to tell whether or not they were good
risks or not (Chicago Chinese Chamber of Commerce: History, 2).
The real estate people feared the Chinese because simply
they did not know enough about them. The city of Chicago, also, had
this fear of the Chinese because the Chinese dealt with their own problems
in their own way. They did not use the city services for help. The city
of Chicago feared the unexpected when it came to Chinese. Plus, the
city of Chicago did not want the Chinese to acquire any land that actually
had some land value to it so that they can profit from it. This is simply
the process of segregation in Chicago. This is what Chicago was known
for over a long period of time: segregation. See the Appendix to see
pictures taken by the author that illustrates the space constraints
faced by modern Chinatown.
Then in the 1970’s, the Federal Government had
say in the expansion in the city of Chicago. The Federal Government
wanted to build a federal detention in downtown with close proximity
to the federal buildings located on Dearborn Street. They found a
perfect location in the area of Clark and Van Buren. However, there
was one catch to it. This was also the site of the second and lesser-known
Chinatown headed by the Hip Song tong. So, the Federal Government
came in and knocked down the buildings in that area that made the
second Chinatown. They wanted to build their federal detention center.
Once again, Chinese-American population is victims of the natural
expansion in the city of Chicago. However, you may what happened to
the Chinese that were living there? They could not move back in the
Chinatown located at Cermak and Wentworth because they were excluded
from it because of the contract they signed at the end of the tong
war in the 1930’s. Where did these people go?
The Argyle and Broadway area, north side of Chicago, was selected
to be the location of the north Chinatown because transportation
is easily accessible and land was inexpensive. Entrepreneur Jimmy
Wong and his associates bought 60% of the properties on both sides
of Argyle Street and tried to provide financial help to those who
would like to start a business there. But this North Chinatown,
though flourishing, never attained the prominence of the south Chinatown
(Chicago Chinese Chamber of Commerce: History, 2).
So now, the city of Chicago has to two Chinatowns, one
north and one south. See the Appendix to see pictures of North Chinatown
Whatever happened to tongs during this whole process? Well, the tongs
never gave up their criminal activities. This was until the late 1980’s
and the early 1990’s when the Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) raided the On Leong building in the Chinatown located at Cermak
and Chinatown for gambling. A summary of the case can be found in the
Congressional Hearing Records on Asian Organized Crime. The Department
of Justice for this hearing prepared this summary. See the Appendix
A to see the summary of the indictment and trial. Nowadays, the On Leong
Building is now a community and religious center called the Pui Tak
Center. See the Appendix to see pictures of the Pui Tak Center (the
On Leong Building). We do not know for certain what the On Leongs down
on Cermak and Wentworth and the Hip Sings on Broadway and Argyle actually
do. We do know that these two organizations have store front offices
in their respecitve Chinatowns. See the Appendix to see actual pictures
taken by the author to see these offices. We, also, know that these
groups are sponsoring local events in their communities. See the Appendix
to a see a flyer about the Lunar Chinese New Year celebration held in
North Chinatown that was sponsored by the Hip Sing Association. There
are rumors going around that these two tongs did not give up their criminal
past. However, there is no concrete evidence to support this belief.
The tongs have been part of the Chinese-American community in America
for the last hundred years. These groups survived this long period of
time by institutionalizing themselves into their own community. At first,
they provided social functions to help their communities to survive.
Some time after that, the tongs went into criminal enterprises into
order to make money and support their communities into selling illegal
goods like liquor and drugs. The Chinatowns accepted these tongs in
their communities by dealing with them personally. As shown earlier
in the paper, the Chinese community ran their own community with no
outside help of any kind. The problems of the tongs were dealt personally.
These tongs lasted as long as they did because simply they were part
of their community. Also besides the institutionalization factor, these
tongs existed because no one really knew their operations because these
groups were secret societies as shown throughout this paper.
In Chicago’s Chinatown, these tongs existed because
they always had business due to the fact that the city placed them into
a natural area by placing embankments of all kinds around them. The
Chinese-Americans living there had no chance of moving out due to the
physical restrictions placed by the city and the racism placed upon
the Chinese community. This racism against the Chinese is not a issue
whatsoever because analyzed to fullest potential in this paper earlier,
it shows that the Chinese were victims of racism and even excluded from
this country ever since they landed here in 1849 during the Gold Rush.
It is important for us to learn about groups like the tongs because
through research, we can find the reasons why the tongs existed for
as long as did. The tongs are always a present force in this country’s
criminal underground. However, law enforcement officials are having
a hard time to apprehend these groups because of the history that surrounds.
The Chinese are coming more and more to this country everyday. With
them, they bring their Old World traditions with them. However when
a group like the tongs prey on their people while showing that they
are helping them at the same time, there has to be some kind of punishment
that show them it is allowed in this country to prey on others for your
The national, Chicago, Houston, and New York On Leong
Merchants Associations and 29 individuals and associates of the On Leong
were indicted in Chicago in August 1990 in United States v. National
On Leong Chinese Merchants Association, et al., a prosecution handled
by the Chicago Strike Force Unit of the United States Attorney’s
Office for the Northern District of Illinois. The defendants were charged
in connection with their operation, since 1974, of an illegal gambling
business. The four On Leong associations and thirteen individual defendants
were also charged with RICO based on a pattern of racketeering that
included illegal gambling, briber of a Cook County judge and a witness
in the murder trail of a Ghost Shadow member, solicitation of an unrelated
murder, interstate travel to acquire firearms, assaulting a unhappy
bettor, and the collection of unlawful debts, among other crimes. Some
of the defendants were also charged with income tax violations.
The On Leong case went to trail on April 1, 1991. Sixteen defendants
plead guilty prior to trail, one pled guilty at trail, and five of the
six defendants charged with tax violations were found guilty. The jury
was unable to reach verdicts on the RICO and illegal gambling counts
for all defendants, apparently due to its juror confusion over the RICO
enterprise charge. The government will soon file a superseding indictment
and retry the defendants on those counts. In a related civil forfeiture
proceeding brought under 18 U.S.C. 1955, the illegal gambling business
statute, the Chicago On Leong was ordered to forfeit to the government
its Chicago building (worth $2.1 million), $300,000 in cash, and assorted
gambling-related paraphernalia (Hearing before the Permanent Subcommittee
on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs: Asian Organized
Masters (a person who hated the tongs and wanted to
get rid of them) discovered a book of rituals of the Chee Kong Tong.
He describes the start of an initiation ritual of one recruit that
had been escorted to Chee Kong tong headquarters by an Introducer.
At the first portal, the recruit was challenged by a guard and threatened
with death. But having given the password by his escort, the candidate
would be allowed to enter. Inside, he was told to get out his Manchu
costume and unplait his queue (his ponytail). These, of course, were
signs of his renunciation of allegiance to the Manchu Emperor. He
was then dressed in clothing of the Ming Dynasty, a five-colored gown
with a white girdle around the waist, and a red turban such as those
which figured in the Tai Ping Rebellion (the Boxer Rebellion). Entering
another portal, the Chee Kong convert was forced to drop his hands
and knees and to crawl under an archway of sword blades held by Lectors
and the Chief Swordsman. He then had to bow to the Grand Master of
the secret society, called the Ah Mah, or Mother. He too was dressed
in Ming-style robes, with long unbound hair.
The hatchet man-to-be, after declaring his acceptance of the tong’s
twenty-one regulations was given a potion of wine and blood (including
some of his own) to symbolize the blood relationship with his tong
brothers. He was next ordered to swear an oath:
By this red drop of blood on fingertip, I swear
The secrets of this tong I will never declare,
Seven gaping wounds shall drain my blood away,
Should I to alien ears my sacred trust betray.
The candidate then crawled under a bench or chair on which the Ah
Mah was seated, symbolizing his “rebirth” as a tong member.
After renouncing all allegiance to Emperor, family, and clan, the
young man was led to a third portal which opened into an area where
he was introduced to the secret signs of worship of Heaven and Earth
and the spirits of the monks slaughtered so long by the Tartar soldiery.
Incense and gilded paper were lighted, and wine and tea were poured
to propitiate the gods.
Newcomers who were guilty of past transgressions against the tong
were forced to run a gantlet in which they were given a severe beating.
However, this thrashing absolved them of any sins they had committed.
The final act of the initiation ceremony saw the newcomer joining
the members in rhythmically chanting thirty-six oaths before the high
altar as a rooster’s head was chopped off: a pointed reminder
of the fate of any tong man who might break his oath. The chant:
From rooster’s head, from rooster’s head,
See how the fresh blood flows,
If loyal and brave my course shall see,
But when base traitor and coward turn I,
Slain in the road my body shall lie
The Chee Kong tong borrowed heavily from the ritual of the Triad
Society in China. They kept a multiplicity of secret symbols and signs,
even to the arrangement of a teapot and cups on a tabletop.
Masters found that the Chee Kong tong even had a secret code of ludicrous
but deadly euphemisms. To kill a person was rendered “to wash
his body” (i.e. with his own blood). A rifle was called a “big
dog”, and pistol was a “puppy”. Powder and bullets
were actually called “dog feed” and the command to kill
was “Let the dogs bark” (Dillon: The Hatchet Men: The
Story of the Tong Wars in San Francisco’s Chinatown, 181-184).
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2nd Edition. Illinois: Passport Books, 1997.
Posner, Gerald L. Warlords of Crime: The Chinese
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Reckless, Walter C. The Distribution of Commercialized
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Thrasher, Frederic M. The Gang: A Study of 1,313
Gangs in Chicago. The University of Illinois Sociological Series.
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