Institutionalization of the Chinese Tongs in Chicago's Chinatown
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 ways.

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, 37)”.

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, writes:

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 America.

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 states:

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 Chinatown, 233).

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 live in.

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 Analysis, 53-54).

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 to racism.

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 in Chicago.

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 own well-being.

Appendix A

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 Crime, 299-300).

Appendix B

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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  12. United States. Cong. Senate. Committee on Governmental Affairs. Asian Organized Crime. Hearing, 3 October and 5-6 November, 1991. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1999.
  13. Zorbaugh, Harvey W. The Natural Areas of the City. Found in Studies of Human Ecology by George A. Theodorson. Evanston: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1961.
    Pages 45-49.


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