Institutionalization of the Chinese Tongs in Chicago's Chinatown

by Andrew Sekeres III
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Gate of South Chinatown at Cermak and Wentworth.

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.

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