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Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York’s Chinatown by Scott D Seligman

Most Americans will be aware that in the middle of the 19th century thousands of young Chinese men were imported to the US from Guangdong to work in the gold fields and lay railroads. They were expected to return home afterward, but many did not.

Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York’s Chinatown by Scott D Seligman
Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York’s Chinatown, Scott D Seligman (Viking, July 2016)

As in Hong Kong in the mid-20th century, the new arrivals formed clan- and geographically-based societies to help deal with the unfamiliar laws and customs of their new home. In New York City in those days, corrupt administration and policing opened up money-making opportunities in extortion, gambling, drugs and prostitution, and the Chinese societies took advantage. Their antics were reflected in popular culture.


The Bowery, the Bowery
They say such things,
And they do strange things
On the Bowery!, the Bowery!
I’ll never go there anymore!
—Charles Hoyt, 1891


In Hong Kong today, societies which seize such opportunities are referred to as triads; in America at the turn of the 20th century they were called tongs (from the Cantonese word for a meeting hall).


Tong Wars describes struggles among the triads in New York City around the turn of the 20th century. Money and influence were at the root of it, but Seligman explains that “face” too was a major factor. A dispute could arise over a woman (or more specifically ownership of her services). A member of one triad kills a member of another. With civil justice ineffective, that affront must be avenged in blood. Each attack then leads to another in a chain of tit-for-tat reprisals which is very difficult to break.


And tell me what street compares with Mott Street in July?
—Lorenz Hart, 1925


Hart may have been thinking of July 1912 when the Mott Street headquarters of one of the triads was bombed and they quickly retaliated by rubbing out two highbinders from a rival outfit in buildings just around the corner.

Seligman’s account focuses on New York City’s Chinatown between about 1880 and 1935. He groups the disputes into three major wars—chains of reprisals, in each case ended by a formal truce. He has done a great deal of research in court records and in the archives of long-forgotten New York newspapers. The result is a clear and systematic account of a long series of inherently opaque and confusing disputes. Many of those involved were not literate in any language, so first-hand accounts are unavailable. That leaves most of Tong Wars reading like a police blotter or a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, but Seligman does a creditable job of bringing them together into a readable and even compelling narrative. In the inter-war breaks he provides some useful analysis, pointing out, for example, that in each case it was the Chinese consul in New York who mediated the ceasefires rather than the uncomprehending municipal authorities.

The murders and mayhem are enlivened by some quotes from the newspapers, whose coverage in those days seems to have been rather more lively then than it would be today. In another light note, most of the gangsters were known to Americans under names assigned by immigration officers when they arrived. One of the gang leaders was known under the unfortunate English moniker Mock Duck. Seligman seems to be under the impression that there was no accepted romanisation for Cantonese in those days, so he adds to the confusion by, in a wild flight of anachronism, giving a Mandarin version of the names using pinyin. In Mr Mok’s case (Mr Duck to the Americans) the result sounds nothing like his Cantonese name, and like most of the thugs concerned, Mr Mok was not of a class likely to have understood Mandarin. Most readers will side with the immigration officers on that one.

But apart from his passion for pinyin, Seligman has compiled an interesting and readable account of some very obscure warfare. Americans in particular will find it a revealing bit of history.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People's Republic.