Organizing Crime in Chinatown:
Race and Racketeering in New York City, 1890-1910
Jeffrey Scott McIllwain
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004
Subject, Methods, Database:
This historical study examines the violent conflict between the Hip Sing Tong and the On Leong Tong in New York City between 1904 and 1906 against the background of Chinese immigration and crime in the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th century. Data were obtained from various primary sources: contemporary histories and sociological treatments, statistics, newspaper accounts, and archival material, including criminal files and court documents.
Chinese migration to the United States began in the late 1840s. Until the 1880s, Chinese immigrants worked primarily in mining, railroad construction, and agriculture in the American hinterland, when changes in employment opportunities and racial tensions drove many to the cities where relative security was obtained in Chinatowns. The Chinatowns developed into important centers for prostitution, gambling and the sale and consumption of opium, partly in response to restrictive laws that, for example, curtailed the immigration of Chinese women, and partly due to the fact that also non-Chinese customers, especially from the working class, began to frequent the whorehouses, gambling joints, and opium dens run by Chinese entrepreneurs. The Chinese vice business was integrated into a larger system of protection and payoffs, involving Chinese protection racketeers, corrupt police and non-Chinese property owners who leased their land and buildings for exorbitant rents.
Originally, life within the Chinese communities was dominated by a few large family and district associations with restrictive membership. As a protective response to their dominance mutual aid associations, so-called tongs, emerged. The tongs adopted the norms and values of the Triad subculture. Their secretive nature, combined with the fact that they could recruit members without traditional restrictions, enabled them to overpower the family and district associations and to take on the social functions of arbitration, protection and exploitation in Chinatown. A tong is not a criminal organization per se, but a natural means of obtaining and using mutually obligate bonds (guanxi) for both criminal and non-criminal purposes.
In New York, two tongs competed for dominance, the On Leong Tong and the Hip Sing Tong. The On Leong Tong represented the interest of the elite in Chinatown. Its power lay in the social, economic and political status of its leaders. On Leong Tong President, Tom Lee, and other key members controlled the lucrative 'property rights' system associated with opium and gambling in Chinatown. The Hip Sing Tong was the power syndicate in Chinatown. Its power lay in the sizeable number of professional criminals within its ranks. Both tongs coexisted for roughly a decade tolerating each other. Then the Hip Sing Tong attempted to stake a more significant place in Chinatown's social system of organized crime, a move that would upset the social world of a number of Chinese organized criminals in the years to come. Tom Lee tried unsuccessfully to remove the Hip Sing leader Mock Duck from Chinatown via his allies in the criminal justice system. The Hip Sing in turn made efforts to increase its contacts outside the Chinese community and found an ally in Reverend Charles Parkhurst and his reform association, the Society for the Prevention of Crime. The Hip Sing Tong provided evidence to the Parkhurst Society's counsel, Frank Moss, so that he could bring indictments and prosecute cases against On Leong members.
The alliance with the reform movement changed the press coverage of the Hip Sing-On Leong war. Before this incident, the Hip Sing Tong was widely viewed as a violent group while the On Leong Tong was commonly referred to as a merchant's association. Now the Hip Sing Tong was viewed as a reform faction bent on driving out vice and police corruption from Chinatown, whereas the On Leong Tong was regarded as purveyors of vice and the friend of crooked cops and Tammany hacks.
However, the reform reputation of the Hip Sing Tong did not prevail for long. When it staged a gun attack on On Leong members in a theater in retaliation for a previous On Leong assault, the positive image of the Hip Sing Tong in the media was demolished. The theater massacre was followed by several more acts of violence and increasing police intervention. Eventually, the warring parties met at the negotiating table and a peace agreement was reached. The agreement established a holding company to divide the gambling profits between the On Leong Tong and the Hip Sing Tong.
The On Leong Tong-Hip Sing Tong conflict that is commonly called the first tong war was "just the first of many battles between opposing organized crime syndicates, a reflection of the chaotic social world of organized crime and the larger social system of organized crime that is part and parcel to the American urban experience that was turn-of-the-century New York City."
The study pursues a dual purpose. On one hand, it sets out to counter assumptions that organized crime in the US is "the purview of Italian and Jewish gangsters; that organized crime became modernized with Prohibition; and that other ethnic groups failed to muster syndicates of any real substance, power or sophistication before the 1980s," when the concept of "emerging" or "non-traditional" organized crime gained acceptance. On the other hand, it aims to demonstrate the value of using historical methodologies in the study of organized crime and to show that organized crime, specifically Chinese-American organized crime, is "a long-term historical process". McIllwain succeeds in setting the record straight about the long roots of Chinese-American organized crime. By doing so he impressively illuminates the shaky grounds on which the conventional understanding of organized crime in the U.S. is based. Those who have heard about the tong wars and thought of it as internal conflicts within a secluded immigrant subculture will be surprised to learn about the complex interplay of illicit and licit actors across ethnic lines. In this sense, the book is an essential contribution to the organized crime literature, not least because the historical evidence is presented within a sound conceptual framework that draws on Alan Block's conception of organized crime as a social world and a social system, and from network analysis. However, one is left wondering how valuable the historical approach to the study of organized crime really is. Organized crime research is characterized by difficulties in accessing data that are aggravated rather than minimized by the passing of time, at least when the period under investigation is so far back in time that no witnesses are left to tell their story. Not surprisingly, in many instances McIllwain has to rely on speculation, operating with "the most likely scenario" or "inferential reasoning".
One of the most convincing attacks on the conventional understanding of organized crime in the United States and an essential contribution to the history of American organized crime. McIllwain shows that organized crime has long and broad historical roots that go well beyond the gangsterism of the Prohibition Era. The only caveat, for which, however, the author deserves no blame, is that the passing of time has not improved the availability of data so that the study, more than investigations of contemporary organized crime, in many respects has to rely on guess work.
Block, Alan, East Side - West Side: Organizing Crime in New York, 1930-1950, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1983.
Chin, Ko-Lin, Chinese Subculture and Criminality: Non-traditional Crime Groups in America, New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Chin, Ko-Lin, Chinatown Gangs: Extortion, Enterprise, and Ethnicity, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
© Klaus von Lampe, all rights reserved.