I remember in the last of the Tong Wars there was a guy named Wong Quong, who was killed on January 6, 1926, in Ross Alley. And on April 20, Ju Shuck was killed in the back of the Chinese Theater (at 420) Jackson. They were all from different Tongs, and we knew they’d been killed because of a war, but we could never figure out just who did it. The Chinese were a secretive lot anyway, by and large, but none of them could talk about a murder like that. They would have been violating the code.

DAN MCKLEM, Chinatown Tong Wars of the 1920s, Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

Long before the Tongs and the Triads became known worldwide for their criminal activities, they operated as resistance organizations in seventeenth-century China, established to fight against the Ching, who had taken over their country. The Ching were not popular with the majority of Chinese as they originated in Manchuria, a country to the north of China.The Manchus invaded China in 1644, overthrowing the ruling Ming emperor to establish the Ching Dynasty.

From the very beginning, Ching rule was marred by difficulties. Apart from the resentment that was caused by having a non-Chinese governing body, its rule was also beset by the ever-increasing presence of foreign colonial powers that were seizing sizeable tracts of Chinese territory and insisting that China allowed the import of large amounts of foreign goods into the country. This was upsetting the finely balanced Chinese economy, making the harsh life of the average Chinese citizen even harder, and creating a breeding ground for dissent and planned insurrection. The resistance was fostered within the folds of the secret societies – the Tongs and the Triads – which, right up to the twenty-first century have struck terror into the hearts of millions of ordinary people all over the world.

The family name of the Ming emperors, for whose return these secret societies were fighting, was ‘Hung’ and many of these organizations incorporated the Hung name into the name of their own group. Their name, however, was generally all any outsider might know about the group. Secret codes and clandestine rituals were adopted in order that society members could operate without detection. All members were required to learn the martial arts – something that came in very useful when these secret societies aided and abetted several rebellions against the Manchus, notably during the White Lotus Society rebellion in the mid 1790s, the Cudgels uprising between 1847 and 1850, the Taiping uprising between 1850 and 1864, and the Boxer Rebellion which took place between 1896 and 1900. However, unfortunately for those supporters of the former Ming Dynasty, when the Ching were eventually ousted from power in 1911, there were no Mings left to restore to the throne. Consequently, the first president of the newly formed Republic of China was a former military general by the name of Yuan Shikai. He was, unfortunately, no more able to rule the country than the average man in the street and China continued to flounder in an atmosphere of near-total political chaos. With the political leadership in disarray, the people looked elsewhere for guidance and reassurance. They turned to the secret societies which flourished as never before. For the majority of Chinese people, the most significant event of the early twentieth century was the first wave of Chinese emigration to America. Suddenly a whole range of ‘Chinatowns’ sprang up all the way down both the west and east coasts of the USA. These communities not only gave the new Chinese settlers a sense of ‘home’ in their otherwise foreign surroundings, but they also had a secondary, far more sinister, role to play. The different Chinatowns served to facilitate the establishment and growth of those Chinese secret societies that had wielded so much influence back in the old country. Two groups in particular were of special importance: the Tongs and the Triads.

Defining precisely what the Tongs represent is a complicated affair because it involves a cursory knowledge of how Chinese society operates. Originally the word was an anglicization of the Mandarin tang, meaning a lodge or a hall, although this generally referred to the group operating within such a hall, rather than to the building itself, much as a Masonic Lodge refers to the members of the society rather than the place in which they meet and a ‘church’ can be the congregation as much as it is the building where the congregation worships.

A Tong group consisted largely of ‘unrelated Chinese people united to assist one another by a bond that includes secret ceremonies and oaths.’1 Traditionally, therefore, whenever the Chinese found themselves transplanted en masse to new surroundings, as they did when the emigrated to Canada or America, the Tong would be one of the first organized groups to set up operations. A prime example of this occurred in British Columbia in 1862 when, on arrival in their new country, the Chinese immediately set about establishing the Chi Kung Tong to aid and abet them in both family and business matters. The Tongs were, and still are, deeply respected within Chinese society, due for the most part to their revolutionary history, in particular those times when they fought against the Manchus and the Ching Dynasty. The Chinese look back with pride on those days, revering the Tongs and bestowing on them an almost legendary status.


Tong and Triad secret societies provided many freedom fighters for the resistance movement against the Manchus, including this flag- and spear-carrying warrior from the Boxer Rebellion of 1896-1900.

Yet, had they relied on their revolutionary credentials alone, it is doubtful the Tongs would have survived. Instead the Tongs have fashioned themselves to serve as a particular type of social unit, looking after all those who belong to their group, ensuring their safety above all others, protecting their interests by any means available. In this way the Tongs have adopted the manners and values of that other, most Chinese of subcultures, the Triad organizations. Particularly in North America, where Tong groups sprang up in every major city, the society has provided a network of social contacts for its members. Naturally, where criminal activities are concerned these contacts prove incredibly useful, providing funds, manpower and weaponry. Indeed, it is the criminal element, more than any other, that comprises the majority of Tongs, for since their inception they have been renowned for running illegal gambling operations, drugs rings, extortion gangs and prostitution rackets. Where the latter is concerned, the Tong wars, which raged in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were almost entirely based on internecine warfare between different Tong gangs fighting over prostitution rackets.

From the moment the first Chinese settlers set foot on American soil, they began setting up Tongs and other secret societies to help establish themselves in their newly adopted surroundings. But one thing was in short supply: women.

From 1870 to 1910, the ratio of male to female Chinese immigrants in California (the primary point of entry for Chinese to the United States) was always at least 10 to 1, and a ratio of 20 to 1 was much more common. From 1881 to 1890, as little as 1 percent of the Chinese in America was made up of women.2

Inevitably this shortage meant that Chinese prostitution rackets were incredibly lucrative: after all, those Tong gangs who set up Chinese whorehouses had a ready-made customer base, eager to pay over-the-odds for the product. And as for the ‘product’ itself, in the nineteenth century the bulk of women involved in the trade would have been sold into it by their impoverished families back in China. A smaller percentage of girls would have been kidnapped, with only a very few volunteering to enter into the practice, in order (or so they believed) to earn good money which could then be sent back to relatives. Chinese girls were popular amongst America’s white population, but their main source of income would have been amongst their own kind. This meant that a great deal of competition developed between different Tong gangs, all of which vied for the same trade in an attempt to gain bigger and bigger slices of the proverbial pie.

With so much money at stake, violence was never far from the scene. In 1864 the first Tong war erupted in America when a male member of the relatively large Suey Sing Tong gang kidnapped one of his rival’s mistresses. Battle was declared, with several men on both sides being killed. The matter was only settled when the Suey Sings eventually caved in and returned the woman to her ‘rightful owners.’ Disputes such as this broke out frequently between different Tong gangs, exacerbated by the fact that shipping prostitutes from China to America was a costly affair, making the prostitutes – for want of a better phrase – worth their weight in gold.

The preferred weapon of the Tong gangs during this period was a six-inch-long hatchet – a relic from their ancestral past, but one which also earned the Tongs a great deal of notoriety in America. Other weapons included knives and, of course, guns. The writer Herbert Asbury gives a fascinating insight into the type of weaponry and clothing worn by a typical nineteenth-century Tong ‘warrior’ along San Francisco’s Barbary Coast: ‘[ …] their queues [pigtails] wrapped around their heads, black slouch caps drawn down over their eyes, and their blouses bulged with hatchets, knives, and clubs.’3

When Tong warfare broke out, white journalists liked nothing better than to write up the events for the simple reason that it made great copy. Hatchets meant blood and blood ensured a large readership. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in Los Angeles in 1871 when two gangs, the Hong Chow Tong and the Nin Yung Tong, began fighting each other in a dispute over a woman. The fighting went on for days, during which time men on both sides were badly injured, whilst others were arrested. Finally one of the city’s white sheriffs was shot in the shoulder whilst pursuing one of the Tong leaders. The injured man was rushed to hospital, but the wound was deep and became infected and eventually he died. Enraged by what they saw as a rising level of violence within the immigrant Chinese population, something in the region of 600 people mounted a mass demonstration through Los Angeles’s Chinatown district during which further violence broke out. The man said to have been responsible for the sheriff’s death was caught by the mob and subsequently lynched. The mob then looted and ransacked every Chinese property they could lay their hands on. In addition to the damage to property, the mob also attacked any Chinese man, woman or child they came across: it is estimated that a further nineteen Chinese were lynched while countless others were shot or hacked to death with their own hatchets. Eight white men were arrested that day and given jail terms, but none served longer than a year in prison.

These were horrendously tough times for the new immigrants and it is little wonder that after such incidents, Tong membership rocketed as more and more Chinese felt the need to stick to their own kind and keep all their dealings secretive. Possibly because of this secrecy, the rites of passage Tong initiates were required to take remained shrouded in mystery. Luckily, the same is not so true of the vows Triad members are said to undertake, which are no doubt similar (if not in content then in tone) to those of the Tong.

Excerpt from Triad Society Initiation Ceremony:

Incense Master: As a vanguard are you versed in civil and military matters?

Vanguard: I am well versed in both.

[ …]

Incense Master: Name the eighteen kinds of military arts you learned at Shao Lin.

Vanguard: First I learned the use of the rattan shield.

Second the use of metal darts.

Third the use of the trident.

Fourth the use of the metal rod.

Fifth the use of the spear.

Sixth the use of the wooden staff.

Seventh the use of the sword.

Eighth the use of the halberd.

Ninth the use of the fighting chain.

Tenth the use of the iron mace.

Eleventh the use of the walking stick.

Twelfth the use of the caltrops.

Thirteenth the use of the golden barrier.

Fourteenth the use of the double sword.

Fifteenth the use of the duck-billed spear.

Sixteenth the use of the tsoi yeung sword.

Seventeenth the use of the bow and arrow.

Eighteenth the use of the lance.4


Elaborate carvings and ornamentation decorate this centerpiece of the headquarters of the Hop Sing Tong in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1929.

Given the nature of the above, it is hardly surprising that both the Tongs’ and the Triads’ feuding, particularly amongst their own kind, was particularly bloodthirsty. In New York the first Tong wars were said to have broken out around 1900, only a little later than those on the west coast of America. New York, in fact, suffered from prolonged bouts of internecine warfare among various Tong factions, in particular between the Hip Sing Tong and the On Leong Tong.

The On Leong Tong, whose leader at that time was a man by the name of Tom Lee, for the most part controlled the so-called ‘property rights’ system, which meant that they made their money from the lucrative gambling and opium dens in New York’s Chinatown. In contrast, the Hip Sing Tong’s power lay in the number of criminal associates that were attached to its ranks and the diversity of their activities. For approximately a decade, the two Tongs operated without significant rivalry between them, but when the Hip Sing Tong (whose leader was called Mock Duck) attempted to usurp its rival and take over some of the On Leong Tong’s property rights, fighting broke out. Mock Duck arranged for his men to attack On Leong members in a downtown Chinese theater. The result was a massacre the like of which had rarely been seen in New York before. Several further acts of violence occurred and an increased police presence became required – something neither Tong was happy about. Indeed, so uncomfortable were the Chinese with an ‘outside’ police presence on their territory that eventually both Tongs sat down at a negotiating table and reached an agreement. Not that this was the end of Tong rivalry in New York. During the 1920s and 30s several more wars broke out – one of which hit the headlines as follows:

Two shots were fired in the poolroom. About forty billiard cues clashed on the floor, as the young Chinese, who had been gathered around ten tables, dashed in a panic for the doors. In about a second the place was empty of pool-shooters and employees. In another second it was filled up with curiosity-seekers, mostly Americans and Italians, and policemen.

There was a swarm of policemen on the scene before the smoke had cleared away, because about twenty had been posted by Inspector Bolan at former gambling houses in Chinatown which he had closed up in recent weeks.5

Naturally, none of the above outbreaks of violence endeared the Chinese to their white Americans cousins for, despite most of the immigrants being hard-working, law-abiding citizens, it was always going to be a case of the minority ruining things for the majority.

Soon white Americans were pressing for radical changes to be made so as to exclude the Chinese from mainstream American life. Under the terms of the 1898 Burlingame Treaty (named after Anson Burlingame who was the US minister to China during the Lincoln and Johnson administrations) both China and America had recognized ‘the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of the free migration and emigration of their citizens and subjects, respectively for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents [ …] Chinese subjects visiting or residing in the United States, shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities and exemptions in respect to travel or residence, as may there be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation.’6 In other words, the American government had initially been more than willing to provide the Chinese with laws that protected them against exploitation, violence and discrimination. After the Tong wars however, all this changed. The US Government came under increasing pressure to do something about the ‘Chinese problem’ and the Burlingame Treaty was replaced with the Chinese Exclusion Act of May 6, 1882.

This was the first major restriction on immigration that the United States had ever implemented and illustrates just how high feelings were running in regard to the Chinese in general and the Tongs in particular. The new Act stated:

Whereas in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof:


Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States.7

After ten years the above law (renamed the Geary Law) was extended for a further decade, at the end of which it was then made permanent. Further to this, the Scott Act of October 1, 1888 also prevented any laborer of Chinese origin who had left the United States on a temporary basis i.e. to visit his family back in China, from returning to America. In this way almost 20,000 Chinese immigrants were refused re-entry into the country. In 1924 Chinese wives were also prevented from joining their husbands in their newly adopted country. It was the first and last time legislation such as this, involving the exclusion of a specifically-named nationality, was ever passed in America and in some ways it stands as testimony to the fear the Tongs had instilled into the heart of white America. The situation didn’t really improve until World War II when the United States became allied to China in the fight against Japan.


Tong feuds cost many lives among the Chinese community in America and great efforts were made to maintain peace between rival factions, as at this conciliation meeting between the Hip Sings and Ping Koongs in San Francisco in 1921.

In 1943 the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed and 105 persons of Chinese origin were allowed into the United States per year, after which they could become naturalized American citizens. Further to this, after World War II more legislation was passed softening America’s anti-Chinese stance – for instance the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 permitted approximately 3,500 persons of Chinese origin who were stranded on America’s shores due to the political situation back in China, permanent refugee status. Following on from this, in 1953 the Refugee Relief Act was passed allowing hundreds more Chinese to settle in America and become legal citizens.

From the mid 1940s onwards, therefore, the Chinese population increased rapidly on American shores. Chinatowns were once again in abundance – enclaves where Chinese culture could be both protected and encouraged. Naturally this ‘culture’ included not only the Chinese language, the study of Chinese history and the arts, the practice of Chinese medicine and the appreciation of Chinese food, but also the return to the old Chinese customs, which included the acceptance of the Tongs as a Chinese way of life.

Stronger than before, with more Chinese communities in which to operate, the Tongs grew and prospered. Extortion rackets proliferated. The Chinese – notoriously reticent at going to legitimate police agencies in order to report crime – made for rich pickings for the Tongs. Businessmen were only too eager to pay protection money, but, for the Tongs, the financial gains weren’t the only reason behind their actions. The more shopkeepers and restaurateurs who belonged to a particular Tong, the stronger and more important that Tong became, with an even larger ‘turf’ area or kingdom over which they could rule. Not all Tongs, however, used out-and-out violence to get what they wanted. One tried and tested method to squeeze money out of a reluctant restaurant owner involved a whole group of Tong members arriving at a restaurant, but sitting down at separate tables. Each person would then order only very little from the menu, but stretch out his or her meal for hours on end therefore blocking the tables so that no other customers could sit down and eat. This type of behavior could stretch on for days or weeks, considerably reducing a restaurant’s takings and ruining the business. However, the moment the owner began paying protection money, the problem would melt away. The Tong achieved exactly what it desired without so much as a drop of blood being spilt.

A different method of squeezing extortion money out of a reluctant restaurateur was to post guards at the door of his establishment who would then warn customers away. Only a very rich businessman could afford to allow this type of practice to continue for long, so once again the Tongs won out and raked in the profits.

Kidnapping was also a popular way by which Tong gangs earned an income. Historically Chinese criminals have often fallen back on this practice as a means of achieving monetary gain, kidnapping not only the relatives of the very rich, but also those from middle and working-class backgrounds in the certain knowledge that ransom demands will be met. Where women were concerned, however, the outcome was rarely satisfactory as women have not always enjoyed a particularly high status within Chinese society. Families where a girl had been kidnapped were often unwilling to pay a large sum for her return, particularly when it was supposed that her status as a virgin had been compromised and that her prospects for successfully finding a suitable husband were, therefore, substantially reduced. This meant that young women who were kidnapped were just as likely to be sold into slavery or prostitution as they were to be returned safely to their families. These days kidnapping is still prevalent amongst Tongs as it is often seen as the easiest, most effective way in which to earn money or achieve some other goal. A modern twist on the practice is the kidnapping of large numbers of illegal immigrants who are often employed en masse in Chinese sweatshops or other low-paid industries. The target of the kidnapping is the immigrants’ employer whose business will not be able to operate without cheap labor, although, if all else fails, the immigrants’ families will be targeted for payment. ‘In one such case in Baltimore,’ reports Peter Huston, ‘sixty-three men, women and children – a mixture of kidnappers and kidnap victims – were taken into custody by the police from one small three-bedroom house. The victims had been transported to the premises at night in rented U-Hauls and had made little attempt to escape.’8

Revenge killings are also common among Tong societies, with certain elements of Chinese communities looking upon revenge almost as a tradition that is tightly aligned to the Chinese honor system. But perhaps the most popular illegal activity with which the Tongs are involved, and one which brings in substantial amounts of money, is that of illegal gambling. Often this takes the form of small ‘friendly’ games between acquaintances, but more frequently the Tongs like to form multi-state, underground gambling rings, which rake in huge revenues while also serving as a means of laundering vast amounts of ‘dirty’ money. Mah-jong, cards and fan-tan are all popular games pursued during these activities and all relatively harmless when played for small stakes, but gamblers are regularly enticed to bet beyond their means and entire businesses can be put up as collateral, with ownership changing hands overnight. In California, recent State law has tried to address this problem by legalizing most forms of gambling, thereby preventing the Tongs from operating illegally and causing misery amongst the Chinese population.

Another area in which the Tongs frequently operate is the dangerous world of people trafficking. Given the nature of the business there are no accurate statistics available as to how many illegal immigrants are present in the United States at any one time but it has been estimated that approximately 11 percent of Chinese people living in New York’s Chinatown are working there illegally. The lure of the rich pickings to be had in America is, no doubt, partly responsible for this – after all, the average farmer in rural China probably makes less in one year than the average American citizen makes in a week.

Tongs can smuggle people into America in many different ways, though two of the most popular routes in the past have either been via Mexico or Canada. The Tongs will supply their ‘cargo’ with false visas and identity papers which, naturally, come at a very high price. There are undoubtedly more clandestine ways of smuggling people into the country, though once again there is very little information available on the precise way in which this is done. That said, there is evidence to suggest that international smuggling rings often work together in groups, passing illegal immigrants from one country to another across the globe until they reach their desired destination. In this way hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens make their way into America every year, with a fair number of Tongs using these routes to smuggle in criminal associates who can be of use to them in their illegal activities. The fees for this type of operation are enormous and whole families will save up their money for years in order to send just one member of their group to America – hopefully to earn enough money to then send back home. However, in practice this rarely happens as, more often than not, once the illegal immigrant has reached the United States, the Tongs make certain that they take a percentage of any income he, or in some cases she, makes.

Once successfully smuggled into the country, the illegal immigrants are normally ‘housed’ by the Tongs, which in effect means that they are almost certainly imprisoned until a job can be found for them, working in a sweatshop or in another Tong-run business where a constant eye can be kept on them. After all, for the Tongs, these immigrants are an investment on which a return must be made. For the women who have been smuggled in, the situation can be even worse. Frequently they find themselves being sexually abused whilst being transported or sold into prostitution once they reach America.

The Tongs also frequently combine their people smuggling operations with that other, most lucrative pastime, drug smuggling. Marijuana, amphetamines and heroin are the Tong drugs of choice, with the latter being the most lucrative and, therefore, the most popular. Although previously the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of heroin production comprised of Thailand, Burma and Laos, these days China is also part of the equation. For the Tongs and all the other operatives involved, this is big business and the methods they use vary dramatically. While heroin can be smuggled into the country in large consignments hidden in shipments of legal merchandise, this is a high-risk strategy as a consignment intercepted by the authorities represents a major loss in revenue. A more popular way of smuggling drugs is by way of drug couriers and ‘foreigners’ (non-Chinese people) will often become involved in this process. The most likely candidates for the job are Filipinos and Thais, desperate to make money for their families. There are countless ways in which drugs can be hidden and smuggled; any number of objects, such as children’s toys, souvenir ornaments or religious artifacts, can be hollowed out and used to hide small packages. Alternatively, drugs can be stuffed into condoms and swallowed by the drug courier, or ‘mule’, although, as has been seen on numerous occasions, this can result in the condom splitting and the death of the mule.

Perhaps the strangest fact of all when one considers the criminal nature of the Tongs is just how little their ways have changed over the past hundred years. Illegal gambling, drug smuggling, people trafficking – these were all as much a part and parcel of Tong activity back in the nineteenth century as they are today. More than any other secret society still in existence, the Tongs have remained practically as they were at their inception and will probably go on operating in much the same way for the forseeable future.