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Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York's Chinatown

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A mesmerizing true story of money, murder, gambling, prostitution, and opium in a "wild ramble around Chinatown in its darkest days." (The New Yorker)

Nothing had worked. Not threats or negotiations, not shutting down the betting parlors or opium dens, not house-to-house searches or throwing Chinese offenders into prison. Not even executing them. The New York DA was running out of ideas and more people were dying every day as the weapons of choice evolved from hatchets and meat cleavers to pistols, automatic weapons, and even bombs. Welcome to New York City’s Chinatown in 1925.
            The Chinese in turn-of-the-last-century New York were mostly immigrant peasants and shopkeepers who worked as laundrymen, cigar makers, and domestics. They gravitated to lower Manhattan and lived as Chinese an existence as possible, their few diversions—gambling, opium, and prostitution—available but, sadly, illegal. It didn’t take long before one resourceful merchant saw a golden opportunity to feather his nest by positioning himself squarely between the vice dens and the police charged with shutting them down.
           Tong Wars is historical true crime set against the perfect Tammany-era New York City. Representatives of rival tongs (secret societies) corner the various markets of sin using admirably creative strategies. The city government was already corrupt from top to bottom, so once one tong began taxing the gambling dens and paying off the authorities, a rival, jealously eyeing its lucrative franchise, co-opted a local reformist group to help eliminate it. Pretty soon Chinese were slaughtering one another in the streets, inaugurating a succession of wars that raged for the next thirty years.
             Scott D. Seligman’s account roars through three decades of turmoil, with characters ranging from gangsters and drug lords to reformers and do-gooders to judges, prosecutors, cops, and pols of every stripe and color. A true story set in Prohibition-era Manhattan a generation after Gangs of New York, but fought on the very same turf.

368 pages, Hardcover

Published July 12, 2016

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Scott D. Seligman

13 books28 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 45 reviews
Profile Image for George Lai.
172 reviews
March 1, 2017
Reading between the lines, it would seem that there was so much rich history behind The Tong Wars and the life of the Chinese in that era; somehow the book plods along as a dry regurgitation of events chronologically.
Profile Image for Dan.
113 reviews4 followers
August 23, 2016
I learned that people
were murdered in front of the
dim sum place I like.
Profile Image for Virginia.
178 reviews17 followers
February 3, 2016
So we know the basics of the Irish Mob and the Italian Mob back in the day when Prohibition turned honest men bad and drugs made bad men good money. However, we don't know much about the Chinese Mob (aka Tongs) that existed during the same time period and helped shape Chinatown to the tourist attraction it is today.
Scott Seligman paints a gritty picture of the Chinese immigrants that made a home for themselves on Mott Street and then expanded their empire across the country. Filled with interesting facts and stories, this is a part of American history you never read about, but will be glad you did.
Profile Image for Patricia.
524 reviews100 followers
June 29, 2016
I learned quite a bit reading TONG WARS. I was totally unaware of the treatment of Chinese in the USA from the late 1800's into the 1930's. This book takes place primarily in New York City in the Tammany era. This book is an eye opening account for anyone interested in American Chinese at the time. TONG WARS is a fascinating read!
Profile Image for 晓木曰兮历史系 Chinese .
92 reviews16 followers
August 21, 2021
On July 16, I was fortunate to attend a lecture at the Flushing Library in New York. I listened to the famous author Chen Jiu sharing the original intention and language features of his novelette "Anecdotes on Otter Street" with you. Based on the Chinese Exclusion Act of that year, this small number tells the unfortunate experience of a Chinese immigrant "Old Fifth Kwong" on Beaver Street, Chinatown, New York, to express respect and commemoration of the pioneers.

Coincidentally, the documentary literature I just finished reading recently also happens to tell about that era. This documentary literature is Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money and Murder in New York's Chinatown.

In 1878, a young man named "Tom Lee" was dispatched by the "Six Companies" in San Francisco to establish a branch in New York. The Chinese name of this "Tom Lee" is Li Xiling. In 1880, he established an organization called "Friendship Hall" in New York's Chinatown. The story begins here. This book is about the killings initiated by Tangkou (Hongmen gang) in Chinatown from the end of the 19th century to the 1930s for the control of gambling stalls, opium houses, and brothels.

In the mid to late 19th century, China was in a social decline after the Opium War, and people's livelihood was declining; while the United States set off the western development and gold rush, which temporarily attracted gold prospectors from all over the world. In order to make a living, a large number of Chinese people, either actively or passively, are sold as "piggy" to the western United States as laborers. They participated in the construction of the Western Railway and some major engineering projects. For example, 95% of the work of the Central Pacific Railway, which is nearly 1,100 kilometers in length, was completed in the four years since Chinese workers joined the road construction army. In these construction projects, Huagong paid a huge price. It is no exaggeration to say that the railway “has a bone of a Huagong under each sleeper”.

However, this kind of hard work has not been exchanged for respect and equal treatment. They are just slave laborers and have no human rights at all. They are deeply racially discriminated against. Although they have paid a huge price for the construction of the United States, they not only did not enjoy equal benefits, but were also discriminated against by the entire American society. With the completion of the construction of railways and some major engineering projects, "unemployed" Chinese workers began to spread to other industries to earn a living, and cheap costs became competitors of all ethnic groups. Whether it is a job or a business, their hard work, low wages and low profit requirements make it impossible for all ethnic groups to compete and quickly arouse hostility from all races. In addition, the Manchu and Qing government was already in a state of turmoil, and the country was not a country. Against this background, the United States passed the infamous "Chinese Exclusion Act."

The Chinese Exclusion Act is a bill signed by US President Chester Allen Arthur on May 6, 1882, and becomes a part of the United States Code. This bill denies all Chinese laborers from outside the United States for up to 10 years. Its 1884 amendment further narrowed the rules for the departure and entry of immigrants who had previously entered the country. In 1892, the Act was extended by the Gilley Act for ten years, and the time limit was abolished in 1902. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by the Magnuson Act passed in 1943, but it was not until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 that the Chinese immigration quota was abolished. The "Chinese Exclusion Act" is a response to a large number of Chinese who have moved to the western United States due to China's internal turmoil and the opportunity to obtain railroad construction work. It is the first immigration law passed by the United States for specific ethnic groups. Although the bill was repealed a long time ago, it has long been part of the United States Code. Even today, although all of its contents have been abolished for a long time, the title of Chapter 7 of Title 8 of the United States Code is "Exclusion of Chinese" (Exclusion of Chinese). It is the only chapter of the 15 chapters of Chapter 8 (Foreigners and Nationalities) that is completely dedicated to a specific nationality or ethnic group. On October 6, 2011 and June 18, 2012, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives respectively passed an apology bill to apologize to all Chinese in the United States for the Chinese Exclusion Act. (Reference: Wikipedia)

The place with the strongest anti-Chinese sentiment is also the place with the largest number of Chinese (such as San Francisco and other places). In order to unite and help each other and jointly resist the rejection and bullying of the mainstream society, the vast majority of Chinese do not have American identities and need protection. The Hongmen organization represented by the "six major companies" took root here and became the main mechanism of Chinese social autonomy. These Hongmen organizations are half-white and half-black. On the one hand, they have become a channel for the Chinese to communicate with the U.S., speaking on behalf of the Chinese, and uniting the Chinese forces to fight against them; on the other hand, they have the nature of the underworld and collect money by collecting protection fees. The Chinese businessmen who cooperated with them carried out various intimidation, destruction and even killing, and competed with each other for territory, causing a large number of casualties and instability in the Chinese settlements, which further contributed to the anti-Chinese sentiment in American society to a certain extent.

Under the tremendous pressure of survival, some Chinese chose to return to China, and some chose to expand eastward, along the Great Railway all the way to the east, and finally arrived in Philadelphia, New York, Boston and other places. Where there are Chinese, there is Hongmen. As New York became an important Chinese settlement in the eastern United States, the Hongmen organization also developed here. Represented by Li Xiling's establishment of the "Lianyitang" (later renamed Anliangtang) in New York, it marked the official entry of the Hongmen gang into New York's Chinatown.

Chinese in New York, in addition to working for others, the formal business mainly includes laundry rooms, restaurants, etc. But in addition to these formal businesses, Chinatown hides a large number of gambling, prostitutes and opium shops. It is said that more than 95% of the Chinese who came to the United States at that time were men and women were extremely scarce. Therefore, gambling, prostitution and opium smoking became all their amateur "entertainment", making these businesses in Chinatown very prosperous. Because they are all illegal activities, the protection of the underworld gangs is very important. Through some operations, Li Xiling made herself the Deputy Sheriff of New York County (Deputy Sheriff of New York County), possessing a police badge and a pistol. This makes Anliangtang the “government” of Chinatown, and Li Xiling is also known as the “mayor of Chinatown”.

But shortly after the establishment of Anliangtang in New York, under the leadership of the cruel Mock Duck, San Francisco-originated Xieshengtang also extended its power to the East Bank, robbing Anliangtang for control of these illegal businesses. The battle of Tangkou broke out immediately. This fight is more than 30 years.

×Anliangtang, also known as the Anliang Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was established in New York in November 1893. Situ Meitang, who has served as the prime minister of Anliangtang for more than 40 years, has a great reputation because of the establishment of the Hongmen Zhigong Party of China and his participation in the "revolution".
×Li Xiling, whose English name is Tom Lee, was born in Guangzhou around 1849 and came to the United States at the age of 14. She is now working as a labor agency in San Francisco, providing Chinese workers for white companies. In 1878, he was sent to New York by the "Big Six Companies" of San Francisco and founded the "Lianyitang", which was later renamed Anliangtang. He was appointed as the Deputy Marshal of New York County and became the de facto "Mayor of Chinatown." However, there is basically no information about Li Xiling or Tom Lee on the Internet.
×Li Jinlun, Li Xiling's second son, returned to China in 1911 to participate in the revolution, and served as the head of the Administrative Affairs Section of the Guangdong Negotiations Office. After the establishment of the Guangdong military government in 1917, he served as Sun Yat-sen's secretary. Later, he served as Director of the Department of Political Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Guangdong Military Government, Counselor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the National Government, and Minister in Mexico. In October 1929, he served as the undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the National Government. In October 1931, acting minister. In May 1933, he served as the Minister in Poland and the Czech Republic. In June 1934, he served as Minister in Portugal. In September 1943, he resigned from his post as Minister, changed to an advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and stayed in the United States for propaganda work. Died in New York, USA on February 21, 1956. 70 years old all year round. At present, the relationship between Li Jinlun and Li Xiling is basically not searchable on the Internet.
×Xie Sheng Tang, the American Association of Sheng Sheng, was established in Canada in 1856. It was the first Chinese organization in the United States more than 100 years ago. In the later period, it jointly established the "Chinese Guild Hall" with other Chinese groups.

In addition to Hongmen gangs such as Anliang and Xiesheng, there are also some other types of Chinese organizations in New York, including fellow villagers' associations and clan organizations. Among them, the "Sixingtang" consisting of the four surnames Liu, Guan, Zhang, and Zhao also evolved into a gang conflict with Anliangtang because of a personal grievance, adding new elements to the tangled fighting in New York. It was not until the 1930s that, under the combined effect of various factors such as police crackdowns, political pressure, economic crisis, and the gradual decline of Chinese exclusion, did the disputes in Chinatown die out.

This book takes An Liangtang and Li Xiling as the protagonists. Although they are also Hongmen gangs who bully the market and bully the weak, in the author's opinion, An Liangtang is "taking people's money and eliminating disasters", and it can be regarded as a thief. After collecting protection fees, they will help maintain the safety of these gambling halls, prostitutes and smoking halls. They will inform the police in advance of the search. Once someone is caught, they will also come forward to pay the security deposit to ransom them. But Xie Shengtang is different from Mai De. They are completely extortion. It is not so much protection money as it is to save money and avoid disasters. Moreover, in order to grab the site, Xie Shengtang adopted a more despicable method than Anliang Tang, which was the chief culprit of the tangled battle in Chinatown.

After decades of efforts by the local law enforcement and judicial departments in New York City and New York State had little effect, the melee in New York’s Chinatown finally attracted the attention of the US federal government, and the entire Chinatown and even the Chinese people in the United States became "notorious" for this. . But the author also pointed out that Chinese gangs were not actually the most rampant in New York City. The Italians, Irish, Russians and other ethnic groups also have their own triad gangs, and they are fighting on their respective turf. The cruelty and crimes of the Italian Mafia and other gangs far exceed Anliangtang or Xieshengtang. The author quoted police statistics showing that in 1904, a total of 334 Chinese were arrested by the New York police; however, 20,000 Irish were arrested during the same period, with more than 13,000 Italians, 12,000 Russians, and 11,000 Germans arrested. Among the 23 categories of people arrested by the police that year, the number of Chinese was the second lowest.

The author pointed out that the gangs in New York have a long history, but the New York government officials at the time had various ties to European immigrants, and they often opened up a side for European gangs, such as those born in Ireland around 1904. William McAdoo, the New York police chief, does not believe in organized Italian crime at all, but he has a bitter hatred of the Chinese and the Tangkou gangs in Chinatown.

In the case of a serious lack of historical facts about the parties involved, the author digs out clues from newspaper news reports, census, national archives and other official materials to write such a very readable documentary literature with ups and downs no less than crime. Novels are not easy. However, this book basically uses historical materials from the "white" and "official" perspectives, and its fairness and objectivity are very suspicious. The experience and helplessness of Chinese Americans in the "anti-Chinese period" are not fully reflected in this book.
287 reviews7 followers
November 11, 2016
The book covers the rise of Chinese gangs - they started out as 'social clubs' but in reality were gangs, working alongside Tammany Hall - from 1870-1940 in NY's Chinatown. Part of the issue was our own laws against immigrants (what? I hear crickets) that prevented the Chinese from assimilating, and thus they remained their own Chinese society. NYC corruption, of course, also played a hand.

In the end the book is interesting but I think it falls flat in that there's no big conclusion - the Depression pretty much did the gangs in because there was no money and no jobs for the Chinese, and by then the children had been born here for 1-2 generations and were assimilating anyway. The book peters out just like the subject material. It becomes more of a narrative of a timeline of Chinese murders over 50 years. Could it become a good TV series? You bet your firecrackers. (Hey! Netflix! Look at this one!) But as a book, it's good but not stunning.
Profile Image for Alan Chong.
362 reviews5 followers
January 6, 2018
Having visited the Museum of the Chinese in America recently, and stayed in Chinatown during a recent stay in New York, I found this book an interesting read. The story was not particularly compelling as an organized crime documentary, but was fascinating from its unique perspective on race relations and economic power in the early 20th century in America. Even in describing organized crime, it was more a set of stories of how the Chinese in America made a community in lower Manhattan, given all of the constraints and the overt racism involved in the Chinese exclusion act. These “tongs” were gangs, but they were also fraternal organizations initiated to help out fellow immigrants, and the author’s care in not villianizing, but giving a fair shake to their stories is commendable. There’s word that this might become a series directed by Wong Kar Wai; lets hope they don’t can’t Matt Damon, Emma Stone, or Scarlett Johannson as leads.
Profile Image for Dori Jones.
Author 14 books46 followers
August 19, 2016
Cold-blooded killings, gambling, vice, brothels and opium bring non-stop action to this chilling and thorough account of a little-known set of gang wars in New York City’s Chinatown between 1900 and 1930. In the era of gang bosses Tom Lee and Mock Duck and their nefarious accomplices and hired guns, terror and mayhem ruled Mott Street and Pell Street in Lower Manhattan. Seligman’s thoroughly researched book gives readers a lively account of how America’s early Chinese immigrants lived lives almost unimaginable to today’s well-behaved, studious immigrants. This would make a great movie. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Jimmy.
1,012 reviews40 followers
May 27, 2020
What comes up in your mind when you hear “Chinatown?” For those in New York City from the 1890s through the 1930s many people associated Chinatown with organized crime. It was seen as a hotbed for betting parlors, opium dens, prostitution and violence. Sadly most people during that time associated Chinese people with vice and were seen by the elites in New York and the Newspaper as a bigger problem than other immigrant groups such as the Irish, Italians, etc. As the book agues this picture wasn’t accurate and Chinese and Chinatown was not statistically more criminal than the rest of the population in New York though their different lifestyles and ways did invite racism and prejudicial serotyping. In fact during this was Tammany-era New York City and corruption and depravity was all over the city and among politicians and the police. Situating things in this context the book focuses largely on Chinese organize crime. The author look at secret societies called “Tongs,” which are the Chinese equivalent to the Italian Mafia. It is well researched, heavily source documented and narrated well; I can’t put it down!
I first became interested in the book because I was surprised that when I started to read old pulp comics of the past there’s a lot of reference to criminal elements in Chinatown that’s presented villains that were esoteric and somewhat mystical and at times occultic. I wonder if that’s how people at the time think of Chinese and Chinatown. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going woke, social justice, etc., but even as I enjoy pulp heroes like the Shadow and enjoy reading Batman I can’t but to notice an interesting perspective on Chinatown. Before DC had Batman as their mainstay for their first issue for their famous “Detective Comics” series there’s a portrayal of Chinese that we would be shocked with how politically incorrect and racist it was.
Going back to the book, I learned a lot of things from reading it. The book delineates various social organizations among Chinese in America and how not all of them are organized crime. Even with the infamous On Leong and their leader Tom Lee it was originally meant to be an organization to help its Chinese members legally and in other ways. The book goes over the color character of the two best known tongs. Tom Lee who was the boss of the On Leong was someone who courted officials and politicians and even became the deputy sheriff of New York County in 1880, the first Chinese to hold any office in New York history, whether elected or appointed. There was also the smiling face Mock Duck of the Hip Sing Tong who was the chief rival of On Leong. There’s also descriptions of police commissioners, police captains and sergeants and majors and judges who were trying to keep the peace and at times were the source of greed and evil themselves.
I also thought it was interesting on page 120-121 that broke down crime statistics to show how unfair the Chinese was singled out during this time. Newspaper were calling for Chinatown to be destroyed, Chinese were illegally searched and detained without warrant, and later officials even made mass arrest for the deportation of Chinese people that had nothing to do with the Tongs as a way to get back at the Tongs. The author stated in the introduction that “no other immigrant group had ever been targeted the way the authorities were going after the Chinese. Italians and Irish emigres had fought their share of brutal gang was, but nobody had ever rounded them up for wholesale expulsion” (viii-ix). Going over police records the author noted that surrounding precincts had nearly twice the amount of arrests than that of Chinatown and one precinct outside of Chinatown even had three times as many! From police statistics in 1904 there was 334 Chinese arrested in New York compared to 20,000 Irishmen, 13,000 Italians, 12,000 Russians, 11,000 Germans, etc. Chinese ethnically ranked second to the bottom of police arrests.
While not the main focus of the book I also love learning about a Chinese American World War One veteran name Sing Kee who won the second highest medal for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross. He was welcomed home by both Tongs in celebration of American pride. There’s also the interesting stories of Christians who tried to stop crimes and vices in the book that I thought was interesting ranging from missionaries, temperance groups and also Chinese American Christians. Fascinating for myself as an American pastor of Asian descent.
I highly recommend the book.
22 reviews
July 9, 2021
The book was a good historical, mostly historical, account of Manhattan's Chinatown from its seemingly inexplicable growth during the latter part of the 19th century when the Chinese Exclusion Act dramatically ended large scale migration of Chinese into America into the early 1940's. What makes this book most interesting is the stories behind the top figures who "ran" Chinatown in NYC behind the scenes in the midst of a very corrupt period for NYC government officials where an untrained and woefully untrained police force bribed and paid their way to senior ranks and jobs. Their behavior, based on this system, produced the expected shakedowns and extortions to supplement their meager wages and undefined job responsiblities. The legal system was similarly compromised. The book highlights the major figures who started "business associations" that led to territorial feuds and violence that have plagued Chinatown until the 90's. It got repetitive with all the acts of violence. Though one unknown nugget was the prevalence of marriages between Chinese men with White women because Chinese women could not emigrate to the USA.
Profile Image for Anthony Meaney.
142 reviews3 followers
October 9, 2017
An interesting and well documented account of the Chinese immigrant population of New York from the late 19th century into the early 20th focusing on the "Tongs" or Chinese societies that extorted protection, ran gambling houses and also controlled prostitution in the Chinatown section of New York City.

The author has done exhaustive research and his book is very well foot-noted (almost painfully so).

I was interested in reading this book after hearing a summation of it on the woefully underrated "China History Podcast". Unfortunately the book lacks a certain element of excitement and colour that you might expect from a history of what must have been exciting times and colourful characters.

So instead it comes off at times as a rather rote listing of murders and other nefarious deeds that are linked by a tenuous narrative.

It is a worthwhile effort but it could have been better.

188 reviews1 follower
November 4, 2022
As another reviewer noted, a lot of work clearly went into writing this book. I just couldn't tell if the book needed to be longer or shorter. I felt like it was hard to get into because it seemed to just go from one shooting to another, and there wasn't a whole lot about why or who was involved. In between shootings, a lot of people were sent to the Tombs and ultimately released with little or no punishment. Maybe there's not a lot of information available about why or who or what really happened, but at times, it almost felt like I was just reading a list of things that happened rather than a book. So I found myself wishing there was either more background material or that things were really reduced to statistics. The author obviously worked very hard on this book, and I went back and forth on how many stars to give it, but at the end of the day, I had a much harder time getting through this book than I expected, so I went with 2 stars instead of 3.
Profile Image for Sean Lynn.
82 reviews2 followers
April 18, 2019
Marginalized by native New Yorkers into a low paying jobs, and at the mercy of mistrustful or crooked cops, Chinese immigrants self-segregated into the community known as Chinatown. These migrant workers, unwilling, and after the Chinese Exclusion Act, unable to bring their families over to them, turned to societies or clubs for camaraderie and a place to belong. Such a group was called a 'chamber' in English and in Chinese, Tong. With few prospects of bettering their lives through legitimate means, one such Tong, the On Leong, turned to vice. But as money started to flow in from the gambling, prostitution, and the opium trade, others wanted in on the action. With money, territory, and face at risk, the On Leong Tong and the Hip Sing Tong began to clash in increasingly violent and public conflicts which the newspapers named Tong Wars.
Profile Image for Ernest Spoon.
454 reviews15 followers
July 20, 2017
Interesting book about a forgotten part of US history. The later chapters of this book become rather repetitious. But that is natural when most of the actions of the competing tongs were assassinations and retaliations. The violence in New York´s tiny Chinatown of the 1880´s into the early twentieth century is, at least to this reader, seemingly out of all proportion to the overall Chinese population packed into a few urban blocks. Interesting characters, the men of the tongs, however.
352 reviews6 followers
May 9, 2022
Extensive and exhausting research went into the making of this book, there is no doubt. It is a fascinating account of the establishment of Chinatown in New York City with some reference to other cities also. It was certainly the Wild, Wild East, but even with all the excitement the book can be a bit dry at times. I was happy for the epilogue to find out what happened to some of the people mentioned.
Profile Image for Marc Daley.
187 reviews
April 30, 2019
The amount of research that Seligman undertook just to identify the main participants in all the tongs must have been exhausting. The peace treaties between the warring factions may as well have been written on flash paper as they were usually ignored completely within months of the handshakes and signatures.
Profile Image for Kelly.
109 reviews1 follower
September 16, 2018
Well-researched and and interesting topic. But, the book was a *little* dry at times, being laid out like a timeline of events.
Profile Image for Tom Mahan.
239 reviews1 follower
October 24, 2018
An amazing amount of detail from a time period of 120 years ago, but not mesmerizing, as the intro states.
Profile Image for Ron.
483 reviews14 followers
May 19, 2020
Depressing but through. Only so much you can do with court transcripts and police reports.
Profile Image for PetitShya™.
8 reviews2 followers
June 2, 2021
Profile Image for Milo Roth.
33 reviews
October 5, 2022
A bit dense at times, but I really did like learning more about the history of Chinatown and the corruption Gilded Age of New York City when it was set.
45 reviews
December 1, 2022

I did not know that there were tong wars in New York. The Tongs could be very violent. Interesting read.
134 reviews
April 10, 2023
If it's good enough for Laszlo Montgomery, it's good enough for me.

Three and a half mission accomplished celebrations out of five
Profile Image for Damon.
156 reviews6 followers
February 17, 2017
I ordered this book soon after I heard about the early skirmishes between the Chinese tongs on the China History Podcast, by Laszlo Montgomery. His podcast episode, which drew heavily on this source, was an entertaining listen, but I found myself wanting a more in depth look, so off to Amazon.com I went.

The book gives depth and personalities to the characters involved in the early years of the Hip Sings and the On Leongs, as well as spending ample time on the personalities in the New York Police Department, tasked with keeping peace in Chinatown. The book succeeds in giving a roughly linear account of the events and killings between the two tongs, and a good job at providing an overview of the lives of the early leaders of the groups, I found it at times hard to put down. The downside is that the narrative leaves a couple questions unanswered, which left me wishing the author had spent a few more weeks or months digging around. Specifically, where was Mock Duck, leader of the Hip Sings during large swaths of the narrative? How did the Chinese tongs interact with other organized crime syndicates in early New York? Lastly, and most importantly, where do the two organizations stand today? Given that the two tongs are still around today, what do their current members think about their own history, and of the personalities that founded them? Critically, what are the organizations like today?

It would be unfair to lay the burden of those questions on the author, though some more flavor would have been very welcome. Instead, I found myself looking for other entries into this unfortunately sparsely researched bit of history.

For those fans of New York history, or the experience of the Chinese in the United States, this is close to a must-read. Regardless, this book will also be a worthy addition to the bookshelf of history or true crime fans as well.
Profile Image for Matt Lohr.
Author 0 books22 followers
August 3, 2016
I first learned of the brutal tong wars of New York's Chinatown in Herbert Asbury's 1928 book "The Gangs of New York." The passages chronicling the days of On Leong and Hip Sing tong members massacring each other with hatchets and cleavers in the shadows of Mott and Doyers Streets were among the most electrifying in Asbury's book, but I also know that anything written in those pages, from a standpoint of veracity, should be taken with a grain of salt. So I was very excited when Scott D. Seligman, an author and businessman with extensive experience in China, had written a new book devoted exclusively to the battles of the tongs for control of one of New York's most storied ethnic enclaves.

Seligman does his best to marshal the historical records available to him, and while his sense of character is not as vivid as it might be (in particular, he never quite nails the hold over his people that Tom Lee, the enigmatic head of the mighty On Leong tong, seemed to possess), he masterfully weaves the in-and-out machinations that led to four major tong wars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His vignettes of gang warfare are just detailed enough to be thrilling (as in the notorious 1905 Chinese Theatre massacre) and occasionally disturbing (as with the ironing-board-bound mutilation of an innocent Chinese laundryman), and he has a brilliant grasp of the government, police, and legal machinations that swirled around the carnage. He also brings a sensitive eye and thoughtful perspective to the hard road of Chinese immigrants in those days; the only group of New York immigrants legally barred from obtaining citizenship, the Chinese were more or less forced to rely on their own counsel, in the form of the tongs, for any kind of social structure and justice...and were then persecuted for their faith to those very institutions. The generalized hatred of "Celestials" is also starkly portrayed, never more so than in the fate of Ha Oi, the half-white daughter of Hip Sing tong boss Mock Duck, whose half-Chinese blood is ignored by reformers who can't see how anyone with blue eyes could not be purely white.

"Tong Wars" is a singular addition to the true-crime library. It's a striking account of a gang war the likes of which many in America, even those of Chinese descent, have likely forgotten about. But it's a compelling tale worth telling, and Seligman doubtlessly tells it well.
Profile Image for William.
1,037 reviews5 followers
November 15, 2016
My guess is this is an important historical work. (For instance, a full quarter of the volume consists of notes of various kinds). Seligman's research is meticulous, and I would be surprised if much of what is in this book has been covered in print before. The text seems impartial, and Seligman does all he can to write with a light touch.

There is actually more than one story here. The one which works better for me is the one with direct relevance to our recent presidential election: America's reaction to immigrants. Seligman details an American xenophobia which pre-existed Chinese immigration and continues to the present day. I found the government's groping for a policy which made any sense to be familiar, and the lack of deeper understanding by the press to be fortunately somewhat ameliorated today, albeit only in print media.

Another story I found interesting is the history of New York City during the fifty or so years the book covers. The relationship of Chinatown and it's residents (and of Chinese elsewhere in NYC) to the policy and city government is in constant evolution and really held my interest.

The more internal story -- the experience of the Chinese people themselves -- really does not come through except en masse. This is in no respect the author's shortcoming; the voices of people dead a hundred years or so are very hard to recapture, especially when they probably wrote rarely in English and left few, if any, memoirs. But the result is the reader here gets the story of a group, and the individuals within it just don't come to life. They have no voice, quirks, passions that we can encounter. Unless you are a historian or especially interested in Chinese culture, the book can be heavy going -- murder and maiming and more and more of each. Amazing detail, the result of painstaking research, and well worth recording, but not easy reading for those without special interest in the subject.

Anyway, this is an important and worthy book, and the result of a lot of hard work. Because I have developed more interest in China lately, and am a native New Yorker who has walked the streets in this book many times, I am pleased to have read it.

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July 6, 2016
Tong Wars by Scott Seligman- The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York's Chinatown. The title pretty much says it all. This is a historical account of thirty years of an on-going war between rival factions in New York's Chinatown, but, in reality, happening all over the United States. Starting in 1870's, when the transcontinental railroads were completed, many immigrant Chinese laborers found themselves unemployed and unwanted. Gradually many drifted East to New York and settled in a small bustling economy that became know as Chinatown. But they brought with them the fearsome Tongs from their old world, and the mayhem began. One of the best things the author did, I think, was to include a glossary of names of important people belonging to the story, otherwise, the strange sounding names would quickly become confusing. The saga is gritty and at time barbarous. The Tongs seem to kill with almost religious zeal, and few ever escape their grasp. Well paced and with a drive that keeps your interest, I would recommend this to anyone interested in a not very well known part of history.
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