Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder
in New York's Chinatown by Scott D. Seligman
Viking, 2016; 340 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fische
New York's Chinatown served as one of many east coast diasporic destinations for Chinese who sought to lay down roots in America. As the community suffered through growing pains in the late 1800s they were subjected to racial stereotyping and government sanctioned exclusion that prevented them from becoming naturalized citizens and made criminals of many of those who were attempting to make an honest life in America. In the crucible of these difficult times, Chinese societies known as tongs were forged. Among the more benevolent purpose of fostering community lay the intent to form relations with certain aspects of New York's white community—read as: government and police - and to establish a protection racket, taking advantage of that community's willingness to accept bribes. Scott D. Seligman's Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York's Chinatown is the journalistic account of these tongs, particularly the Hip Sing Tong and the On Leong Tong, and the bloodshed that accompanied their many conflicts.
Seligman is exhaustive in his research, and his account is almost boringly sober. In his introduction, he gives an example of a story that he wouldn't tell: On Leong comedian Ah Soon is assassinated by a Hip Sing gunman who is lowered from the roof by chair outside of the comedian's window, where the gunman shot Ah Soon in his bed. You'd think this is exactly the kind of story you want from a nonfiction account of organized crime. But Seligman can't find the corroborating evidence, and so he abandons the story despite its tabloid-esque compelling narrative.
This sobriety is the book's greatest strength. It becomes sociological in its analysis of our interpretation of the past. Accounts of the Tong Wars mostly exist in white newspapers, recorded by white journalists who didn't speak Chinese and could hardly be bothered to fact check. These accounts give extra weight to white witnesses who were inherently believed to be more trustworthy than Chinese witnesses who could have provided more context and greater depth. The papers' - including The New York Times and other major news organizations - reporting is so littered with racism and caricature that it becomes evident that a hundred years of anti-Chinese stereotyping was, if not born within, then exacerbated by lazy journalism.
There are lots of great characters here that fill in all sorts of organized crime archetypes. There's Tom Lee and Mock Duck, bosses of the On Leong and Hip Sing respectively, and purveyors of different leadership styles. There are assassins with cool names like Black Devil, Girlface, and the Scientific Killer. There's tenderness and community and patriotism. The Hip Sing and On Leong often put aside their differences to raise money for Chinese causes, when their fellow countrymen are suffering. Seligman captures all of these but he doesn't sensationalize it. He recognizes the inherent difficulty in recounting something that a large part of a community would like to forget. He also recognizes the importance of recording history, as long as that history is recorded accurately.