A Secret Society: Chinatown Tongs

If you take it from Hollywood, Chinese tongs (secretive fraternal associations) rank right up there with the Italian Mafia and the Japanese yakuza. The general public perception is one of an honor-bound brotherhood with an impenetrable code of silence; fortunes amassed through prostitution and narcotics; and disputes settled in a hail of gunfire, preferably in a crowded restaurant. In fact, the tongs began as an innocent community service—but for roughly a century there's been more than a little truth to the sensational image.

When Chinese immigrants first arrived in San Francisco during the gold rush, they made a beeline for an appropriate tong. These benevolent organizations welcomed people from specific regions of China, or those with certain family names, and helped new arrivals get a foothold. For thousands of men otherwise alone in the city, these tongs were a vital social connection. It didn't take long, however, until offers of protection services ushered in a new criminal element, casting a sinister shadow over all the tongs, legitimate or not.

As gambling parlors, illegal lotteries, opium dens, and brothels took root, many tongs became the go-to sources for turf protection and retribution. Early on, the muscle behind the tongs became known as "hatchet men" for their weapons of choice. (They believed guns made too much noise.)

"Tong wars" regularly broke out between competing groups, with especially blood-soaked periods in the 1920s and 1970s. Today the tongs are less influential than at the turn of the 20th century, but they remain a major part of Chinatown life, as they own large swaths of real estate and provide care for the elderly. The criminal side is alive and well, profiting from prostitution and drugs and doing a brisk business in pirated music and DVDs. Violence still erupts, too. In 2006, Allen Leung, a prominent community leader, was shot dead in his shop on Jackson Street. Among his activities, Leung was a very influential "dragon head" of the Hop Sing tong, a group involved in prostitution, the heroin trade, and other underground activities, and leader of the Chinese freemasons. Leung’s murder sparked a racketeering and corruption investigation by the FBI that in 2014 took down longtime state senator Leland Yee before Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, Leung’s successor in the freemasons, was finally convicted of Leung's murder in 2016.

As you wander Chinatown, note the Chinese Six Companies building, a striking edifice with balconies and lion-supported columns at 843 Stockton Street, which operated as an umbrella group for the many family and regional tongs that sprang up to help gold-rush immigrants. Once the White House of Chinatown, the Chinese Six Companies functioned as a government within Chinatown, settling disputes among members and fighting against anti-Chinese laws. The business leaders who ran the six companies (which still exist) dominated the neighborhood's political and economic life for decades. The building is closed to the public.

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