"I was there..."
A Conversation with Bill Lee
by Michael Zelenko
“The crack of the pistol last night had a far more ominous sound to the police than the report of a murderer’s revolver. It convinced them of the correctness of their suspicions, held for the past week, that another war of the tongs, or Chinese highbinders, has commenced and once started there is no telling where these feuds will end. For several weeks the tongs all over Chinatown have been playing war music in their rooms, and while the shrill, saw-like sound of the Chinese fiddle and the squeak of the Chinese clarinet are common sounds in the Mongolian quarter, those familiar with Chinatown and Chinese ways know that when the music continues until late in the night . . . some lodge of tongs is at work offering sacrifices to the god of war and preparing to wreak vengeance upon its enemies.”
—San Francisco Chronicle, May 15, 1894
With whispered stories of seedy opium dens, dark alleys, and daggers, from the 1850s to the 1930s the Tong Wars seized the American imagination. In early 1900s New York, Mock Duck, a brutal gang leader with an angelic face, was rumored to wear a chain mail shirt, carry two guns, and hide a small hatchet in his sleeve at all times. In San Francisco, a running war over a young girl saw the death of more than fifty Tong members. And in the hills surrounding the California logging town of Weaverville, citizens placed bets on a full-fledged battle in which 600 Tong members sparred using crudely fashioned spears, shields, helmets, and swords.
Men reading Tong bulletin boards, c. 1900.
Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
Tongs originated in Chinese immigrant communities in the United States in the early 1800s as associations that provided legal, monetary, and protective services to a wave of laborers excluded from mainstream American institutions. Among other services, the Tong—a word literally meaning “Meeting Hall”—provided loans to members in need and solved disputes between members. As racially based persecution against Chinese people intensified throughout the nineteenth century, Tongs proliferated as one of the few resources immigrants could turn to in difficult times.
Tongs played a particularly large role in Northern California as thousands of Chinese immigrated in the second half of the nineteenth century, first to mine gold and later to log forests, start farms, and provide the labor to build much of the state’s infrastructure. By 1890, San Francisco was home to an estimated twenty-one thousand Chinese immigrants—more than nine percent of the city’s population. A large portion of that community associated with the numerous Tongs of Chinatown.
By the early twentieth century, Tongs were found in nearly every major American city. Eventually incorporating prostitution, gambling, drug trade, and racketeering, Tongs became the preeminent Asian organized crime network in the country. In the 1960s, an additional influx of immigrants from Hong Kong, Macao, and mainland China reinvigorated Tongs and Asian gangs with a new set of ruthless characters.
In San Francisco, the 1960s and ’70s saw gangs of Chinese men born in the United States displaced by vicious foreign-born organizations, such as the Wah Ching and the Joe Boys, with bloody consequences. On September 4, 1977, three Joe Boys stepped into the Golden Dragon, a Chinatown restaurant, to attack two rival gangs including the Wah Ching. They sprayed the restaurant in gunfire, killing five individuals and injuring eleven—all of them innocent bystanders. As one of the deadliest incidents in San Francisco history, the massacre marked a milestone in Chinatown’s gang history, led to the creation of the San Francisco Police Gang Task Force, and fundamentally changed the way the city treated Chinatown.
Author Bill Lee grew up in the turbulent San Francisco Chinatown of the 1960s and ’70s and was a member of the Joe Boys. While absent from the Golden Dragon Massacre, Lee was one of the first individuals questioned in the shooting. In 1999 he published his first book, Chinese Playground: A Memoir, chronicling his life and the development of criminal influences within the Tongs and gangs of Chinatown. Since the publication of his book, Lee has kept a decidedly low profile, mentoring incarcerated youths and publishing a second book about his struggle with gambling, Born to Lose.
Bill Lee and I spoke in a small Bay Area café in March. Although open and detailed in talking about the subject at hand, thirty years after leaving gang life Lee still seemed alert to an unseen threat, furtively scanning the room before starting our interview and asking me politely not to print the café’s location after we were done.
MZ: Let’s start with your family history, and how far back your family has been in the United States.
My parents immigrated here—my father actually arrived here first, and because of the Chinese Exclusion Act(1), he had to come as a “paper son.”(2) He came as the son of a merchant who wasn’t actually his father, and that’s how we got the last name Lee—so Lee is actually a false name. I grew up thinking our real last name was Chin, but later on, when I got older and had problems with gambling, my mother confided in me that even Chin wasn’t our real name. It was really Yee, because my biological grandfather was a gambling addict and sold my father due to his addiction. My father ended up with the Chin family, who was very well-off. But they lost everything when the communists took over.
My mother’s family, who was also well-off, lost everything when the Japanese invaded China. By the time my parents met, they had both lost all of their wealth. I’m not sure it was a good match—both going from riches to rags.
My father came here first as a paper son and then went back and got my mother, who was his third wife. At the time, they were impoverished, and my mother was pregnant with my oldest sister. My mom ended up having five children, myself being the youngest. By the time my mother was pregnant with me they were unable to the feed the children they already had. My father’s training was in medicine, so he concocted herbs with the intent to abort my birth. He coerced my mother into taking the herbs, but obviously they didn’t work. My older siblings have no health problems, nothing major at all, but I was born with a lot of health issues and continue to have them into adulthood—problems I can only attribute to the botched abortion.
MZ: How did the Tongs get started?
Well, anytime you have immigrants, whether they be Irish, Italian, or what have you, they come to a strange land and of course there are issues of trust and issues of tradition. In addition, Chinese in general tend to be very organized, with very strong ties to their communities and family. As a result in Chinatowns you saw the development of “Benevolent Associations,” which are defined and comprised in different ways.
The first way is tied to your surname—so generally you have the Wongs, the Chins, the Lees, etc. People are tied to their names, and when you’re immigrating, that’s an obvious way to stay close to your family. Any time there are problems, you tend to self-govern in this kind of community—for positive and negative reasons. Someone may need a loan, someone may have problems or disputes or what have you, and they all go to the Benevolent Association to settle it.
Other Benevolent Associations are tied to geography—basically, where you immigrated from and where you were raised. And that sometimes even breaks down into villages. My father was actually very involved in the Benevolent Associations relating to his surnames and geography, and he rose very rapidly within them. He eventually became one of the most powerful men in Chinatown.
At the time, there was a lot of discrimination against the Chinese. Because of the Exclusion Acts it was difficult to immigrate here. While they were here, men were not allowed to bring their families, so you had a “bachelor society.”(3) With the creation of these bachelor societies, there was suddenly a market for prostitution.
There is also the fact that gambling is very prevalent in Chinese culture because it has always been accepted and perceived as a social activity—that’s where you go and gather with friends. The other part of it is that, especially in Southern China, most people from that region tend to be very poor farmers. Things are so unpredictable there that you could build your home and plant your crops, and a typhoon or monsoon comes along and wipes everything out. You have to start from scratch. My own theory is that when you have those types of challenges, and you also have the dynamics of gambling being acceptable, people tend to be very superstitious. There’s not much they have in the first place, and they’re very willing to try their luck.
So when the Chinese immigrated here, besides the fact that you had the bachelor’s societies and prostitution, you also had a lot of gambling. These became activities that had serious underworld components.
MZ: Was it the rise of gambling and prostitution in Chinatown that started the criminalization of these Tongs?
Yes. There was also opium, so you had drugs as well. You needed the underworld, because you’re talking about activities that were illegal.
The translation of Tong is basically a meeting hall. A Tong is a form of a Benevolent Association. Tongs were necessary because during the nineteenth century there was a lot of discrimination and assault against the coolie workers. Initially it was by the Irish—but there were all kinds of discrimination. You’d go to your Benevolent Association for your surname or geography and there wasn’t much they could do. They didn’t have muscle. So there was a need for the Tongs to deal with the illicit activity and for protection. That was the only form of muscle empowerment that the Chinese had.
MZ: How did that role of dealing with prostitution, gambling, and drug activity, as well as protection against racially charged discrimination, change in the twentieth century?
One thing that was missing from the Tongs in Chinatown up until the 1950s and ’60s was that they never had many soldiers. The gangs founded in San Francisco’s Chinatown were full of American-born Chinese and these were your typical gangsters, just like in West Side Story. You had fights with chains and knives, fistfights and stealing hubcaps. For the longest time, the crime was kind of controlled because they just lacked muscle.
Then, in the mid-’60s when immigration was loosened, a lot of the youths came over from Hong Kong as well as Macao, and these new immigrants enrolled in high schools like Galileo in San Francisco. You had foreign-born teens in schools, and initially they didn’t know one another. Other teens teased, made fun, and beat up the foreign-borns, picking on them. What the local teens didn’t realize was that some of these youth were actually from the streets. Many of them were gang members in China. So suddenly, the foreign-borns started banding together to defend themselves. Soon, it went beyond that.
Their type of retaliation wasn’t, “I remember when you beat me up, so I’m going to beat you up now.” They were much more violent and brutal. When they got their revenge, maybe someone gave you a bruise, but in return you’re going to hurt them ten times harder and not just let it go with one beating. It’s going to happen again and again. And suddenly the Tongs said, “Hey, these people speak our language!” They spoke Chinese and they understood the underworld, so they started recruiting them.
Meanwhile, the first foreign-born gang arose—the Wah Ching, which came from the playground where we hung out. With the creation of the Wah Ching, you suddenly had internal fighting between local gangs. Plus, you suddenly had Tongs wanting to develop their own muscle and soldiers. So first you had the Wah Ching and they were associated with one Tong. Then another Tong would recruit other foreign-born members, and so forth.
MZ: How did the kind of internal fighting you’re talking about play out?
Many businesses in San Francisco’s Chinatown belong to Benevolent Associations. The Tongs would suggest that these businesses also join them for protection. But once the Tongs had muscle, they realized that they could encroach on other Tongs’ businesses.
One of the biggest things in Chinatown is New Years, and what happens during this time—at least monetarily—is lion dancing and red envelopes.(4) What traditionally happens is that everybody knows you have lion dance troops, and they know which stores to go to because that’s the store associated with that Tong. But occasionally what would happen would be that a storekeeper puts $100 in a red envelope. The lion dancers come, they do the dance, the fireworks go off, they take the envelope, and everyone’s happy. Next thing you know, another lion dance troop arrives to collect their own red envelope.
As a result, you started having the gang wars. Then, toward the latter part of the ’60s, you had some key members of the Wah Ching—including Joe Fong and his brother Gene—break away from the Wah Ching and start their own gang. Initially they were just starting a new Tong, but they were very clever—Joe’s marketing to the community and to the street was that American-born and foreign-born guys shouldn’t be fighting, but instead should band together. That was his little shtick for recruiting and building up his army. That’s how the Joe Boys were founded.
Chinese history is full of corruption, so the average folks didn’t trust the officials or government. You had these bandits in China who were very well known and were looked upon as heroes—Robin Hood–types. Certain bandits would rob from the rich and give to the poor, and the Joe Boys adopted that model.
The average citizen in Chinatown was partly ashamed of what was happening, but at the same time there was a sense of empowerment. They thought, “Maybe now people will respect us more and won’t abuse us as much.”
MZ: I was hoping you could talk a bit about the Golden Dragon Massacre and its affect on the Chinatown Tongs.
The ’70s were full of much more brazen violence. Understand, too, that there was not much trust of the police department. You had two, maybe three Chinese police officers and I don’t know if any of them were fluent in Chinese, so there was a language barrier in addition to the distrust.
At the time, you had an outright war going on between the Joe Boys and the other Tongs, with numerous gangs teaming up against the Joe Boys. The Joe Boys had been building up to about 150 members and were probably a lot more violent than other gangs at the time. Basically, the Wah Ching, the Hop Sing Boys, and the Suey Sing Tong were going up against the Joe Boys. That war was going on, and people in the community were just terrorized. People were afraid to go out, and you were really taking a chance going shopping, or to places like gambling halls. The police were trying to get a hold of the situation but they were extremely limited in what they could do. There was almost a sense that the city and the government didn’t care—as if these were just gangs, and they could just let them be.
What started everything was another racket—fireworks. Since age seven or eight, my brother and I had been selling fireworks. Before then, we’d been shining shoes for ten cents apiece, but after my brother got exposed to street gangs and selling fireworks, we started doing that. You’d make a couple hundred dollars and it was actually pretty good money.
What happened was now that the gangs were more active, they saw fireworks as an opportunity as well. Most of the dealers at the time were guys who lived in the project housing. The Wah Ching went to these project dealers and demanded a payoff—if you’re going to sell you have to pay us this much. And they were pretty savvy. They knew who the leaders were and they said to them, “We’re holding you responsible to collect.” But you had some dealers who were defiant and who didn’t want to pay. That’s when the Joe Boys went to the dealers and advised them, “You shouldn’t have to put up with that from the Wah Ching and the Hop Sing Boys. Instead, we’ll protect you and you can pay us instead.”
The pivotal moment came on July 4, 1977, when the Wah Ching went down to collect the final payment from the dealers. The Joe Boys were there, and a faceoff and gun battle ensued. People were running up and down the street shooting at each other, dodging behind cars and in doorways. At the end of that gun battle, this guy Felix, whom we called “Cat,” was shot and killed. Two Joe Boys and a Hop Sing boy were also shot and wounded.
This was new territory—a big battle out in the open like that. It just terrified the community even more. Even though you had the newspapers and the press, there still wasn’t much rumbling from the city or Mayor Moscone. But in the community you knew something was brewing—that the Joe Boys would retaliate.
Now at the same time that’s all happening, something else pushed the situation over the top. The Joe Boys would, on a regular basis, go and pay respects to other gang members that had been killed, and they started reporting that the Wah Ching and the Hop Sing were vandalizing the Joe Boys’ headstones. They were in fact actually damaging them and urinating on them, and that was a real insult—even in gangs, you have respect for the dead, so that was really crossing a line. Everyone knew something was going to happen; it was just a matter of when it was going to happen and how bad it was going to be.
On Labor Day weekend, it did happen. The Golden Dragon was selected because that restaurant was where the Wah Ching and the Hop Sing boys hung out. The owner was also president of the Hop Sing Tong. The assault was not only against the gang member, but against the establishment and the Tong too.
When the massacre went down, the main thing that happened was that tourists were shot. In fact, no gang members at all were wounded. The fact that it was tourists, out-of-towners, and law-abiding citizens getting hit—that’s when the mayor and the city had to do something. I mean, after the massacre, Chinatown was at a standstill. Tourists just stopped patronizing the neighborhood, stopped coming into the shops and restaurants entirely—now you’re talking about tax revenue and business. So Mayor Moscone came to Chinatown and offered a $100,000 reward that led to the cracking of the massacre case. He also created the Gang Task Force specifically for Chinatown.
Reward poster for leads on Golden Dragon Massacre
MZ: What is it about San Francisco’s Chinatown that allows these sorts of organizations to survive while so many other immigrant communities have fallen apart?
In Chinatown, tradition and culture remain very strong. Preservation, I think, is one of the key points of the culture. There’s an interesting documentary out now about the hundreds of thousands of Chinese that go back home for the New Year every year. It’s because the traditions are so strong. It’s something you don’t question—it’s something that’s been engrained in you. But that’s also what helps some of these criminal elements exist and survive as well. Because part of tradition is secrecy too—they kind of go hand in hand.
It’s amazing because now I work with incarcerated teens in juvenile hall. Even in America, even in very white-bred places, one thing amongst teens that’s a very big no-no is snitching. That reaction against snitching is an overflow from the criminal world—no matter what, you don’t snitch.
MZ: And this snitching code dovetails with a lot of Chinese values as well?
Definitely. Because the other component is that you have to save face. If you report on your fellow citizen or countryman, you’re bringing shame to everybody.
MZ: It seems this snitching rule may have really kept San Francisco’s Chinatown from changing over the years.
Definitely, because it preserves the vulnerability of businesses. Imagine you have a nightclub owner in Chinatown. He is an easier target for racketeering because he knows that may be the price of doing business; he doesn’t want to snitch, he doesn’t want to bring shame.
MZ: What do you see as the future of organized crime in Chinatown?
You’ll always have people who gravitate toward the darker side. The American culture has an effect that contributes to criminal culture. For instance, people will always want to set their own rules. From the psychological standpoint, I tended to resort to violence—I didn’t have basic coping skills. When you look at TV and characters like the Sopranos, it’s the same thing. You’re in a violent world because when there’s conflict, you don’t deal with it in a normal sense. Instead, you resort to violence.
When I left the gangs and went into the business world, it was very difficult for me. I was twenty-four or twenty-five, and it was a very abrupt change. When I had conflicts with my coworkers, I was at a total loss, and instead of coping or coming up with solutions, I wished I could’ve attacked these people. I was really lost.
In the end, I just had to grow up.
1. Signed in the spring of 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first significant restriction on immigration in the United States. Among its many provisions, the Exclusion Act prohibited mining laborers (most of whom, at the time, were coming from China) from entering the country, forced Chinese immigrants to apply for reentry if leaving the country, and denied citizenship to permanent residents. Meant to last ten years, the Exclusion Act was revoked only in name by the Magnuson Act of 1943 and in practice by the Immigration Act of 1965.
2. Of the many Chinese to immigrate to the United States since the 1840s, over one million were processed on San Francisco’s Angel Island. After the great earthquake and fire of 1906, many records were lost and thousands of Chinese residents claimed to be native born, and therefore citizens. As citizens, individuals were entitled to bring kin over from China, which subsequently encouraged forgeries and the creation of “paper sons” —individuals related on paper only.
3. Due in large part to the Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese miners living in the United States from bringing their spouses over, the gender ratio in Chinese immigrant communities throughout the era was severely imbalanced. (In 1880, the ratio of Chinese men to women in San Francisco was 20 to 1.) As a result, Chinatowns became “bachelor societies” in which activities such as drug use, prostitution, and gambling became commonplace.
4. A tradition dating back centuries, the lion dance is performed by two individuals wearing a large, colorfully decorated lion costume. In preparation for the lion dances, a store owner sets up a cai-ching, an arrangement of greens hung in front of or above an entrance. The cai-ching also contains a red envelope in which money is placed. After dancing in front of the store, the lion plucks the envelope out of the cai-ching, in turn bringing good luck to the shop owner. Lion dancers are sometimes associated with individual Tongs, and the payments are as much for protection as good luck.