In the early hours of Aug. 15, 1909, the relative quiet of Mott Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown was punctuated by the screams of “murder!” from a hysterical Chinese laundryman named Chin Lam.
A nearby policeman and some other Chinese rushed back with Lam to a small apartment at 17 Mott St. where they found the body of 21-year-old Bow Kum, Lam’s reported “wife.” She had been stabbed to death and her body mutilated. Lam was initially considered a suspect, but police then focused on two brothers and arrested them. After a sensational trial, both were acquitted.
The murder of Bow Kum 107 years ago Monday — a crime that remains unsolved — precipitated a war in 1909 among rival organizations known as tongs that left a number of men dead in Chinatown and roiled New York City for months, capturing the attention of the public and the press. Such fighting is one of four major tong conflicts described in detail by author and historian Scott D. Seligman in his latest book “Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money and Murder in New York’s Chinatown.”
A former congressional legislative assistant who is fluent in Mandarin, Seligman has been fascinated by Chinese culture. One of his previous books was about Wong Chin Foo, a well-known Chinese immigrant in New York who became a newspaper publisher, journalist and civil rights champion. In the course of that research, Seligman, who lives in Washington, D.C., came across the history of the tongs, the secret societies that were integral parts of Chinatown life.
“I decided having written about Chinese-American heroes it was OK for me to look at the villains,” said Seligman.
Much of the early history of the tong wars became the fare of sensational magazines and films. Seligman was determined not to write a sensationalist book.
“I started out thinking there had to be more than bad, greedy men killing other bad, greedy men,” Seligman said. “I figured some aspect of the way Chinese were treated generally and by [New York City political organization] Tammany Hall in particular had to come into play somehow and in that, I was not disappointed.”
For the Chinese in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the tongs were a way for many men to find a support group. Over time, the tongs came to control gambling and the opium trade. Two groups in particular, the Hip Sing and the On Leong vied for power, said Seligman.
There were essentially four periods of tong wars in New York, with the Bow Kum killing sparking the second conflict from 1909 into 1910. City officials, even federal authorities, sat down with Chinese leaders to craft peace pacts that kept things quiet until the next round of fighting started, Seligman said.
“The reason they were sitting down with tong and trying to get them to broker peace was that they were ineffective in shutting the wars down,” Seligman said of NYPD efforts to end the fighting by focusing on closing down gambling parlors and opium dens.
Bow Kum, who is described in published reports as having been a prostitute, was initially considered the property of an older Chinese man named Lau Tang from whom she escaped. Kum, who had paid $3,000 for her, demanded that Chin Lam, who had taken Bow Kum to Manhattan in 1909, return her. When Chin Lam, who was affiliated with the On Leong tong, refused, the stage was set for violence since Lam Tang needed to redeem his honor or “face,” Seligman said.
“Face is a very powerful concept among the Chinese and, frankly, the New York police force was no match for it,” he said.
But the Depression of the 1930s hit Chinatown society hard as police action dried up the old rackets and Chinese assimilated, he said. Today, the tongs assist immigrants and operate credit unions.