Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money and Murder in New York’s Chinatown by Scott D. Seligman
The underworld fascinates us. Scores of reporters have delved into the seedy midst of those outside the law. Hours and hours of screen-time is dedicated to miscreants, ne’er-do-wells, gangsters and all manner of scum. We love these characters in storytelling, and fear them in real life, and it is unlikely we will ever stop consuming their lascivious tales. Tong Wars tells of a group of gangsters you may have never heard about – the groups (called tongs, meaning ‘chamber’) of New York City at the turn of the 20th century, who were a thorn in the side of NYPD for over 50 years. Scott D. Seligman is your guide in this obscure time period which is the birth place of New York City’s Chinatown.
Most gangsters operate outside the law. The Italian mob was an ultra-secret society, operating in total obscurity for decades. There’s even a quote in Tong Wars from a police chief to the tone of, “Do you really expect me to believe there is a nationwide underground network of sophisticated criminals that no one knows about?”. The tongs, primarily the Hip Sing Tong and On Leong Tong, are of a different breed. Their tactic was to use the law, entangle them, focus their presence in the Chinatown area. Their manipulation of the system is foreign to the usual gangster breed, but the violence is familiar with murders and mutilations happening weekly, the police officers and judges and lawyers, all confounded as to the true culprits. That there was flagrant racism in this time period goes without saying, and distrust of “Chinamen” and “Celestials” was open even in legislation. The Chinese Exclusion Act (a title so clearly anti-immigrant, it’s overt nature is second only to Eisenhower’s Operation Wetback) is an example of one such law. It was signed in 1882 was not repealed until 1943. Seligman makes it clear in the introduction that he won’t shy away from the language used, and it can be extremely striking to read in our day where globalization cannot be denied.
Tong Wars is information dense and Seligman is extremely thorough. This sometimes bogs the narrative down as we go from court to street back to the court, get an account of the changing of the guard, and are sent to the courts again. The juicy murders and lively politicking and backstabbing can be difficult to follow because of how much Seligman includes in how he creates a total picture of the times in which the events take place. There is a dramatis personae, and a handy chronology to help you keep track of all the players and happenings.
The thing that’s missing from Tong Wars is a sense of story, a narrative, a plot line or something that makes the book feel cohesive. There is a ton of information and if you are inclined to organize it in your mind (and use a little imagination), you can add some flair internally, but it must certainly be worked for. Otherwise the book packs in too many events into too small a space and spares no detail, which it might be wise to have done in order to keep the reader’s interest more easily. Tong Wars is still very interesting and casts a lot of light on events which many of us would likely have never known if it weren’t for curious authors like Seligman.