Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York's Chinatown
By Scott D. Seligman
Viking Press (2016)
Reviewed by Emily Brooks
In Tong Wars, Scott Seligman tracks the rise, internal functioning, and conflicts of New York City’s two main Chinese gangs, or tongs, from the 1880s to the 1930s. Seligman provides a thoroughly researched and tightly focused study of the On Leong and Hip Sing tongs that battled for control in the city’s Chinatown. He describes these groups as semi-underground fraternities that served social purposes, but whose primary functions involved running gambling parlors, and extracting payment from businesses operating in their respective territories. The violent clashes between the two groups receive particular attention in Seligman’s narrative. He mines newspaper articles, federal and state census records, court records, and Chinese exclusion era case files to track tong members through these conflicts with impressive detail. The author also uses these sources to show that the tongs formed a significant institutional presence in NYC’s Chinatown. The institutional landscape in Chinatown included regional and clan societies, as well as the tongs. These societies provided mutual aid and social connections within and across cities. Seligman’s exploration into the Tongs will prove of interest to readers curious about how Chinese immigrants, who were excluded from many elements of American society, formed their own institutions, and how these institutions then competed for dominance.
Emily Brooks is a PhD Candidate in History at The Graduate Center, and a CUNY Humanities Alliance Fellow. Her dissertation focuses on anti-vice policing and gender in New York City in the 1940s.
 Scott Seligman, Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York’s Chinatown (New York: Viking, 2016), 56.
 Ibid, 134.
 Cheryl Hicks, Talk With You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 49-50.
 Quote in Charles Garrett, The La Guardia Years: Machine and Reform Politics in New York City (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1961,) 9. For more on the functioning of Tammany and changes under the La Guardia reform administration see Thomas Kessner, Fiorello La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York (New York City: Penguin Books, 1989), 213. For a a history of the NYPD that includes connections with Tammany, see Bernard Whalen and Jon Whalen, NYPD’s First Fifty Years: Politicians, Police Commissioners, and Patrolmen (Potomac Books, 2015). For connections between private policing organizations and the NYPD, see Jennifer Fronc In New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 9. Fronc notes that bar owners and patrons distinguished between undercover members of the NYPD, who could be easily bribed, and members of the private anti-vice societies of the Committees of Fourteen and Fifteen, who could not be “handled.”