Scott Seligman's Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money, and Murder in New York’s Chinatown
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.
Although many American politicians denigrated Chinese immigrants, the tongs cultivated close relationships with members of New York City’s Police Department and political elite. From the beginning of Seligman’s story, which starts with Chinese migration east after the completion of the western railroads, these ties dictated which of the two groups came out on top. Tom Lee, the founder of the On Leong Tong, developed close relationships with the city’s Tammany machine. He even gained appointment as a deputy sheriff, which authorized him to make arrests, issue summonses, and carry firearms. He used these privileges, as did many other law enforcement officers, to extract payment and to cultivate superiority over his rivals. Members of Lee’s rival tong, the Hip Sings, in turn, associated with anti-Tammany reformers. This group even became known as the “Chinese Parkhursts,” according to Seligman, after the head of the Society for the Prevention of Crime, and notorious reformer, Charles Parkhurst. The Hip Sing tong, like their counterpart, sought to expand their influence through these connections.
Although the connections between the tongs, Tammany, and the police runs throughout Seligman’s narrative, the author could have analyzed these relationships with more depth. He states that Chinese immigrants struggled to adjust to the city’s justice system because they had “little or no experience with disinterested government officials who dispensed justice strictly according to the rule of law.” The police and court systems of late nineteenth and early twentieth century New York City, however, can hardly be described as “disinterested.” Seligman’s own narrative presents numerous examples of the centrality of racism and corruption to the functioning of the city’s court and policing systems, and robust historiographies exist which tackle both of these themes. Mary Lui’s Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn of the Century New York City considers the ways that stereotypes and anxieties about Chinese immigrants influenced policing in Chinatown. Lui’s work, which also explores the role of gender in this dynamic and the connections between NYC’s Chinatown and the rest of the city, will certainly be of interest to readers of Tong Wars. In Talk With You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935, Cheryl Hicks notes that black residents’ arrest rate after 1900 was over 5%, despite the fact that black people made up only 2 percent of the city’s population.  This disparity suggests that African American New Yorkers, like their counterparts in Chinatown, also did not experience “disinterested” policing. Scholars interested in political history and reform have documented well the corrupt connections between the police, the courts, and the Tammany machine. As one historian notes, “the source of Tammany’s success was its control of the Police Department and the courts.” Chinese immigrants may indeed have struggled to adjust to life in New York City, but the argument that part of this challenge was adapting to Gotham’s just and impartial court system proves unconvincing.
Tong Wars will certainly prove appealing to a broad readership interested in histories of Chinatown and New York City, but academic audiences may wish Seligman had provided more in the way of analysis and context. The author begins Tong Wars with a discussion of aggressive raids on Chinatown carried out by federal agencies in 1925 in response to violence between the tongs. Agents grabbed and detained hundreds of people off the streets of Chinatown in this roundup, arresting and holding those who could not prove the legality of their status. The author notes that no other immigrant group experienced such targeting, despite the fact that the Tongs were certainly not the only immigrant gangs to engage in violence. Seligman’s narrow focus on the Tongs, however, does little to answer the implicit question posed here: why Chinese immigrants received particularly aggressive repression from the police, the courts, and congress. Furthermore, the work would have been strengthened by either a stronger analytic framework or more historical context for readers to place the exciting drama within. Although the author recovers the violent attacks and power struggles in exciting detail, in places it can be difficult to determine how this action connects to a broader narrative or argument. Seligman’s story will certainly prove relevant for the fields of Chinese American history, New York City history, the history of policing, and progressive era history, among others, but he has left it up to his readers to define this relevance for themselves.
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.”